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Driving - South Wales Coal Mining


Coal has been mined on a small scale in South Wales since Roman times, but the real impetus for its development came with Abraham Darby's use of coke to smelt iron instead of charcoal. In the first half of the 18th century hundreds of coke burning furnaces were built in South Wales, with the two largest ironworks being Blaenavon and Cyfarthfa at Merthyr Tydfil. Coal was needed in great supply because three tons of coal were required to smelt one ton of iron and the number of drift mines and pits grew dramatically as a result.

The second half of the 18th century saw a decline in the iron industry as the use of steel became widespread, but by this time it had little effect on the coal industry. The new steam locomotives and ships needed vast supplies of coal and the high quality "steam" coal from South Wales was in great demand. The anthracite deposits from the western area of the South Wales coalfield were also highly valued for domestic heating and industrial purposes.

The size and importance of the South Wales coalfield cannot be underestimated. In 1913, 57 million tons of coal came up from the mines and South Wales produced one third of the world's coal exports. At its peak over 250, 000 men were employed in the industry, with over 40,000 in the Rhondda valley alone.

The effects of World War I, however, were very detrimental to the industry. Foreign markets were lost forever, in particular the profitable French market, as the Ruhr valley coalfields were handed over to France as part of the Treaty of Versailles.

Combined with the post war depression, unemployment rose and coal production fell. By 1929 South Wales production had dropped to 3% of world output. Following the Second World War there was a revival in the industry as output rose and the nationalisation of the coal industry meant new investment. However, the second half of the 20th century has seen the sad decline in the South Wales coal industry - between 1960 and 1980, 150 collieries were closed and 70,000 miners lost their jobs.

The South Wales Coal Mining Trail takes you to sites that have been preserved to give an insight into what was once one of the greatest industries in the world.

1. Blaenavon Ironworks

Blaenavon Ironworks was founded by three businessmen from the Midlands, Thomas Hill, Benjamin Pratt and Thomas Hopkins. It was another Midlander, Abraham Darby, who had succeeded in smelting iron with coke at Coldbrookdale (see the Midlands Metal Working Trail). Darby had used water power to blast the air into his furnace, but this restricted the amount of iron that could be used because one waterwheel could only supply enough power for one furnace. It wasn't until improvements in the technology of steam engines that this method of smelting iron became widespread because one steam engine could supply power for a whole group of furnaces. Blaenavon Ironworks was the first purpose built multi-furnace iron works in Wales.

The first three furnaces were built between 1788 and 1789, along with a cast house to prepare all the raw materials, and an engine house to accommodate the Boulton and Watt steam engine.

Within ten years the ironworks was the second largest in Wales, employing 350 people and producing 5,400 tons of iron a year. In 1810 another two furnaces were added to meet the demand.

People came from all over the country to seek employment in the iron works of Wales, and with Blaenavon's close proximity to the English border, it had a high percentage of English immigrants. Many of these were workers from other industries, like hand weavers who had been made redundant by the introduction of Cartwright's power looms (see North West Textile Trail), and metal workers from the Midlands who had been put out of work by the mechanization of the industry (see Midlands Metal Work Trail).

However, the 19th century saw many difficult times for Blaenavon Ironworks as competition grew from other works in Wales and the rest of Britain. In 1836 the ironworks were sold to the Blaenavon Iron and Coal Company and ambitious plans were devised to modernise the works. The investers were unwilling to bear the high costs of the work and the plans were never fully realised.

A much needed railway link with Newport was constructed in 1854, which ran along the other side of town, at Forgeside. From then on most of the industries in Blaenavon relocated across at Forgeside to be nearer to the railway. In the 1860s new furnaces were constructed there and were successful for a number of years producing wrought iron rails for the railways.

At this time, steel was beginning to replace iron and in 1881 a steelworks, with two Bessemer Converters, was opened at the Forgeside site. The old ironworks was kept working on a small scale, producing iron ingots for the steelworks and cold blast pig iron for which there was still a market. The decline in the steel industry at Blaenavon marked the end of iron making on the old site and the last furnace was blown out in 1904.

In 1890 Britain was the largest producer of steel in the world but it was the experiments of two cousins at Blaenavon that ironically lead to the decline in the British steel industry.

It was Henry Bessemer's converter that lead to the widespread production of steel in Britain. The only problem with the design was that it could only produce malleable steel when phosphorous-free iron was used. This was fine for places like Blaenavon where there was plenty of phosphorous-free iron, but it meant the converter was of limited use in most parts of Europe and America where the iron deposits contained phosphorous.

