John Harris - Cornish Poet, Dolcoath Miner and Lay Preacher.

Article published on Feb. 22, 2008
community published
Article published on Feb. 22, 2008
John Harris - Cornish Poet, Dolcoath Miner and Lay Preacher. Compiled by Elisabeth Rickard. The Mining Scene Hast ever seen a mine? Hast ever been Down in its fabled grottoes, wali’d with gems, And canopied with torrid mineral-belts, That blaze within the fiery orifice?
Hast ever, by the glimmer of the lamp, Or the fast-waning taper, gone down, down, Towards the earth’s dread centre, where wise men Have told us that the earthquake is conceived, And great Vesuvius hath his lava-house, Which burns and burns for ever, shooting forth As from a fountain of eternal fire? Hast ever heard, within this prison-house, The startling hoof of Fear? the eternal flow Of some dread meaning whispering to thy soul? Hast ever seen the miner at his toil, Following his obscure work below, below, Where not a single sun-ray visits him, But all is darkness and perpetual night? Here the dull god of gloom unrivall’d reigns, And wraps himself in palls of pitchy dark! Hast ever breathed its sickening atmosphere? Heard its dread throbbings, when the rock has burst? Leap’d at its sneezings in the powder-blast? And trembled when the groaning, splitting earth, Mass after mass, fell down with deadliest crash? What sayest thou? - hast thou not? Come with me; Or if thou hast, no matter, come again Don’t fear to trust me; for I have been there From morn till night, from night till dewy morn, Gasping within its burning sulphur-cloud, Straining mine eyes along its ragged walls, And wondering at the uncouth passages Dash’d in the sparry cells by Fancy’s wand; And oft have paused, and paused again, to hear The eternal echo of its emptiness.

John Harris ‘Git up and Go’

John Harris, the eldest of eleven children born to John and Christian (Kitty) Harris of Six Chimneys, Bolenowe Carn Nr. Camborne Cornwall on 14th October 1820 and baptized at Camborne Church 4th November the same year. John Harris Senior was a miner and supplemented his wages by farming a smallholding. He worked as a Tributer (a miner paid according to the amount he produced).


At first with a Dame Tregona, at Bolenowe and several others. Last a miner called Roberts who met with an accident underground, and lost a leg. Here he improved himself in reading and spelling etc. He also discovered the secret of rhyme and the mystery of writing couplets. He found it impossible to stop writing. Arthur Langford in his book, ‘Git up and Go,’ points out, the instruction he later received in Troon Wesleyan Sunday School was without doubt the most consistent although limited to Sundays. The Sunday School had a library. Later at the age of sixteen he became a teacher and eventually a Librarian. Work.

At 9 years of age he worked as a ploughboy for a few months, then he was put to work for a Tin Streamer, or Tinner in Forest Moor for 3 old pence a day. On Johns tenth birthday his father took him to Dolcoath Mine, where John was employed dressing the copper ore.

At 13 his father made the ultimate descision to take him underground. John remained working underground until the later end of 1857, a period of 24 years. Like his father he became a Tributer, experiencing the same problems of uncertainty in respect of his earnings. He said, ‘Sometimes I had wages to receive at the end of the month and sometimes I had none.’ Through all the hardships and the contrasting beauty around his home on the hilltop, poetry flowed from him.

Self Improvement.

On 2nd August 1842, John wrote, ‘I resolve this day to devote Mondays and Wednesdays to grammar, Tuesdays to history or such books as I may have from the (Sunday School) library, Thursdays to poetry reading, Friday to composition, Saturdays to miscellaneous works and Sundays to theology...and may my literary acquirements be devoted to the honour and glory of God.’ ‘Capt. Jimmy Thomas threw open his library door to me and the Rev. Hugh Rogers, the Rector of Camborne, lent me Southey’s Remains of Henry Kirke White, which I pondered with great avidity and delight.’ Later, the Rev G.T. Bull, first incumbent of Treslothan, seeing that John was fond of poetry loaned him a copy of Romeo and Juliet. Additionally the Rev Bull had formed a little select group to read and discuss poetry to which John was invited.


John was married at Camborne Church 11th September 1845 to Christiana Jane Rule of Troon. Their first home was a two roomed house in Troon where their first child, a daughter Jane was born. The greater part of the first year of his married life his earnings averaged only 10 pence a day. John said, ‘How we contrived to exist on this small pittance without going into debt, I cannot tell; yet so it was.’ Eventually Johns fortune changed when a fairly rich lode of ore was revealed by his labours and that of the little band of miners with whom he worked. In a short space of time he was richer by £200. He goes on to say that...‘with a portion of this I built a house at Troon Moor by the river, where we lived happily for many years.’

In 1849 daughter Lucretia was born and in 1857 a son James Howard was born. Sadly, Lucretia died in 1855 aged 6 years and 5 months.

Poetry making.

From his school days at Forest Gate, or at home by the kitchen fire, or attending to household duties; whether he drove the horse in the plough, or led the cows to watering, or collected sheep from the down, verse making was the object in his life. So it continued underground at Dolcoath, and on the way home to Bolenowe Carn after completing his shift, John was always composing verse.

Publication of works.

A poem which John had written entitled ‘The First Primrose,’ appeared in a magazine and came to the notice of Dr. George Smith of Trevu, Camborne, whereupon John was invited to Trevu. George Smith took considerable interest in John. Following several visits to Trevu, John plucked up courage to tell Dr. Smith that he would like to publish some of his poems but was unsure as to how to proceed. Dr. Smith advised him to copy some of his best poems and promised to pass them to his friends to obtain their opinion. The result being that a collection of blank verse and rhyme called, ‘Lays from the Mine, the Moor, and the Mountain,’ was published by subscription in 1853 and dedicated to George Smith who had dealt totally with the business aspect of publication on John’s behalf. In fact all his books were published by subscription or forward ordering.

Number of books of poems published….16

Move to Falmouth.

John and his family moved to Falmouth in the autumn of 1857 to take up the position as Scripture Reader. Originally they lived in Wellington Terrace, where their second son John Alfred was born in 1859. Around 1862 they moved to Killigrew Street. According to the 1871 census they had moved yet again to what would be their final home at 85, Killigrew Street. Paul Newman - ’Meads of Love.’ The setting down of new roots heralded a change of society. Harris’s Methodism was ecumenical. Old friends such as John Budge had been Quakers and he was well-disposed towards the Society of Friends. Falmouth was a Quaker stronghold. He visited Penjerrick, the country home of Robert Were Fox, the leading Quaker, where he drank tea poured from a silver teapot, the silver ore being raised from Dolcoath Mine. On 6th May 1879 John became a Quaker and joined the Society of Friends at Falmouth. Early in 1879, John was elected a Fellow of the Royal Historical Society.

John Harris died 7th January 1884 and was buried at Treslothan, near Camborne where his little daughter Lucretia had been laid to rest in 1855.