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Fairy Knockers Or Coblynau


Source: Welsh Folk-lore

The Coblynau or Knockers were supposed to be a species of Fairies who
had their abode in the rocks, and whose province it was to indicate by
knocks, and other sounds, the presence of ore in mines.

It would seem that many people had dim traditions of a small race who had
their dwellings in the rocks. This wide-spread belief in the existence
of cave men has, in our days, been shown to have had a foundation in
fact, and many vestiges of this people have been revealed by intelligent
cave hunters. But the age in which the cave men lived cannot even
approximately be ascertained. In various parts of Wales, in the lime
rock, their abodes have been brought to light. It is not improbable that
the people who occupied the caves of ancient days were, in reality, the
original Fairy Knockers. These people were invested, in after ages, by
the wonder-loving mind of man, with supernatural powers.

AEschylus, the Greek tragic poet, who died in the 69th year of his age,
B.C. 456, in Prometheus Vinctus, refers to cave dwellers in a way that
indicates that even then they belonged to a dateless antiquity.

In Prometheus's speech to the chorus--[Greek]--lines 458-461, is a
reference to this ancient tradition. His words, put into English, are
these:--And neither knew the warm brick-built houses exposed to the sun,
nor working in wood, but they dwelt underground, like as little ants,
in the sunless recesses of caves.

The above quotation proves that the Greeks had a tradition that men in a
low, or the lowest state of civilization, had their abodes in caves, and
possibly the reference to ants would convey the idea that the cave
dwellers were small people. Be this as it may, it is very remarkable
that the word applied to a dwarf in the dialects of the northern
countries of Europe signifies also a Fairy, and the dwarfs, or Fairies,
are there said to inhabit the rocks. The following quotation from
Jamieson's Scottish Dictionary under the word Droich, a dwarf, a
pigmy, shows this to have been the case:--

In the northern dialects, dwerg does not merely signify a dwarf, but
also a Fairy! The ancient Northern nations, it is said, prostrated
themselves before rocks, believing that they were inhabited by these
pigmies, and that they thence gave forth oracles. Hence they called the
echo dwergamal, as believing it to be their voice or speech. . . They
were accounted excellent artificers, especially as smiths, from which
circumstance some suppose that they have received their name . . . Other
Isl. writers assert that their ancestors did not worship the pigmies as
they did the genii or spirits, also supposed to reside in the rocks.

Bishop Percy, in a letter to the Rev. Evan Evans (Ieuan Prydydd Hir),

Nay, I make no doubt but Fairies are derived from the Duergar, or
Dwarfs, whose existence was so generally believed among all the
northern nations.

The Cambro-Briton, vol. i., p. 331.

And again in Percy's Reliques of Ancient Poetry, vol. iii., p. 171, are
these remarks:--

It is well known that our Saxon ancestors, long before they left their
German forests, believed in the existence of a kind of diminutive demons,
or middle species between men and spirits, whom they called Duergar, or
Dwarfs, and to whom they attributed wonderful performances, far exceeding
human art.

Pennant, in his Tour in Scotland, 1772, pp. 55-56, when describing the
collieries of Newcastle, describes the Knockers thus:--

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.

Jamieson, under the word Farefolkis, writes:--Besides the Fairies,
which are more commonly the subject of popular tradition, it appears that
our forefathers believed in the existence of a class of spirits under
this name that wrought in the mines; and again, quoting from a work
dated 1658, the author of which says:--

In northerne kingdomes there are great armies of devils that have their
services which they perform with the inhabitants of these countries, but
they are most frequent in rocks and mines, where they break, cleave,
and make them hollow; which also thrust in pitchers and buckets, and
carefully fit wheels and screws, whereby they are drawn upwards; and they
show themselves to the labourers, when they list, like phantoms and

The preceding quotations from Pennant and Jamieson correspond with the
Welsh miners' ideas of the Coblynau, or Knockers. There is a
difficulty in tracing to their origin these opinions, but, on the whole,
I am strongly inclined to say that they have come down to modern times
from that remote period when cave-men existed as a distinct people.