Percy Carlyle Gilchrist was the works chemist at Blaenavon and along with his cousin Sidney Gilchrist Thomas, they experimented in ways of eliminating phosphorous from the Bessemer Converter. They were helped by the works manager, Edward Martin, who built them a small converter to carry out their experiments.

Their experiments were successful and in 1878 they released the results of their work. They had found that by lining the converter with special bricks made of limestone and fireproof tar, malleable steel could be produced using phosphorous containing iron.

Their work brought the cousins great wealth, but it also opened up the vast deposits of iron ore in America and Europe. By 1902 Britain had dropped to third in the steel producing countries behind the USA and Germany. South Wales was particularly badly hit because most of the steel it produced was exported to the countries that were now able to produce steel for themselves.

The Blaenavon Ironworks site is now in the care of CADW Welsh Historic Momuments and the remains give an excellent insight into 18th and 19th century iron making in Britain.

The only real survivor of the first three furnaces is No.2, which still has its stone casing and cast house. The two furnaces that were added in 1810 still remain although much of their stone casing was removed to build a church in 1911. The site is still dominated by the water balance tower, which was built in 1839 to carry finished iron and raw materials between the high and low levels of the furnace yard.

The site also provides a superb insight into the lives of the people that worked at the furnaces. "Stack Square" is a rare survivor of the housing built by the ironmasters for the workers that flocked to Blaenavon. These small terraced dwellings housed families of up to eight, plus lodgers, and all but the very youngest were employed at the ironworks.

Blaenavon Ironworks Blaenavon, Torfaen NP4 6JH Tel: 01495 752036 http Open: May to September, Monday to Saturday 11-5. Sunday 2-5.

Directions: Car: From A4042 to Pontypoll take A4043 signposted Blaenavon. Follow signs for Big Pit and Blaenavon Ironworks. Train and Bus: Blaenavon is served by buses from Abergavenny, Pontypool, Cwmbran and Newport, all of which have BR stations (0345 484950).

2. Big Pit

All the raw materials needed to produce iron, lay in abundance below the ground around Blaenavon. Ironstone, limestone and coal were all readily available and mining operations grew in the area to meet the demand of the hungry blast furnaces, which needed three tons of coal to smelt one ton of iron.

At first coal was extracted from drift mines that cut into the hillside and followed the seam of coal. By 1800, the first vertical shaft, known as the Old Coal Pits, had been sunk. More pits and drift mines opened up as the demand for iron increased with the start of the Napoleonic Wars.

As the 19th century progressed the demand for coal from the ironworks decreased, but this had little effect on the coal industry. The "steam coal" from South Wales was of the highest quality and the national and international markets for it were opening and expanding all the time. The coal burnt hotly, leaving only a flaky white ash, and its steam raising properties were famous worldwide. Coal from Blaenavon was used to fuel the steam ships and railways in both Britain and across the world. At its peak there were 164 drift mine and over 30 shafts in the hillside around the town. .

Big Pit came into existence in 1880 and stands on the site of an earlier mine called Kearsley's Pit, which was sunk to a depth of 39m in 1860. The shaft was deepened to 89m in 1880 and with its elliptical shape was the first in the area wide enough to wind two trams of coal side by side - hence the name Big Pit.

Big Pit came to absorb more and more of the individual workings around it, including Forge Level, Mine Slope and Dodd's Slope as well as taking over the shafts of the neighbouring Coity Colliery, which were later used as ventilation shafts. In its heyday Big Pit employed 1300 men and produced more than 250, 000 tons of coal a year.

Big Pit was one of the first collieries in South Wales to be electrified. By 1910 the ventilating fan, pumps and underground haulage system were all worked by electricity, although the winding gear was still powered by steam until 1953.

Mechanization increased throughout the 20th century with mechanical conveyors, coal cutters, ploughs and shearers all being introduced to the Big Pit. Some processes however, continued to be carried out by hand right up until the pit closed.

Nine different seams of coal were worked at Big Pit and as each became uneconomical to mine they were closed down. By 1967 all but one of the seams, Garw, had been worked out. Garw was the deepest seem at 366ft below the surface and had a maximum thickness of 2ft 4inches. The seam produced excellent quality coal but it was so hard it proved difficult to be worked by machine. Eventually a plough was installed which successfully cut and loaded the coal onto a chain conveyor. The coal was taken to the surface along a new drift opened in the mid-1970s, which meant that the shaft of Big Pit was now only used for ventilation and access for maintenance men. The miners travelled to the coal face via the drift mine.

