I would much prefer to be a judge than a coal miner because of the absence of falling coal.

PETER COOK (1937-95)


Man Engine

A 'Man Engine' is a device used in mines that allowed miners to travel up and down shafts on moving platforms. They were installed in mines in Cornwall during the 19th century.

Two vertical rods, holding equally spaced platforms, move up and down. A miner would step onto the first platform at the top of its cycle and allow himself to be carried down. Once his platform reached its lowest point he would step onto a platform on the other rod, which would now be at the top of its cycle. He would continue changing platforms in this way until he reached the bottom or top of the shaft.

These days, mines are usually accessed by a series of lifts. The deepest mines in the world are the TauTona and Mponeng mines in South Africa, which are 4kms (2.5 miles) deep. Getting from top to bottom takes more than an hour. More than one lift is needed because, in shafts over 400m deep, the steel rope will collapse under its own weight. Newer carbon-fibre based ropes are expected to double that limit in the coming years.

It gets much hotter the deeper you get underground. 2.4 miles down, the temperature of the rock is 140 degrees Fahrenheit and the humidity is 95%.

TaoTona uses 6,000 tons of ice every day, to keep the temperature down to 83·F (28·C).


At least 10% of the ore in South African gold mines is stolen by so-called ghost-miners. They live underground for months at a time.

They survive on food sold to them by legitimate miners - if a loaf of bread costs a dollar on the surface, it can be sold for twelve dollars underground. 

BARBARA CASTLE (1910-2002)

He described how, as a boy of 14, his dad had been down the mining pit, his uncle had been down the pit, his brother had been down the pit, and of course he would go down the pit.

Big Hole

The deepest mine ever dug by hand is in South Africa. Found near Kimberley, and dug to a depth of more than 790 feet in the search for diamonds, it is called ‘Big Hole’. 


Where I lived, it was a cold mining place, a village called Dunston. The only time you saw a Rolls-Royce was when somebody died.

Singing Canaries

For centuries, British mining regulations required the keeping of a small bird for gas detection. They were used in this way until 1986, and the wording wasn't removed from the regulations until 1995. The idea was that toxic gases like carbon monoxide and methane killed the birds before they injured the miners.

Canaries were favoured because they sing a lot, so it's noticeable when they go quiet and fall over.

Elephant Mines

Elephants dig wells for water, and they also 'mine' dietary minerals. In Kenya they have tunnelled out a whole network of salt mines - and entire new underground landscape.

A biologist who has studied them say that each of these 'underground elephants' would crush and swallow about one gallon of tufa, a form of limestone, per visit.

19th century mine workers aged 11 and 12 were known as 'red tips' because they sorted jagged pieces of coal until their fingers bled.

When pronounced with hard 'gs', 'ginger', refers to someone who used to work in a mine, lining a pit shaft with supports.

The bottoms are the lowest workings of a mine, bringing us the enviable job-titles of bottom captain and bottom worker.

40% of all the gold ever mined comes from Witwatersrand, in South Africa.

A 'bonksman' was someone who worked at the mouth of a coal pit.

In the late 1970s, house sparrows were found living in a Yorkshire mine shaft, 600 metres below the earth's surface.

Swaziland is the home of one of the oldest mines in the world: it has been in operation for 42,000 years.

The largest asbestos mine in the world is in Asbestos, Quebec, Canada.