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Black Gold ~ Coal

Coal the nation's black gold, hewn out of mother earth in valleys such as the Rhondda in Glamorgan and the Sirhowy in Gwent. It was in valleys such as these, where the miner lived, loved, worshiped and sang, where for two hundred years the very core of the industrial life of Wales occurred. For those that lived in them however, they were often places of heartache and grief. The sound of the siren indicating a disaster at the local pit, sent a cold shiver of impending doom up many a spine, for a gas explosion or a collapsing roof was no respecter of men and their families

Pit head winding gear, the way underground

So many times down through the years women, many with young children in their arms, have stood at a pit entrance waiting for news of their husband or son, only to quickly realise there was no hope by the forlorn look on the faces of the rescue teams as they returned to the surface.

Throughout Wales from 1837 to 1927 some 3508 miners perished, caused by such things as exploding gas, roof collapse and flooding. On May 10th in 1837 some 21 miners died at Plas-yr-Argoed colliery at Mold in north Wales. In 1901 at Sengheydd colliery in south Wales 82 men died, virtually the entire night shift. Then again at the same pit on October 13th in 1913 a massive methane explosion carried by coal dust killed 439 miners. So in twelve years over 520 men were killed in one colliery, is it any wonder that even today in 2004 there are still some who can tell of "the day that grandpa died" in that hell hole called Sengheydd colliery.

All that remains today of a once great deep mine industry that stretched over a thousand square miles from Pembrokeshire in the west to the river Severn in the south east, is Tower colliery at Hirwaun, Glamorgan. The colliery, bought out by the management and men led by Tyrone O' Sullivan, re-opened in 1995 after a massive campaign to ensure its future. Today once again its future is unsure for it needs massive investment to open another seam, but all involved are upbeat that finance will be secured.

Yes! even the world famous 'Rhondda' has gone with the loss of 41,000 miners who worked there in May of 1990. What do you do with a close knit hard working workforce, nothing it seems, for it was hard to imagine this granite like man becoming a checkout operator in some super store. New roads, the valley landscaped in places, investment, all these failed to stop the heart being ripped out of the valley. Its a good thing that the dust, smoke and grime has gone, but the comradeship! Never.

It seems possible that the Roman may have known of coal, those living in the thirteenth century certainly did. However, it was the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries that saw the mining of coal greatly increase, due mainly to the expansion of the iron and tinplate industries. By 1874 the annual production of coal had reached the staggering figure of nearly seventeen million tons in south Wales alone, and the population of the Rhondda valley had risen from 4,000 recorded in 1861 to its peak of 163,000 in 1921.

But where has the proceeds for this 'Black Gold' gone, why firstly into the pockets of the mine owners then after nationalisation into the coffers of the government via the National Coal Board. Yes eventually the miner saw working conditions improve underground, but at what cost, his health? what a price to pay. But I talk of the miner, but what of his wife. In those early days she too worked in the pit as did their children, yes even today there are a few remaining that remember their first days down the pit. From nappies to the pit face, some life.

After the second world war there were some 124,000 miners working in 135 pits, but because of the lack of investment in them the easily worked seams were becoming exhausted. Even in those mines where modern machinery could be used, it was rare to see any. Only 36 per cent of the coal was excavated by machine and only 64 per cent mechanically transported. Output was a mere 60 per cent of what it had been in 1880.

But for the miner and the collieries change was coming, the coal markets began to collapse as oil and gas began to replace the conventional coal fire. Commercial establishments too were beginning to change, by the pressing of a button oil fired boilers began to replace the heating in many a factory So is it any wonder that by 1975, there were only 33,000 miners left in the south Wales coalfield.

Then came the disastrous strike of 1984-85 which resulted in nothing but hardship and confrontation, and a prime Minister who relished the conflict, for she was determined to defeat the striking miners at all cost. Many broke away from National Union of Mineworkers, NUM, to form another union, thus creating division in the ranks which did not help. Many labour politicians too, rejected the miners call for support. So by the early 1990's there were less than a thousand miners left in the industry.

Someone once asked me what one virtue of the miner would I extol the most, dear visitor that is a simply question to answer! courage. Would you go to work each day knowing, that a simple spark from a pickaxe, or a mechanical digger would cause you to be blown to oblivion, or that a rock fall would cause you to be trapped the wrong side of the fall to face a slow death from starvation or by a lack of oxygen. No I have no hesitation in saying that miners everywhere have a distinct brand of courage.

I thank god for their courage, for they have kept me warm on many a cold night with their efforts in producing this nation's Black Gold

Graphics by Ole R.D. Copyright © 1999-2005
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