By 1979 only 250 men worked at Big Pit, compared to 500 a decade earlier. On 3rd February 1980 coal production stopped because the workable coal seams had been exhausted. It was the centenary of the mine and until its closure it was the oldest working mine left in South Wales.

Big Pit remains much as it did that February day with blacksmiths workshop, pithead baths and engine house, but it is now open so visitors can explore an authentic coal mine. It is one of only two mines in the country where you can travel down the shaft in the same pit cage that the miners used (The other being the National Coal Mining Museum for England near Wakefield). Everyday the "pitman" inspects the shaft by descending on the top of the pit cage, just as he did when the mine was open. Former miners act as guides and help give you a real understanding of what it would have been like to work at Big Pit.

Big Pit Mining Museum Balenavon, Torfean NP4 9XP Tel: 01495 790311 Open: March to November, daily 9.30-5, underground tours, 10-3.30.

Directions: Car: Off B4246, follow brown signs from M4 junction 26 eastbound and junction 25 westbound. Bus and Train: Blaenavon is served by buses from Abergavenny, Pontypool, Cwmbran and Newport, all of which have BR stations.

3. Rhondda Heritage Park

Big Pit is unusual in that it is situated high on a moor, whereas when people usually think of mining in South Wales they think of the valleys. The place that is synonymous with this image is the Rhondda valley.

For many centuries the Rhondda valley was sparsely populated and mainly unspoiled by any industrial activity. Welsh coal had been known about since Roman times and there were small domestic operations around the valley since the 17th century, but it was the18th century that saw a dramatic change in the landscape and the population. The demand for coal to fuel the Industrial Revolution was insatiable and the large deposits of high quality coal in the Rhondda meant that by the end of the 19th century it was one of the most important coal producing areas in the world. At its peak there were 53 working collieries in an area only sixteen miles long and the population soared from about 3,000 people in 1860 to over 160, 000 by 1910.

The change really started in the 1850s when the first industrial pioneer in the area, Walter Coffin, opened the first drift mine and sunk the first pits. With the discovery of the rich and prosperous seams of high quality coal, many more capitalists were to follow.

The 17th and 18th century iron works of South Wales had been set up by English capitalists, but the early success of the industry had also created more prosperity in the urban areas growing around the iron works. The investment needed to start up a coal mining operation was far less than that needed to build up an ironworks, and this meant that much of the capital invested in the Rhondda came from businessmen from the area.

The Hafod venture was started by two brothers David and John Thomas, whose father, Samuel, was a grocer from Merthyr. In 1850 they opened the Hafod pit but this proved uneconomical. Their second venture took place at Coed Cae but again this proved unsuccessful. In the mid 1870s William Thomas Lewis, later Lord Merthyr, purchased the Hafod and Coed Cae shafts and opened them up again and worked them for bituminous (household) seam coal. In 1880 Lewis had sunk the Bertie shaft and by 1890 the Trefor shaft, both named after his sons. By 1890 the five pits became known as "Lewis Merthyr Consolidated Collieries Ltd" and employed over 5,000 men and produced almost one million tons of coal a year.

In 1904 the company sunk the Lady Lewis colliery a mile to the North East in the Rhondda Fach and in 1905 they acquired the Universal Colliery at Senghenydd. This was later to suffer the worst ever mining disaster in British history, when on 14th October 1913 an explosion at the Glamorgan Pit killed 439 men.

Accidents were common place and there were many gas explosions and roof falls, between 1851 and 1855 statistics show that a miner was killed every six hours and one injured every two minutes. Up until the 1840s there were no government regulations on the safety of mines, and the mine owners seemed to care little about the working conditions of their employees. However, in the 1840s the government did begin to implements some plans to improve safety within the mines. In 1842 it was made illegal for women and young children to work underground. But changes were slow and were hard to implement against the indifferent attitude of the mine owners. There were improvements in setting a minimum age of employment and specifying maximum working hours, by 1872 boys under sixteen were restricted to working no more than ten hours a day, and mine owners could be fined or imprisoned if accidents were caused by their negligence.

There were no provisions made by the state or the mine owners for the welfare of the workers, so communities would join together in support of those that were injuried or too ill to work. The workers formed "friendly societies" in which everyone would contribute a few pence a week to provide care for the infirm. It is thought that these collectives were the idea behind the National Health Service, as they were the model used by the MP for Ebbw Vale, Aneurin Bevan, when he was Minister for Health when he introduced the NHS in 1948.

