Up until the C19th, the valleys of
Glamorgan were noted for the pastoral beauty of their
landscape. With the arrival of the mining industry,
however, such scene of idyllic tranquility soon became
a thing of the past. Large-scale exploitation brought
in its wake not only the destruction of the rural way
of life but also a new industrial society previously
unknown to the tiny valley communities.
During its short history, the exploitation
and extraction of mineral wealth from the coalfields
became a vital factor in the continuing prosperity of
the nation. However, such systematic plunder was not
without cost and a seemingly endless legacy of violent
death was the price paid for industrial progress. The
men who toiled in the bowels of the earth accepted that
their lives were not only governed but could also be
cut short by the hazardous nature of their work. With
the rise in demand for coal, however, risks became greater
and the price in terms of human life ever more costly.
It is a sad fact and a damning indictment of the times
that while a few reaped immense wealth, the majority
lived in conditions of wretched poverty.
Irrefutably, many of the mining accidents
happened as a result of a disregard of the safety rules
by miners. However, it should also be taken into account
that the conditions, which existed in the C19th often,
forced workers to take unnecessary risks to secure even
the most meagre living standard. In comparison, the
owners' unceasing greed forever greater profits were
guilty of gross indifference both to aspects of safety
and the general welfare of their employees.
Against such a background, it is
hardly surprising that the history of coal in the Rhondda
is littered with the deaths of unseen generations. Only
too often sons followed fathers to their graves in the
disasters that swept through the coalfield with grim
regularity. It was only the passing of the coal era
that put an end to the legacy of death.
With such a rapid growth in the coal industry, it was
inevitable that the coal owners accumulated great wealth.
These men, amongst the richest in the country were,
with few exceptions, hard task masters. They often looked
upon their workers as objects rather than human beings,
and it was generally their belief that the men were
responsible for the explosions underground which occurred
with terrifying regularity throughout the coalfield.
The owners believed that smoking underground was the
major cause of accidents and prosecuted any miner found
infringing the regulations, but they were themselves
powerful enough to evade those few cases laid against
them for compensating accident victims.
For those who travel through the Rhondda Valleys today
it is perhaps hard to imagine that the steep sides mountain
were once clothed in luxurious forests. Now devoid of
trees, apart from those planted by the Forestry Commission,
the hillside appears lifeless and barren.
For generations the name Rhondda has been synonymous
with grimy collieries and monotonous rows of terraced
housing that were overshadowed by spoil heaps. Yet only
150 years or so ago the Rhondda Valleys were a sleepy
rural area with a population of less than 2,000 and
were known for their natural beauty.
Henry Gastineau, in his painting of 1805, shows in some
detail the quiet, picturesque scenes that were so much
of the landscape before the advent of mining.
In 1850 the noted Victorian topographer Charles Cliffe
The Valley stretched for a
distance of eight or ten miles between two nearly
parallel cliffs of singular beauty....The emerald
greenness of the meadows in the valley below
was most refreshing....The air is aromatic with
the wild flowers and mountain plants. A Sabbath
stillness reigns, it is the gem of Glamorganshire.
The advent of the Industrial Revolution
saw the creation for an insatiable demand for unlimited
power. Steam was the power and the fuel to supply it
was coal. Within little more than 100 years over three
thousand million tons of fossilised fuel had been mined
in the South Wales coalfield.
By the late 1850's industrialisation
had arrived in the Rhondda Valleys. During their tour
through South Wales the travellers S.C. and A.M. Hall
record in their journal, published in 1861 as The Book
of South Wales:
The vale of the Rhondda is even more
beautiful than that of the Taff, being, at all events,
more wild and grand, and bearing a general resemblance
to the Wye, in the cliffs, clothed with lichens and
evergreen shrubs, between which it runs... Occasionally,
as the reader will suppose in such a district, the picturesque
is impaired somewhat by smoke from huge chimneys, and
debris from mines... Yet the valley is charming in spite
of all that has been done to mar its beauty.
Yet in less than a generation such
singular beauty had been lost for ever. In his book
entitled Glamorgan, the historian Arthur Morris recorded:
The river Rhondda is a dark,
turgid, and contaminated gutter, into which
is poured the refuse of the host collieries
which skirt thirteen miles of its course. The
hills have been stripped of their woodland beauty,
and they stand rugged and bare, with immense
rubbish heaps covering their surface. The whole
valley has become transformed, the din of steam
engines, the whirr of machinery, the grating
sound of coal screen, and the hammering of smithies
proceed increasingly night and day, year in
An unheard of wealth of industry
and great populous has simultaneously sprung up together
during the past sixty years. The industrial townships
of the valley appear to be inseparably connected in
one continuous series of streets of workmen's cottages
to Pontypridd. Above the Vales of Dowlais, Neath and
Taff, over to the Rhondda Valley and the towns of Merthyr
and Aberdare, hangs a perpetual smoke cloud from the
vast furnaces which are always smelting iron and steel
from the neighbouring coalfields. There is nothing picturesque
about this region to keep us lingering in the blackened
valleys of the district.
