Tut or Tribute? The method of working and payment at
Wheal Friendship mine, Mary Tavy - 1800's

book This is a section on local mining history. © Copyright is waived for those who wish to reproduce these pages for educational use. G.Sargent 1996.
Tut or Tribute - Fathomage or Tonnage?
There were two basic methods of working in the hard-rock mining industry of Devon and Cornwall and two basic methods of payment.

They were known as "tut" working and "tribute" working.

TUT working

Tut working was the method whereby the miners contracted to remove a certain cubic capacity of material in a given time for a given or agreed price.
The price was fixed at a "dutch auction" where the lowest bidder got the work.

It went like this:-
The Mine Captain would appear at the balcony window of the mine Count House (accounting house) at the monthly "setting" time. He knew beforehand what price HE wanted to pay to have the particular work carried out.

He would ask for bids to carry out the work that he was auctioning. The leader of a group or gang of miners (known always as a "pair") would shout out a bid. Other gang leaders would underbid him. This continued until the price that the Mine Captain was willing to pay was reached.
At this point the Mine Captain would toss a pebble into the air and the last bid received before it hit the ground was awarded the contract. That was the bid accepted - ALWAYS!

Naturally, when men were hungry they would bid as low as possible to get the work. SOME paid work was better than NO paid work.

Unfortunately there was a great risk for the miners attached to this method.
As "tut" workers they had agreed to remove a specific amount of rock or secure or set a certain amount of timber at a specific price within a specific period.
If during excavations they hit a particularly hard section, were flooded out or other such problem then they did not achieve their target. They were only paid according to the amount bid for. This meant that they could work for a whole month and not receive the full amount that they anticipated receiving.

As an example of "tut" working - say that they contracted to cut a section 100 fathoms long and 3ft wide by 6ft high and they only achieved 80 fathoms due to unforeseen problems - they would only be paid the percentage (80%) of the bid price agreed at the "setting" time.
Now, please remember that they were the lowest bidders! Therefore it was very unlikely that they would have shown a profit or good wages for their work anyway. Now they were to receive even less!

Just imagine, a "pair" of perhaps 10 men who anticipated 10 each at the end of the month, now they would only receive 8.00 each.

Deducted from that sum would be payment to have their picks and chisels sharpened by the mine blacksmith. They would have to pay the mining company for all blasting powder and for tallow candles as a means of lighting underground!
The end result was more often than not, misery and despair! Men got rich and men became poor. Such was the hard lot of copper and tin mining in Devon and Cornwall during the 19th century.

Tribute working
Tribute working was somewhat similar to "tut" working but more skilled. Even here there were snags.

Like the "tut" workers the "tributers" (tributers dug out the actual mineral ore as opposed to "tut" workers who cut tunnels, shafts and adits etc.) had to bid at the "dutch auction" set up in front of the Count House balcony each setting time.

Tributers were very skilled men and were the cream of the crop. They knew by experience what the ground below was like and approximately how much it would cost to have their ore assayed and crushed at the surface. stope platform bearer What they did not know was, HOW MUCH VALUABLE MINERAL THEY WERE GOING TO GET TO THE SURFACE!

The thickness of the rich mineral seam could be 4ft wide one day and four inches wide the next. They had to gamble on an unknown quantity. They had agreed to be paid according to the value of the ore raised to the surface and processed.
If it was rich and easily removed, all well and good - but bid for and accepted at the LOWEST price! If not easily, then they too were out of pocket. They also had to pay to have their tools sharpened, processing the ore at the surface, assaying and pay for candles and blasting powder - all sold to them by the Mine. They were "captives" of the mine owners, lock, stock and barrel!

An additional problem was that they didn't get paid until the mining company had been paid by the smelter who bought the mineral! It was only then that the mining company paid the tributer.
This was a long process and therefore the tributers were paid once every two months - if there was any money sent down from Head Office at all! All too frequently there wasn't.
Remember the story about the Tavistock token? It applied to them too!

Another point to be made is that the miners were not allowed to store up any mineral extracted during an easy dig for sending to the surface at a later date, when digging was perhaps harder or less productive.
The Mine Captain ensured that all mineral dug was passed to the surface as soon as it was available. Ore had no value underground, only at the smelters.
There was no safety net or building up a credit for hard times.

Another point to remember too is that if either a "tut" or "tribute" worker did go back on his word and refuse to carry out the agreed bid he was immediately sacked and he was blacklisted throughout the mining industry in the whole South West!

This made for a very poor, under-nourished, desperate, community. To help to alleviate the poverty children of 12yrs of age went underground to work beside their fathers. Women worked as "bal maidens", hand-picking the ores and breaking rocks too large for the crushers with heavy spalling hammers.
Eventually, of course, easier worked deposits of copper were discovered overseas and the miners were forced to travel to the four corners of the globe to earn a living.

They went to the goldfields of America, Africa, India and Australia and mineral mines of S.America and Portugal; others went to Egypt to mine for phosphates and the like. Some returned home rich men, others not so rich, and others died in the attempt to put bread in the mouths of their loved ones at home.
My grandfather and my father both went off from Mary Tavy to the Gold Coast in Africa in the early 1900s to seek their fortunes. They found none but at least came home again.

I have seen the waste tips and discarded mine buildings and machinery gradually disappear over the years and soon there will be nothing left but contaminated soils and sad memories.
I clambered as a child over the massive water wheels that drove the machinery, climbed in and out of the shattered "stamps" which crushed the ores and pulverized them to talc-like grains to be refined and separated from the useless fractions.

Now all is gone and the population are mainly retired upper middle-class, with index-linked pensions and strong ideas as to what we as a community want to keep us in order!

If only they were aware of the heart-ache, tears and blood that has spilled beneath their feet as they walk the paths and byways, the footpaths and woods that abound!
I wonder if they would understand? I wonder if they would love the soil, the stones, the very hedgerows as I do? I wonder...