Until the 1950s the coal industry maintained a steady level of production and employment, but since that time there has been a decline in the number of miners employed. Production at Lewis Merthyr came to an end on 14th March 1983 and by 1990 not one productive colliery existed in the Rhondda.

The Rhondda Heritage Park is located on the former colliery site of Lewis Merthyr. The story of the Rhondda valley is told through "Black Gold", a multi-media display set in three of the restored colliery buildings, the engine house, the fan house and the lamp room.

There is also an "underground" tour given by ex-miners that includes a cage ride to "Pit Bottom" and guides you through the underground roadways of the colliery. To complete the tour there is a simulated ride that hurtles and catapults you in the dark through twisting tunnels back to the surface.

Rhondda Heritage Park Lewis Merthyr Colliery, Trehafod, Rhondda Cynon Taff CF37 7NP Tel: 01442 682036 http://www.netwales.co.uk/rhondda-heritage Open: All year, daily 10-6. Last tour 4.30. October to Easter, closed Mondays.

Directions: Car: Off the A470, between Ponypridd and Porth. Signposted from M4 junction 32. Train: A Sprinter Service runs every half hour from Cardiff Central to Trehafod. Bus: Regular bus services are operated by South Wales Transport (01792 475511)

4. Cefn Coed Colliery Museum

Coal mining in the Neath area began with the development of the port of Neath in the 16th century. In 1743 Sir Herbert Mackworth began mining operations at Onllwyn, but coal output remained low until the opening of the Neath and Brecon railway in 1864. In 1872 David Bevan opened a pit a Blaendulais naming it the Seven Sisters after his seven daughters. This name was later extended by common usage to the village itself. From the 1870's onwards the rich coal reserves of the Dulais Valley were increasingly exploited by the Evans-Bevan family who, by the 1940's, owned seven collieries within seven miles of each other.

Cefn Colliery, however, was owned by the Amalgamated Anthracite Combine of Ammanford, which bought out the local Llwynon Colliery Company in 1926 and took over its sinking operation at Cefn Coed. Pit sinking was a highly specialised, difficult and dangerous task. Three earlier attempts to sink shafts at Cefn Coed had failed to break through the hard Blue Pennant sandstone, but heavy investment by Amalgamated Anthracite led to the successful completion of sinking and the first coal was raised in 1930.

The coal mined at Cefn Coed was high quality anthracite, a hard, shiny, fierce burning coal found almost exclusively in the western half of South Wales. The deepest seam at Cefn Coed produced the highest quality of all. The miners worked at depths of over 2,500 feet (800m), which at the time was the deepest anthracite mine in the world, and this meant danger was never far away. Methane gas, roof falls and other accidents were commonplace during the early years of the pit and it soon gained the unenviable nickname of "The Slaughterhouse".

The colliery prospered, however, throughout the first half of the 20th century and five different seams were worked during this time. Nationalisation of the coal industry in 1947 brought massive new investment, but the cost of keeping the roadways open at such a depth kept on increasing. Geological problems and a changing economic climate led to reductions in the workforce in the 1950s, and despite further attempts to revive its fortunes the colliery finally closed in 1968.

Many of the men were transferred to the adjacent Blaenant drift mine which was opened in the 1960s to tap the No.2 Rhondda seam at a shallower depth. One of the two shafts was then disused, and the other one was used to ventilate Blaenant Colliery, and as an emergency exit, until the closure of Blaenant in 1990. The winding engine from the No.2 shaft has been preserved and forms the centre-piece of the Cefn Coed Colliery Museum.

The engine was manufactured in 1927 and its two cylinders each have a bore of 32 inches while the drum is 10ft wide. The drum held two ropes each over 800 yards long, with a breaking strain of 234 tons. The ropes were inspected everyday, weight tested every three months and replaced completely every 2½ years. Every six months they were shortened by about 6 feet in order to eliminate wear and stress at the end of the rope.

All the main surface buildings at the colliery have been preserved and the underground simulated mining gallery gives an excellent insight into the machinery and methods that were used to extract the coal.

Cefn Coed Colliery Museum Crynant, Neath SA10 8SN Tel: 01639 7505566 Open: April to October, daily, 10.30-5. Last admission 4.30. November to March, pre booked groups only.

Directions: Car: 5 miles north of Neath on A4109. Train: Neath BR Bus: Regular bus services are operated by South Wales Transport (01792) 475511.

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