So extensive did the exploitation become that eventually
in excess of 400 collieries had raised coal from the
valleys which now make up much of the county of Mid
Glamorgan. Statistics show the distribution of working
Taff Ely Valleys
Merthyr Tydfil area
Such figures stand as testament to
an era of immense social and industrial change - an
era brought about by those who pioneered the mineral
wealth of the Rhondda Valleys and the rest of Glamorgan.
From the outset, a sharp division existed between 'master'
and 'workman'. While the former lived in splendid luxury,
the worker existed on the margin of poverty. The owners
openly expressed their belief that if kept on low wages
the miner would work harder to supply his family's needs.
If paid high wages, they claimed, the men became lax
in their habits and squandered their money on drink.
When workers began joining the newly formed trade unions
their employers countered with threats of the sack.
To endorse this they began issuing unfavourable discharge
notes to those who spoke out against poor working conditions.
To obtain work at any pit in the South Wales coalfield,
a collier had to produce a discharge note from his previous
employer stating that he was an industrious and trustworthy
person. It follows that any miner sacked and given no
such note would be unable to find work in another pit.
In 1873, leading magnates of the industry formed the
Coal Owners Association. It provided a powerful voice
in dealing with demands for better working conditions
or higher rates of pay. It was to become notorious for
its sliding wage scale which protected coal owners from
any loss of profits from depressed world prices. To
ensure that profit margins were kept high, miner's wages
were lowered whenever a fall in the demand for coal
occurred. Inevitably, such a system lead to a great
deal of bitterness amongst the workers and it is not
surprising that the miners opposed the introduction
of any new work patterns, such a double shift system
which was common practice in may other areas.
By the turn of the century, new forces
began to appear in the coalfields. Many of the coal
owners united into large companies which came to be
known as the 'combines'. The Cambrian Combine, owned
by Lord Rhondda, employed almost 7,000 men in its collieries.
Despite being amongst the most prolific in the country,
the Rhondda pits proved to be extremely difficult to
mine. The deep seams which provided the highly prized
steam coals were both gaseous and fiery, and consequently
work was hard and always fraught with danger. All too
often explosions, roof falls and other everyday accidents
resulted in crippling injuries or death. Industrial
diseases like pneumoconiosis caused near suffocation
and almost inevitably proved fatal. A further hazard
was from nystagmus, an eye disorder contracted through
working in low light levels. This condition caused not
only blindness but could, when untreated, cause insanity.
Other common ailments suffered by miners were ruptures,
rheumatism and blood poisoning. On average, during the
46 years prior to World War I (1868 - 1914), 1 miner
was killed every 6 hours, with a further 12 being seriously
In the year 1892, it was estimated that the ratio between
fatal and non-fatal accidents was one hundred to one.
Inevitably, mine owners did not keep records and thus
such a ratio must be thought of as an extremely conservative
one. An indication as to the size of the problem perhaps
can best be shown from the medical records of a valley
General Practitioner who treated over 500 serious injuries
in a year, 460 of those being directly attributable
to a mining accident.
The causes of death underground were
many and varied but about 50% of the fatalities recorded
were as a result of roof falls. Explosions, though more
dramatic, accounted for less than 17% of all underground
deaths. Too often deaths were the result of negligence
in the form of unguarded shafts and crevices and the
parting of faulting winding ropes. Boiler and machinery
explosions, falling debris and crushing by drams and
moving machinery in a further 27% of all recorded deaths.
Analysis of these figures show that some 60% of the
victims were killed before reaching the age of 30, and
80% died by the time they were 40.
Living conditions were, by any standards, appalling.
The hastily erected terraced dwellings, which house
the rapidly growing population soon, became hopelessly
overcrowded. The two and three room cottages were often
home to several families, with 10 or more people sharing
a room. In addition, sanitation, where it existed, was
at best elementary, often with one lavatory serving
the needs of an entire row of houses. Inevitably, such
living condition coupled with an inadequate diet and
absence of proper medical care, resulted in poor standards
of health throughout the whole community. Water supplies
were often obtained from a nearby well or stream and
with the expanding population these soon became fouled
by overflow from the communal cesspit.
Although significant improvements in living condition
began to appear in the latter part of the C19th, a report
by the Medical Officer of Health placed before the Rhondda
Urban District Council in 1893, showed that unsanitary
conditions still constituted a major health hazard:
The river contained a large
proportion of human excrement, stable and pig
sty manure, congealed blood, the offal and entrails
from the slaughter houses, the rotten carcasses
of animals... street refuse and a host of other
articles...in dry weather the stench becomes
Throughout the early years of the
C20th, better facilities in the form of piped water
and improved sewage disposal saw a marked decrease in
the illnesses that had ravaged the valley communities.
The rapid growth of the Glamorgan coalfield brought
untold misery to thousands whose living depended upon
it. Yet almost as harmful were the effects of strikes
and lockouts which occurred with alarming regularity.
