The dangers of mining – from pit-falls to fire damp – are reflected in the beliefs of miners, especially those concerning various spirits formerly said to haunt mines. One usually appearing as a blue flame was immensely strong, and helped miners in their work if rewarded. However, if not properly treated, he brought disaster on the mine. In Northumberland, where he was known as Blue Cap or Blue Bonnet, he long haunted Shilbottle Colliery near Alnwick. He worked as a putter (someone who ‘put’ or pushed the laden trams or coal-tubs, or hauled them by a short rope). A writer in the Colliery Guardian of 23 May 1863 explains:
Sometimes the miners would perceive a light-blue flame flicker through the air and settle on a full coal-tub, which immediately moved towards the rolly-way as though impelled by the sturdiest sinews in the working. Industrious Blue-cap required, and rightly, to be paid for his services, which he modestly rated as those of an ordinary average putter, therefore once a fortnight Blue-cap’s wages were left for him in a solitary corner of the mine. If they were a farthing below his due, the indignant Blue-cap would not pocket a stiver; if they were a farthing above his due, indignant Blue-cap left the surplus revenue where he found it.
Very different in character from this helpful bogle was the dangerous Northumbrian spirit known as ‘Cutty Soams’ from the delight he took in cutting the rope traces or ‘soams’ by which the little assistant putters (boys and girls) were yoked to the coal-tub. An account of him in the Colliery Guardian in 1863 says that it was not uncommon for the men to go down to work and find that he had been busy overnight cutting every pair of traces to pieces. The only good he ever did was in a roundabout way. At Callington Pit, when an overseer called Nelson, suspected of causing the deaths of two miners, was killed by fire-damp, local rumour said it was a punishment. This was seemingly put down to Cutty Soams, and Cutty Soams Colliery, as the pit came to be known, never worked another day.
By many miners, Cutty Soams was said to be the ghost of a miner who had been killed in the pit and returned to warn his ‘marrows’ (workmates) of impending misfortune.
Some spirits were believed to reinforce traditional mining customs, notably the ban on work on certain holy days. A correspondent of Notes and Queries in 1855 comments on the ‘almost universal aversion’ miners had to entering a mine on Good Friday, Holy Innocents’ Day (28 December), or Christmas Day, and says that, when he visited one of the lead mines in Allendale, Northumberland, he found that, rather than work on those days, miners would sacrifice their employment. When asked why, they explained that some catastrophe would befall them if they defied custom.
See also MARAZION, Cornwall for the Seven Whistlers.