David Wiseman’s The Fate of Jeremy Visick, a great favourite of mine when I was a child, imagines an 1850s Cornish mining disaster from the bereaved wife’s point of view:
“The miner’s wife stood at the door of the cottage and said goodbye to her husband and three sons. They were going to work at the mine, Wheal Maid. It was not yet daylight and she sighed as she saw them disappear into the dark.
She turned back into her little house and went over to the truckle bed where her two youngest children, both girls, were sleeping. She thought, ‘Well, you won’t have to go down the mine, I hope,’ and sat at the table where she dozed until dawn.
When daylight came she got busy about the house. There was not much to do because it was so small. But there was always clothes to mend and water to be carried from the stream and wood to be collected for the fire.
When she had finished that and got the herring out of the brine to be ready for the men when they came back, she told her two daughters to come with her to meet their father and brothers.
‘They will be coming up to grass soon,’ she said. ‘It’s a nice day. We’ll walk to Sunny Corner to meet them.’
They set off slowly, because they had plenty of time and it was warm, being summer. The girls skipped ahead. Before they got to Sunny Corner they stopped as a man on horseback came riding toward them. He got down from his horse. His face was serious and he did not speak at once.
‘Mrs Visick,’ he said at last. ‘I think you should get back home.’
The miner’s wife looked hard at him.
‘They will be bringing your man and two sons home…’
He knew she understood. It was not the first time he had had to carry messages like this and he knew it would not be the last.
‘Charles and John.’
The man shook his head. ‘He’s still below. We cannot bring his body back. He’s buried there.”
David Wiseman, writing as 12yo Matthew Clemens, “The Fate of Jeremy Visick” pub. Puffin Books 1984.
While I’m fairly sure that this family are fictional, the tombstone that inspired and is mentioned in the novel does exist:
While mining disasters were horrific, for both victims and those left behind, what is often not told is what happened to the women who had lost husbands and sons underground. Charlotte M is one such widow.
She was born near Truro, Cornwall, in the second decade of the 19th century, and appears to have been from a fairly humble family.
By the 1841 census she is married to her copper miner husband, with two small boys. Her widowed mother and brother, both agricultural workers, lived next door.
Two further children, a girl and a third boy, followed over the next few years. But life changed in July 1846 when her husband, and a relative who was probably his younger brother, drowned in the East Wheal Rose mine.
A heavy storm broke over the mine workings, rain lashed down, and a torrent of water entered the shafts. Thirty-nine men drowned, leaving seven widows and 33 fatherless children in Charlotte’s parish alone. A full account of the disaster can be found here: http://freepages.genealogy.rootsweb.ancestry.com/~blanchec/eastwhealrose.htm
Charlotte never remarried, but managed to support both herself and her children. Initially her late husband’s brothers moved into the household – one still worked as a miner despite what had happened, while the other made shoes – which would have provided vital assistance and financial support for the family. Her elder sons also found work, on farms and in employment connected to the mines, which would also have helped. Her mother and brother also remained nearby. Charlotte calls herself a miner’s widow on several census returns, which may indicate that she was the recipient of some financial help – from either the mining company or the parish – or that this accounted for her status in the community.
Later on, after her oldest son had married, she was supported by the other three children. Her younger two sons worked as copper miners in local shafts – drainage had been improved upon by this stage, although there were still multiple dangers – and her daughter trained as a milliner and dressmaker. Her brother also came to live with them.
None of her younger three children married, instead preferring to live at home with their mother. Her second son briefly went to mine in California, but died out there in his early thirties, leaving all his effects to his mother. Her eldest son gave her four grandchildren, but went to mine in Devon.
Charlotte outlived all but one of her children – her daughter and eldest son both died in the latter part of the 19th century – and she eventually lived with her youngest son. He ran the local post office and grocery shop, which provided them both with financial support in the final years of the century. Charlotte died in her mid-eighties, at the turn of the 20th century.