During the early part of the C20th., welfare did not
exist so that any prolonged period of unemployment resulted
in real hardship. Often during these times the necessities
were usually only obtainable on credit, which was repayable
once back at work. After a prolonged period of unemployment,
miners were often forced to obtain further credit to
pay off the original debt. Thus, whole communities were
caught in a never-ending spiral of debt.
The 1920s saw a new era of bitterness
arise between miner and coal owner. Following the war
which saw the nationalisation of the coal industry,
mines were returned to the owners. Employers immediately
set about lowering wages, arguing that the Government
had been too generous. To enforce the new wage levels
miners were given an ultimatum - either new scales of
pay were accepted or offers of employment
would be withdrawn. Risking confrontation, the miners
refused to accept the deal and the owners resorted to
a lock out throughout the coalfields of Britain. At
a stroke, over 1 million miners were out of work.
The dispute lasted for 3 months and
ended with a humiliating defeat for the miners who were
forced to return to work and accept the reduced wage
scale. Over the following years a small measure of prosperity
returned to the Rhondda Valleys as coal production gradually
increased to meet the demands of a post-war economy.
Soon however, the owners who also demanded an extra
hour's work a day again proposed pay cuts. Such actions,
they maintained were necessary to protect dwindling
profits. Again, a bitter dispute arose which resulted
in the pit gates being closed for a second time. The
recently formed Trades Union Congress who called for
a national strike promised support for the miners. But
within a few days, such support vanished and the miners
were left to face the consequences of their actions
alone. Despite this betrayal, the mineworkers remained
steadfast and refused to return to work. With hardly
enough money for even the most basic necessities, they
were forced to accept charity in the form of food and
clothing parcels. The onset of winter compounded the
hardship, especially as fuel was in short supply. By
the end of the year, even the most resolute of men were
forced back to work and 1926 was imprinted on the minds
of a whole generation.
Slowly life returned to some sort
of normality, although poverty remained widespread.
To outsiders who visited the mining communities it was
a source of amazement that people who for so long had
gone without the simplest necessities, would not ask
for, or indeed accept, outside help. H.V. Morton in
his book In Search of Wales related a tale told him
by an old collier:-
Some of the worst cases of
hardship I've known have been in home where
the father was trying to keep six kids on £2/5/-
a week and was too proud to accept help from
anyone...When you're on a shift you fall out
for 20 minutes and eat bread and butter, or
bread and cheese which the wife puts in your
food tin...One day we were sitting like this
talking when Bill didn't answer...He'd fainted.
So I lifted him and carried him to the pit bottom
to send him home, but before I did I gathered
up his food tin. There wasn't a crumb in it!
There hadn't been a crumb in it for days! He'd
been sitting there in the dark pretending to
eat, pretending to me, his pal. Now that's pride!
It was later discovered that during the previous week
the miner had to buy shoes and clothes for his children.
Out of his meagre wages, very little was left with which
to buy food and the rations he had were given to his
children. He and his wife had gone without for days.
Such were the conditions of the time.
The outbreak of the Second World
War (1939) saw some improvements in the fortunes of
miners, and by 1947 the coming of nationalisation brought
the promise of a new era of prosperity. Such optimism
was sadly never realised. Within a few short years,
pit closures began to spread through out the coalfields.
During the 1960s there was a rise in militancy amongst
miners. Throughout November 1971, a rash of unofficial
strikes over pay disputes caused great unrest in the
Welsh coalfields. This industrial action brought matters
to a head and a strike was called on 9th. January 1972.
The national strike, the first since 1926, resulted
in the whole of the South Wales coalfield being brought
to a standstill. It was to be almost 2 months before
coal was again raised but the dispute, which had a devastating
effect on the British economy, saw the miners returning
to work as victors. To some, it was a vindication of
their fathers and grandfathers who suffered such a humiliating
defeat 46 years earlier. The strike had shown that despite
the increased use of oil and nuclear fuel as alternative
energy sources, the nation's prosperity still depended
upon coal. This knowledge won a temporary reprieve for
those pits earmarked for closure and underlined the
miners industrial might. Further unrest 2 years later
saw the union locked in a dispute which ultimately brought
down the Heath Government.
However, by the end of the decade
the tide began to turn with the National Coal Board
(N.C.B.) again sanctioning further cute. Seeing confrontation
as the only means to halt what they regarded as the
destruction of an industry, the miners once more resorted
to industrial action. The strike of 1984 resulted in
one of the longest and most acrimonious disputes ever
to affect the mining industry. In its wake came the
inevitable hardship and distress which for many people
rekindled memories of 1926. Locked in a battle with
the intransigent Thatcher Government the miners were
beaten. After a struggle which lasted over 11 months
and which eventually saw a split in their ranks, the
miners finally surrendered and went back to work. Soon
after the N.C.B. implemented a plan of relentless pit
closures which saw the spectre of unemployment hang
menacingly over the valley communities. Even in decline
it seemed, coal still bought despair to those who lived
and worked in its shadow.