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Vale - John Cornwell 30 April 1934  - 28 January 2006

John Cornwell, Bristolian, Caver, Photographer, Industrial Archaeologist and Enthusiast died of a heart attack on 28th January 2006, he was 71. 

John was born in Hanham and grew up in the Kingswood area of Bristol.  As a child, he played on the 'Diddly Dumps' and the remains of Speedwell Colliery, early experiences, which were to have a profound influence later. John's father was a keen amateur photographer and encouraged his son when John showed an interest in photography.  This also was a significant influence on his later life.

John started work at the Co-op when he left school but soon left to join the army as a regular soldier. While in the army, he lost an argument with a 30ft cliff and smashed a femur and his pelvis.  He was fitted with an artificial hip-joint, and invalided out of the army, classed as unfit for active service!  It is a tribute to the makers and fitters of this hip-joint that it never failed or gave any trouble despite all the punishment that John managed to inflict on it.  After the army, John returned to the Co-op, ending up a manager of the Whitchurch branch before leaving to take up full time mining photography.  

John joined the Club in 1959 and was a member for just under ten years.  He moved on down to the Wessex but then to the East Somerset Caving Club.  During his time as a member of the BEC, John dug extensively in Cuthbert's, at the sump (now duck) and together with Nick Hart, opened up Chandelier Passage. Along with his digging, John also maintained and developed his interest in photography, concentrating in particular on using relatively large format cameras, 120 rollfilm and giant (PF60) flashbulbs.  He produced some spectacular photographs, particularly of Cuthbert's and GB.

After leaving the Club, John dug at Hillgrove and Nine Barrows and helped the Bridgwater College diggers with Sludge Pit.  His major digging success, however, was at Rhino Rift.  He started digging there in the summer of 1968, just after the great storm and flood.  The final breakthrough at Rhino in 1970 was nearly fatal for John; when he entered the little chamber at the head of the pitch, visibility was poor, as the air was thick with bang fumes.  As he moved forward into the chamber, it was only because he kicked a rock forward then heard the crash and reverberation as it landed 100 ft below that stopped him from walking off the edge of the pitch.

After Rhino, John dug at Charterhouse Warren Farm.   He was allowed a short time off from this dig in order to marry Jenny Murrell, a fellow digger from the days at Rhino. As the dig at Charterhouse Warren got deeper, John began to lose interest.  I suspect that he was never very happy about verticals, perhaps as a consequence of his experience in the army. 

Whatever the reason, John abandoned cave digging for many years in favour of industrial archaeology.  He spent nine years excavating the site of Fussell's Ironworks at Mells and then eight years digging and reconstructing the site of the Golden Valley coal pits at Bitton.  The high point of this latter dig was after the restoration of the colliery ventilation furnace chimney, when the bottom was filled with bales of straw and old tyres and fired to produce an awesome roaring column of flame and a most satisfying plume of dense black smoke.   

John's diet deserves a mention.  He did breakfast (although not habitually) off 35 fish fingers at a sitting and he did for a long time live off a diet which appeared to consist almost entirely of tuna "curry", sponge cakes and crisps.  John, who hated gravies and sauces, prepared his own variety of "curry" using dry ingredients heated together in a frying pan. The result looked like over-roasted sawdust.

This tuna diet was to have an odd side effect.  In the early 1970s, John became ill with rather vague but worrying neurological symptoms and it was thought that he was suffering from mercury poisoning, the tuna fish being a possible source.  Although the poisoning was never confirmed, John retired from the Co-op and cut his tuna intake to more reasonable levels.  His health improved, and needing employment, he turned his hobby of mining photography into a full time occupation.  Because of the restrictions necessary in the explosive atmospheres of gassy mines, John developed a technique of painting with light, initially using a cap lamp, later with more powerful locomotive lamps.  Using this technique, he could photograph along 100 yards of coalface and achieve an even level of illumination.  More importantly, with his minimal equipment, he was able to photograph at a coal face without stopping production, whereas the National Coal Board's official photographers had to stop the face working while they installed the necessary flame proof floodlighting.  John's photographs may be seen in his books on the Somerset, Bristol and South Wales coalfields.

John had many talents, but I believe that he deserves to be remembered for his enthusiasm, his showmanship and for his outstanding ability to gather a team and motivate it.  Ideas from John always sounded attractive and plausible, even if they were neither.  Many of us heard his "Tell you what..." and got led into doing something we would really rather not, (like digging to nearly closing time).

John's funeral at Haycombe Crematorium was notable for the singing of "Cwm Rhondda" by a contingent of his Welsh mining friends and by the playing of the 1812 Overture, complete with cannon fire in recognition of his love of loud bangs.

Our condolences go to his widow, Jenny, his daughters, Joanna and Josephine and an ever-increasing number of grandchildren (6 as of 6 May 2006).

Tony Audsley
7-May-2006