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Beware of Tommyknockers

Willoughby CollectionExcursions underground, like this tour with his father and sister, lured the writer to further exploration, despite the Tommyknockers.
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“Don’t go anywhere near the mines!” my parents said when I was in grade school. That admonishment carried little authority and less credibility because my mining father had taken me into mines. Many mine tunnel entrances were open then, and even a few shafts invited inspection. I rarely ventured beyond where a flashlight was needed, and my parents’ stories of what might befall me should I venture too far underground protected me from serious danger.

When I was older and more likely to take risks, even just as a form of rebellion, my mother resorted to the parenting technique of my grandparents: stories of Tommyknockers.

Tommyknockers, like the Irish equivalent Leprechauns, are wee people who shared the underground with superstitious Cornish miners. Miners hear eerie sounds working underground. Sounds made by the earth moving along fault lines, miners in distant tunnels setting off dynamite charges, and whirring machinery echoing off tunnel walls – all could be attributed to Tommyknockers. Sounds of dripping water, braying mules and creaking mine cars were compounded by total darkness.



Cornish miners believed that benevolent Tommyknockers beckoned them toward finding fortunes. They believed that Tommyknockers warned them of impending disasters, especially cave-ins. Tommyknockers were the diminutive creatures knocking on tunnel walls, signaling immediate danger.

On the negative side, if you actually saw a Tommyknocker, you were going to die. This unfortunate characteristic has never been proven wrong; no one has ever seen one and lived to tell the tale. Trickster Tommyknocker tales were told both in jest and in seriousness; tools disappeared, items fell down shafts when dropped by deranged wee folk, they extinguished lamps and candles and left miners hopeless in the dark, and committed other malevolent folklore.




Tommyknocker stories traded among miners entertained listeners who believed every detail and perpetuated the mythology for generations. During my mother’s generation, parents told their children Tommyknocker stories, most likely fabricated extemporaneously, that staunched any curiosity for entering mines. A Cornish miner’s fondness for sharing the underground with short-stature helpers was replaced with negative “Hansel and Gretel” mythology. The possibility of Tommyknocker encounters prevented impressionable children from venturing far from their yards.

If you are hiking with children and come across an old mine tunnel entrance, listen for the Tommyknockers. You are bound to hear suggestions of their presence. Even if you do not hear them, tell a few Tommyknocker stories, ones about the playful short people who watch out for those who venture underground. Let’s trade in Steven King’s frightful Tommyknockers for those of Cornish folklore, unless you need to dissuade a daring 8-year-old boy from crawling into the mountain.


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