The Cornish pasty doesn’t just have bonds with the mining and farming folk of the county, it also has bonds with the faery folk that are said to dwell there too. Of special significance are those known as ‘Knockers.’ They initially dwelt in caves and wells, but when the widespread tin mining in the county moved from open cast pits to tunnels and underground excavation, so the Knockers took up residence.
Living in the labyrinthine mines beneath the moors, tors and farmland of Cornwall, they are mischievous creatures that have even brought inspiration to fantasy artists, such as the renowned Brian Froud. They got their name because miners would hear tapping and knocking in the mines, and sometimes even singing in the deep. Their involvement with pasties isn’t only in relation to being well fed, but also to the well being of miners.
Miners wives were said to mark their husbands’ Cornish pasties with their initials. Not only was this for ease of identification, it was also so that when the crust was discarded, the Knockers would know which miner had given them the food. Why would a miner want to be identified by these sprites? They had a reputation for causing mischief and bringing misfortune, so staying on their good side was seen as highly beneficial. In fact, missing tools were often blamed on Knockers and woe betide any miner that took to whistling a tune, the sprites had an intense dislike of the sound.
However, the presence of Knockers was taken to be a good sign, for if they worked in a mine, it was seen to be safe from collapse. It was also said that their knocking could lead a miner to rich seams of ore, and so the relationship between the faery and mining folk in the distant past was one of mutual benefit. These days, it’s the seagulls that are likely to take any discarded crusts, the Knockers left to their own devices in the darkness of the mines, where the groaning of their bellies has likely been added to the sounds of their activity.
Story: Edwin Page. Image: Joseph Blight for William Bottrell’s second book on Cornish folklore, published in 1873