But now let us hear what our Welsh miners have to say about the
Coblynau. I have spoken to several miners on this subject, and,
although they confessed that they had not themselves heard these good
little people at work, still they believed in their existence, and could
name mines in which they had been heard. I was told that they are
generally heard at work in new mines, and that they lead the men to the
ore by knocking in its direction, and when the lode is reached the
knocking ceases.

But the following extracts from two letters written by Lewis Morris, a
well-known and learned Welshman, fully express the current opinion of
miners in Wales respecting Knockers. The first letter was written Oct.
14, 1754, and the latter is dated Dec. 4, 1754. They appear in Bingley's
North Wales, vol. ii., pp. 269-272. Lewis Morris writes:--

People who know very little of arts or sciences, or the powers of nature
(which, in other words, are the powers of the author of nature), will
laugh at us Cardiganshire miners, who maintain the existence of
Knockers in mines, a kind of good natured impalpable people not to be
seen, but heard, and who seem to us to work in the mines; that is to say,
they are the types or forerunners of working in mines, as dreams are of
some accidents, which happen to us. The barometer falls before rain, or
storms. If we do not know the construction of it, we should call it a
kind of dream that foretells rain; but we know it is natural, and
produced by natural means, comprehended by us. Now, how are we sure, or
anybody sure, but that our dreams are produced by the same natural means?
There is some faint resemblance of this in the sense of hearing; the bird
is killed before we hear the report of the gun. However this is, I must
speak well of the Knockers, for they have actually stood my good
friends, whether they are aerial beings called spirits, or whether they
are a people made of matter, not to be felt by our gross bodies, as air
and fire and the like.

Before the discovery of the Esgair y Mwyn mine, these little people,
as we call them here, worked hard there day and night; and there are
abundance of honest, sober people, who have heard them, and some persons
who have no notion of them or of mines either; but after the discovery of
the great ore they were heard no more.

When I began to work at Llwyn Llwyd, they worked so fresh there for a
considerable time that they frightened some young workmen out of the
work. This was when we were driving levels, and before we had got any
ore; but when we came to the ore, they then gave over, and I heard no
more talk of them.

Our old miners are no more concerned at hearing them blasting, boring
holes, landing deads, etc., than if they were some of their own people;
and a single miner will stay in the work, in the dead of the night,
without any man near him, and never think of any fear or of any harm they
will do him. The miners have a notion that the Knockers are of their
own tribe and profession, and are a harmless people who mean well. Three
or four miners together shall hear them sometimes, but if the miners stop
to take notice of them, the Knockers will also stop; but, let the
miners go on at their work, suppose it is boring, the Knockers will
at the same time go on as brisk as can be in landing, blasting, or
beating down the loose, and they are always heard a little distance
from them before they come to the ore.

These are odd assertions, but they are certainly facts, though we
cannot, and do not pretend to account for them. We have now very good
ore at Llwyn Llwyd, where the Knockers were heard to work, but have
now yielded up the place, and are no more heard. Let who will laugh, we
have the greatest reason to rejoice, and thank the Knockers, or rather
God, who sends us these notices.

The second letter is as follows:--

I have no time to answer your objection against Knockers; I have a
large treatise collected on that head, and what Mr. Derham says is
nothing to the purpose. If sounds of voices, whispers, blasts, working,
or pumping, can be carried on a mile underground, they should always be
heard in the same place, and under the same advantages, and not once in a
month, a year, or two years. Just before the discovery of ore last week,
three men together in our work at Llwyn Llwyd were ear-witnesses of
Knockers pumping, driving a wheelbarrow, etc.; but there is no pump in
the work, nor any mine within less than a mile of it, in which there are
pumps constantly going. If they were these pumps that they had heard,
why were they never heard but that once in the space of a year? And why
are they not now heard? But the pumps make so little noise that they
cannot be heard in the other end of Esgair y Mwyn mine when they are at

