An 11 metre-high mechanical puppet is set to return to tour Britain’s mining heartlands. Glint editor Alex Matchett speaks to the creators of The Man Engine who built the iron giant about to transcend industrial history
“It’s completely impossible. Let’s do it,” said Hal Silvester when given the brief to design an 11 metre tall motorized metal puppet that would be known as The Man Engine. Silvester’s colleague, Will Coleman, came up with that brief while watching celebrations to mark the achievements of Cornish engineering giant Richard Trevithick and pairing that legacy with another, more fanciful, giant. “On Trevithick Day you get all these steam engines going down the road, and I just thought: ‘Wow! Imagine if down behind them – like the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man out of Ghostbusters – you had a dirty great steam-powered behemoth miner!’ I could just see the picture in my mind.”
Unlike the accursed Stay Puft Marshmallow Man, this would be a benevolent giant with a goodwill mission: To convey the historic mining heritage of Cornwall and to capture the contemporary imagination. As such, in 2015, the Man Engine was selected as the titanic torch-bearer for the upcoming tenth anniversary of Cornish Mining as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. 2016 saw The Man Engine tour 22 West Country towns in 11 days, gathering global media attention.
Now, after a two year hiatus, the mechanical miner is about to embark on a second tour, incorporating numerous new special effects into its “ceremonies” which will be accompanied by mining games, local choirs and Cornish fayre. Starting at Geevor Tin Mine near Land’s End, The Man Engine will travel through his native West Country before visiting other British post-mining communities in South Wales, Ironbridge, Sheffield and County Durham.
Coleman says very little about what 2018’s “Resurrection Tour” will entail but alludes to an act embodying smelting, ironworks and all the industries associated with mining. “We’ve added a lot of bells and whistles, we’re working with some very clever people around LCD displays, pyrotechnics and an epic soundtrack.” This year The Man Engine will be enacting the “transformation of mineral through to finished artefact,” says Coleman. “I can also drop the hint that at one point it involves a very long ladder,” he adds enigmatically. The metal giant’s exploits will also be commemorated in a children’s book written by Coleman to mark the Resurrection Tour, entitled The Man Engine Remembers.
Coleman says The Man Engine represents the endeavour of a Cornish Mining industry and society, that for thousands of years extracted the mineral wealth of the peninsular. He details the exploits of miners going 1,000ft deep, a mile out under the seabed, to chip away for metals encased in the hardest rock, with only the simplest tools; “it’s mind boggling what the buggers achieved”. He also points to the global reach of Cornish mining expertise. One hundred and seventy-six locations in 44 countries welcomed miners from Cornwall to work in their extraction industries. It’s a legacy that brought sports such as rugby and football to many parts of the world and that is now being remembered at home: “Looking forward, let’s be inspired by the ingenuity, the innovation and the sheer bloody industry of these people.”
What a piece of work is a Man Engine
The Man Engine’s creation is certainly inspired by that industry. Having won the commission from Cornish Mining World Heritage, the team had one year to build their leviathan. “We were told at the time that we’d need two years and £200,000 and that there were only three people in the country that could do it and that I wasn’t one of them,” says designer Hal Silvester. He describes the creation process as “intense”. With little experience, the team originally built a full scale bamboo and scaffold prototype before creating the full metal body which they then had to lift and experiment with to find modes of operation.
The Man Engine is self-supported via a Volvo wheel loader, rather than suspended via a frame as some other large scale puppets are. The very visual cohort of 10 “Lilliputian” puppeteers is deliberately on display to show the labour and endeavour of the ‘miners’ bringing The Man Engine to life. The team consists of rope specialists, riggers, aerial specialists and sailors all adding to the “melange of mechanicalness” within a four-storey automaton whose beating heart is a whirring cement mixer.
Such precise, intricate, engineering only enhances the sense of endearment. “It can blink! When it looks in your eyes you shudder!” says an electrified Silvester. “It’s 36 feet above your head and it looks at you and you have a moment with it. It’s quite personal; even though you’re in a crowd of 10,000 or 20,000 or 30,000.” He credits Sue Hill, lead designer, sculptor and “art guru”, with the empathetic response triggered by the carefully rendered face of The Man Engine. “We didn’t want a robot. It’s a very fine line between robotic, droid-like characteristics and something that’s noble, that has history in his face. He’s noble but he’s strong and gritty as well.”
