The British Isles has always been exploited for its resources, both above and below ground. North East Wales is particularly rich in minerals and ores, dug from the ground for thousands of years, whether it be flint, lead, gold, zinc and coal. The Coblynanu or Knockers were believed to be a species of Tylwyth Teg that inhabited caves and mines, and may well have originated from a mingling of a curiosity of ancient works, natural superstition and perhaps even an understanding that many of the limestone caves that pock mark the landscape contained the remains of ancient people, their tools and prey.
Most races, including those that migrated to the British Isles had their own myths of underground peoples. The dwergs, or dwarves were Germanic in origin, brought over to Britain by the Saxon peoples.
Thomas Pennant, in his ‘Tour in Scotland’ (1772), and quoted by Elias Owen, wrote of his visit to the mines of Newcastle,
‘The immense caverns that lay between the pillars exhibited a most gloomy appearance. I could not help enquiring here after the imaginary inhabitant, the creation of the labourer’s fancy: The swart Fairy of the mine; and was seriously answered by a black fellow at my elbow that he really had never met with any, but that his grandfather had found the little implements and tools belonging to this diminutive race of subterraneous spirits. The Germans believed in two species; one fierce and malevolent, the other a gentle race, appearing like little old men, dressed like the miners, and not much above two feet high; these wander about the drifts and chambers of the works, seem perpetually employed, yet do nothing. Some seem to cut the ore, or fling what is cut into vessels, or turn the windlass, but never do any harm to the miners, except provoked; as the sensible Agricola, in this point credulous, relates in his book, de Animantibus Subterraneis.’
It was commonly believed by Welsh miners that the coblynau inhabited new mines, and that they would on occasion lead men to the precious ore by knocking in its direction. On finding the lode, the knocking would seize. Miners claimed to sometimes find tiny tools used by the coblynau, picks and shovels. The fruits of the earth sometimes took their names from the coblynau, such as ‘fairy butter’, which today we would know as petroleum spirit. Despite the sense that one would be terrified of meeting such diminutive creatures, it is rare to find letters or diary writings of miners that would suggest the coblynau were to be feared. Rather the opposite, in fact, since most saw them as helpful, even admitting to a camaraderie with them, since they both shared the same profession.
Despite the surety that the knockers existed, they were rarely seen. In fact, in all the myth of noises heard and tools discovered, there is only one story, as far as can be told, of a coblynau being seen. A mining engineer was exploring for lead-bearing seams in the Llanferres area, when he came across a cutting near the church. It had not been mapped or marked in any way, and upon asking after it in the village he found a man that claimed his brother had made the original cutting.
Apparently, the man’s brother had been coming home one evening and passed through the churchyard of Llanferres Church, leaving the church by the gate. He saw then a ladder appear from the ground some little distance further on, exactly in fact where the mining engineer had seen the cutting. The ladder continued to rise from the ground for a moment before coming to a halt. Almost immediately a tiny figure emerged from the ground, climbing the ladder and jumping off onto the ground beside him. He was dressed just as a human miner and held a greasy, spluttering candle before him against the gloom.
The man’s brother ducked in beside churchyard wall, and was not seen by, what was clearly a coblynau, or knocker. The fairy left, wandering off into the night.
The man considered this a good omen, a promise of rich ore beneath the ground. On telling his family, friends, and anyone else that would buy him a drink, many invested great sums of money in exploiting the mine, believing that beneath it lay untold mineral riches. However, it would seem that despite some lead being found, the lode was actually quite poor, and many lost their fortunes. It is said, the mining engineer consequently left the cutting well alone.