We have a dumb and deaf tailor in this neighbourhood who has a
particular language of his own by signs, and by practice I can understand
him, and make him understand me pretty well, and I am sure I could make
him learn to write, and be understood by letters very soon, for he can
distinguish men already by the letters of their names. Now letters are
marks to convey ideas, just after the same manner as the motion of
fingers, hands, eyes, etc. If this man had really seen ore in the bottom
of a sink of water in a mine, and wanted to tell me how to come at it, he
would take two sticks like a pump, and would make the motions of a pumper
at the very sink where he knew the ore was, and would make the motions of
driving a wheelbarrow. And what I should infer from thence would be that
I ought to take out the water and sink or drive in the place, and wheel
the stuff out. By parity of reasoning, the language of Knockers, by
imitating the sound of pumping, wheeling, etc., signifies that we should
take out the water and drive there. This is the opinion of all old
miners, who pretend to understand the language of the Knockers. Our
agent and manager, upon the strength of this notice, goes on and expects
great things. You, and everybody that is not convinced of the being of
Knockers, will laugh at these things, for they sound like dreams; so
does every dark science. Can you make any illiterate man believe that it
is possible to know the distance of two places by looking at them? Human
knowledge is but of small extent, its bounds are within our view, we see
nothing beyond these; the great universal creation contains powers, etc.,
that we cannot so much as guess at. May there not exist beings, and vast
powers infinitely smaller than the particles of air, to whom air is as
hard a body as the diamond is to us? Why not? There is neither great
nor small, but by comparison. Our Knockers are some of these powers,
the guardians of mines.

You remember the story in Selden's Table-Talk of Sir Robert Cotton and
others disputing about Moses's shoe. Lady Cotton came in and asked,
'Gentlemen, are you sure it is a shoe?' So the first thing is to
convince mankind that there is a set of creatures, a degree or so finer
than we are, to whom we have given the name of Knockers from the sounds
we hear in our mines. This is to be done by a collection of their
actions well attested, and that is what I have begun to do, and then let
everyone judge for himself.

The preceding remarks, made by an intelligent and reliable person,
conversant with mines, and apparently uninfluenced by superstition, are
at least worthy of consideration. The writer of these interesting
letters states positively that sounds were heard; whether his attempt to
solve the cause of these noises is satisfactory, and conclusive, is open
to doubt. We must believe the facts asserted, although disagreeing with
the solution of the difficulty connected with the sounds. Miners in all
parts of England, Scotland, Wales, Germany, and other parts, believe in
the existence of Knockers, whatever these may be, and here, as far as I
am concerned, I leave the subject, with one remark only, which is, that I
have never heard it said that anyone in Wales ever saw one of these
Knockers. In this they differ from Fairies, who, according to popular
notions, have, time and again, been seen by mortal eyes; but this must
have been when time was young.

The writer is aware that Mr. Sikes, in his British Goblins, p. 28,
gives an account of Coblynau or Knockers which he affirms had been
seen by some children who were playing in a field in the parish of
Bodfari, near Denbigh, and that they were dancing like mad, and terribly
frightened the children. But in the autobiography of Dr. Edward
Williams, already referred to, p. 98, whence Mr. Sikes derived his
information of the Dwarfs of Cae Caled, they are called Beings, and
not Coblynau.

Before concluding my remarks on Fairy Knockers I will give one more
quotation from Bingley, who sums up the matter in the following words:--

I am acquainted with the subject only from report, but I can assure
my readers that I found few people in Wales that did not give full
credence to it. The elucidation of these extraordinary facts must be
left to those persons who have better opportunities of inquiring into
them than I have. I may be permitted to express a hope that the
subject will not be neglected, and that those who reside in any
neighbourhood where the noises are heard will carefully investigate
their cause, and, if possible, give to the world a more accurate
account of them than the present. In the year 1799 they were heard
in some mines in the parish of Llanvihangel Ysgeiviog, in Anglesea,
where they continued, at intervals, for some weeks.

Bingley's North Wales, vol. ii., p. 275.

In conclusion, I may remark that in living miners' days, as already
stated, Knockers have not been heard. Possibly Davy's Safety Lamp and
good ventilation have been their destruction. Their existence was
believed in when mining operations, such as now prevail, were unknown,
and their origin is to be sought for among the dim traditions that many
countries have of the existence of small cave men.

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