That deftly engineered magic, so often left in our toy boxes, is something to celebrate says Silvester. “Think back to when we were children: we bring things alive, we bring our teddies alive – that’s why puppets are so successful, because we tap into that. We know it’s a lump of metal or a bit of carved wood but we suspend our disbelief and engage with it on an emotional level.”
A time machine
There are other levels on which The Man Engine operates. In Britain’s post-industrial landscape he represents a 21st century incarnation of the dialogue between industrialisation and tradition that has become part of our heritage. From Blake to Coleridge, from Tolkien to Hughes to Danny Boyle’s Opening Ceremony for the London Olympics, there is no shortage of literary imaginings of stoked ‘Pandaemonium’. While that conversation so often happens in fiction, The Man Engine grounds it in reality. He honours the sacrifices and the tragedy that so often underpinned the hard-won progress rooted in our mines.
“It is not sepia tinted, it is not nostalgic. We want to tell the truth. It was a beastly, gritty, horrible way to live and to die,” says Coleman. This year The Man Engine’s journey will be intertwined with real stories from the myriad children who worked down mines. Coleman mentions the story of William Crago, who started mining at nine years old, taking two hours every day to climb down 1600 feet of ladders with 20 pounds of equipment to start his shift. There are also the children who pulled the carts in the Somerset mines and Watcyn Wyn: A ten year old boy charged with manning the cart doors in a Carmarthenshire mine, who eventually became a teacher, recounting his experiences of child labour in Welsh poetry. The very name ‘Man Engine’ in Cornwall, is also synonymous with a specific tragedy. In 1919 St Just’s Levant Mine suffered a failure of its man engine, a series of moving ladders used to transport miners down and up the mine, resulting in the death of 31 men.
Being able to give these stories a voice is part of The Man Engine’s power and why it was such an apt vehicle for the celebrations to mark 10 years of Cornish Mining’s UNESCO World Hertiage Site status. “It was a ‘wow!’, attention-grabbing, ‘media-cleaver’, as it were; as well as having a real heart and soul,” says Deborah Boden, co-ordinator of the World Heritage Site. She describes the “crescendo of interest” the project created which saw the first tour feature on news channels as far afield as Russia, the US, China and Australia, reaching a total of 112 million people in 104 countries and making an economic impact on Cornwall worth over £2.9 million – all for a spend of less than £600,000. In the last two years Boden has been fielding calls from the former mining communities of Belgium, Germany and Poland enquiring about a potential visit from The Man Engine.
There was always going to be potential for new audiences, not least in Britain, says Boden, mentioning the “huge affection” he received on his first tour “because of the ubiquity of our ancestors efforts. This is a manifestation that so beautifully embodies that spirit”. Like those ancestors though, the Man Engine will have to face his own adversity: from next year Brexit will deny the World Heritage Site a third of its EU funding and the National Lottery Heritage Fund will have to re-evaluate what it can commit to the project.
Nevertheless, The Man Engine hopes to remain busy, not least as an Atlas for Cornish culture and its perennial endeavour. “Cornwall is a place that’s been in a bit of a coma, a bit of a sleep, a bit of a trance,” says Coleman. “We lost our language, we lost our self-determination, all our industry has fallen around us. Yet here at the moment there’s an extraordinary sense of optimism – we’re reconnecting with the past.” That sentiment will echo throughout the UK but, as Coleman warns, history can be an ambiguous teacher. If The Man Engine does champion identity and cultural pride it is as an inclusive force for social good, not for populist gesture: “We’re not constrained by being overly-parochial or inward looking.”
Indeed, the Man Engine is a liberator from such things: “If our boy is one thing, it’s unique,” laughs Coleman about his iron muse and the story he will tell. “You don’t have to believe the fairy tale, for the fairy tale to have meaning.”
The Man Engine begins his Resurrection Tour at Geevor Tin Mine in Cornwall on 31st March
Pictured top: The Man Engine in Tavistock Square, Devon in July 2016. Picture by Mike Thomas
Alex Matchett is editor of Glint