What’s a “Knocker”?

Last week I mentioned that most miners who ate pasties usually left behind a portion of their crust as an offering to the “knockers”. But what exactly is a “knocker”? In a nutshell, a knocker is a member of a race of spirits that are supposed to inhabit mines. A knocker can be either benevolent (like a pixie) or mischievous, even malevolent (like a gremlin), depending on whom you ask. The name “knocker” comes from the noises such a creature supposedly makes as it a) mines its own ore deposits when humans aren’t around, b) hammers shaft support posts out in hopes of causing a cave-in; or, c) warns human miners when a cave-in is imminent. But regardless of their intent, all of them supposedly take the form of diminutive humans with skinny legs and long, hooked noses. Some say they’re their own race of mysterious beings, others that they’re they ghosts of miners who died in accidents.

It seems natural enough that miners of old would have invented these beings, since let’s face it, mines are dark and creepy places. I can see where it would be easy to interpret the noise of, say, an odd falling rock or tool, or the slow creak of a tunnel support under stress as evidence of supernatural activity (especially in long, empty, echoing spaces). Given the many dangers of mining, I can also see where a miner might want to have a supernatural being as an ally (or at least not as an enemy). Interestingly, belief in knockers wasn’t limited to miners in Cornwall. American miners, influenced by immigrant Cornish, also believed in them (some still do, I’m told), only here in the State they’re called “Tommyknockers”. There’s a Stephen King novel by that name, in fact.

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