Wales - Mining and Industrialization

Mining in Wales has been around for several thousand years.

Copper Mining:  In 1987 a 3,500 year old copper mine was uncovered under a hillside in Great Orme, a headland on the north coast of Wales.  This copper mine is the largest prehistoric copper mine in the world.  It is believed that this was the major source of copper in Europe during the bronze age.  Combining this copper with tin from Cornwall produced Bronze, which was used for weapons, chariots, agricultural implements, and vessels during the Bronze age  (3000 BC – 1200 BC)

Gold Mining: Gold was mined in several locations in Wales starting as early as the Roman occupation. The largest were the Gwynfynedd and the Clogau Gold mines.  These mines have been closed for years.  Most gold was extracted between 1862 and 1911.  The Clogau-St David gold mine in Snowdonia closed in 1988, but recently a new vein has been discovered that may have 500,000 ounces of gold worth $973,280,000.  

Silver Mines: Llywernog Mine – The Silver Mountain Experience: Silver was mined in Wales, but not in a significant quantity.

Lead mining began during Roman times in North Wales.  The deposits were usually in upland areas near rivers.  There were many lead mines located in Cardiganshire and Montgomeryshire.  These were mined out by the 1960s.

Iron mining in Wales goes back to pre-Roman times, but it has never been a large-scale mining industry.  It was often a by-product of coal mining.  Iron was found north of the coalfield in South Wales.   It was very important during the Industrial Revolution.

Slate Quarries.  Slate was used for roofing and was another important industry.

Coal Mining: Some things just go together.  “Love and Marriage”, “Bread and Butter” “Apple Pie and Ice Cream”  and… WALES AND COAL!   The Industrial Revolution is accepted with the starting year of 1790.  As industry developed, the blast furnaces for the copper and iron industries demanded huge quantities of coal.  The existence of coal in Wales was known for centuries, but the amount and the area of coal production were not.  Then coal was discovered in the Rhondda Valley and exploration showed coal in almost every valley of South Wales.  This coalfield was one of the largest in the world and produced coal for many decades.  The last deep mine in Wales, the Tower Colliery closed in 2008.  There were two other large coalfields in Wales.  One in Flintshire, and one in Denbighshire in Northeast Wales, and a smaller deposit on the Isle of Anglesey.  

The Rhondda Valley coal was the most important because it was Anthracite.  It burned hotter than any other coal in the world.  Because of this, the steamships bought it, This extra heat also meant extra power and in the competitive shipping industry, faster meant more profit.

Cardiff was the major export port for coal and grew from a quiet village into a major city and became Wales’s capital city.  The coal industry made one family, the richest in the world at the time.  Almost all of the land in the South Wales Coalfield was owned by the Marquess of Bute.  As coal was found, he would sell off less profitable lands to acquire more working capital.  He built his coal industry into an empire.  

Unfortunately, the coal industry also brought death and poverty to South Wales.  Miner’s wages were not high.  Mine owners and operators cared little about worker safety or health.  Children as young as five years old were put to work in the mines.  Child labor was rampant.  Mine explosions were common.  The total amount of those killed in the mines is staggering.  in one year, 1933, the count was 769 deaths. 

When the mineworkers finally unionized, the death rate lowered.  Unionizing wasn’t easy.  It took many strikes to finally improve conditions.  Many miners had turned to Communism, and many attempting to unionize was labeled as “Red.”  

The workers often lived in company-owned houses, paying back part of their salary to their employers.  Most of these houses (huts) were substandard and very small.  In one mining town, the house was 7′ by 10′!  I can’t imagine living by myself in that small area, let alone raising a family there.

The government did little to help the situation.  Eventually, some very tragic events happened to make the government, the public and the press aware of conditions.  A full list is available at welsh mining disasters, accidents, and death lists. (welshcoalmines.co.uk)

One that affected everyone in Britain who viewed the result of the disaster on TV is one of horror and dismay.  This is the Aberfan disaster of 1966. Almost a century before, the Merthyr Vale Colliery opened.  As coal is dug from a mine, there is a considerable amount of rock and dirt that are removed from the mine to obtain the coal.  This debris is placed on a pile called a coal tipple or coal tip.  The tipples above the town of Aberfan was on a mountainside and overlaid a natural spring.  Heavy rain led up to a water build-up in the tip and it suddenly slid downhill as slurry (an avalanche of dirt and rock).  There were seven tips on the slopes above Aberfan.  The one that slid was 111 feet high, This was higher than permitted by the National Coal Board.  Building a tip over water spring was also prohibited.  Inquiries laid the blame on the NCB, but it was not fined and no one was prosecuted. 

In 1966, I was living in Bedford, England, and watched with the rest of Britain in shock at the result of man’s greed and lack of concern for human life.  When the tip slid down the mountain without warning, it buried Pantglas Junior school, killing 116 children and 28 adults.  As I recall those moments when I watched the parents digging their children out of the rubble, tears still come to my eyes!  It took a week to recover all the bodies.

The prime minister, Harold Wilson arrived that evening to help and console the families.  Lord Snowden was the only member of the Royal Family to rush to Aberfan.  Queen Elizabeth was criticized.  Many people felt that she should have been there also.  She did arrive eight days later.  She felt that the emphasis should be on the families and their loss, not on the Queen’s presence.  I think she made the right decision.

During and in the century preceding the Industrial Revolution, many inventions came from Britain that affected the world.  Examples are the flying shuttle, the spinning jenny, and the power loom.  Others were the steam engine, the locomotive, the telegraph, dynamite, photography, and the typewriter (Wikipedia)

They were all important to the world.  Probably the most significant would the locomotive.  Trains opened up the world.  Hundreds of thousands of miles of railroad track were laid across, Europe, Asia, Africa, and the Americas.  In the United States, the locomotive opened the West even more than the wagon train.