Wales is a country with a rich tradition of song and rugby, a welcoming and open country where they keep the proverbial and cliched “welcome in the hillside” for all whom enter God’s Country. A small nation with self-deprecating humour and a knack for producing talented Number 10’s on the rugby field, a nation with a penchant for helping each other in the spirit of community. What is hidden from the world however tends to be its tragic past, a history of disaster and exasperating pain irrevocably linked to the industry of mining.
Choirs, Rugby and Mines. The weekday Miners whom played rugby on Saturday’s and sang in Church on Sundays. The traditional stereotypical and nostalgic view of Wales, a Wales that many may hanker for yet not necessarily a happy Wales. Mining was and is one of the most dangerous professions around and many a Miner has perished deep underground in the process of putting a mere meal on the family table. The arduous task that Miners faced has been unfortunately thrust back into national consciousness long after we thought those days were finished with the sudden and sad demise of the four Swansea Valley Miners in September 2011.
Garry Jenkins, Phillip Hill, David Powell and Charles Breslin were all tragically killed in the Gleision Colliery near Pontardawe in an event that has caused the South Welsh community to reflect on their own personal connections to such a traumatic history in the industry. It is believed that the four became trapped after the mine they were in was breached with water and blocking their route out. With it being 2011 and me myself being the 2nd Generation not involved in the mining industry on a mass scale, many were not expecting to find themselves embroiled in such a hopeless scenario where we all willed our local miners to survive against bleak odds. The waiting, the crying, the hoping, the praying, the denial and the grieving. This is something that happened to our Grandparents and Great-grandparents, not us we all thought collectively. Indeed, the only personal involvement I have is a school trip to the dreary and scary Big Pit museum when I was a child. With that in mind, it has compelled me once and for all to go beyond the mere “family of Miners” description to actually find out what life really was like for these men and what exactly their jobs entailed. After all, its a family history, The dangers; the laughs; the environment, the pain.
Mining first became prevalent during the 18th century with the advent of the Industrial Revolution and with advances in the production of machinery, the coalfields of South Wales began to have its coal extracted. This would only escalate as the rail network continued to be expanded, allowing the coal to be exported to all reaches of the British Empire and becoming an invaluable source of income to the rich. It was not known as the Black Gold for nothing and was responsible in part for making the 3rd Marquis of Bute the 3rd Richest Man in the Victorian World, with his base of Cardiff becoming the largest coal exporting port in the world. By 1920 there were 271,000 Welsh men working underground for rather meagre wages and in terrible conditions. Coal production and profit was the only concern of the mine owners as opposed to the hazardous conditions of those whom toiled away to create the wealth of the few at the top of society. If a miner died, there was a constant supply of others ready to take their place. Nearly every town and even village had its own underground colliery in the South Wales valleys and the mines were the obvious and in many cases only way to feed the family. By the Miners Strike of 1984 the industry was on its last legs and was all but finished, only a few Collieries remaining open such as the aforementioned tragic Gleision Colliery which was a small drift mine as opposed to the deep mines of earlier years.
Disaster wise, between 1851 and 1920 there were over 3,000 deaths down the mines over 48 individual events including the infamous 1913 explosion at the Senghenydd Colliery that claimed 439 lives and thus became the worst mining accident in British history. Equally, 45 men died at the Six Bells, Abertillery Colliery in 1960 and five years later 31 men died at the Cambrian Colliery. Perhaps the most famous and heart-wrenching disaster was the Aberfan incident on 21st October 1966. In actions that would ultimately prove catastrophic in its consequences, for 50 years prior to the disaster the deposits of mining debris from the Merthyr Vale Colliery were piled up on the side of the nearby Mynydd Merthyr. Ominously this mountain is directly above the small village of Aberfan which rests at the foot of its eastern face. Despite repeated warnings to the National Coal Board of the risks posed by such an artificial heap so close to a settlement being dismissed out of arrogant ignorance, the inevitable was destined to happen. Just after 9am on the Friday morning, moments after returning to their classes fresh from assembly, the waste tip slide down the mountainside and ploughed through a farm cottage before directly hitting Pantglas Junior School. 20 houses in the village were also engulfed by the slide and once the desperate rescue mission was finished it was discovered that 144 people had died in total, 116 of them Pantglas Schoolchildren.
All of these tragic deaths however neglect just how many men passed away not down the mine but because of the mine. Many men whom clawed away below the depths of the surface would suffer major respiratory problems in later life amongst other health issues, the working conditions appalling at best for generations of men. In recent years the consequences of decades working underground has become headline news with various respiratory failings of ill ex-miners becoming increasingly apparent. The coal dust in the tight and enclosed underground spaces has in many cases led to disabilitating conditions and even early death, including conditions such as Pneumoconiosis, Emphysema and Bronchitis. Knowing this, it makes me amazed how men like my grandfather Randall Davies and my great grandfather and namesake David Robert Edwards lived lives that included earning the proverbial bread and butter this way. This also meant that my own mother and auntie’s grew up in an environment where their father was putting his life literally on the line every day to feed them whilst my grandmother experienced the double-edged sword of being the daughter and husband of miners. Their story should be heard, just like every working man who experience such hellish moments.
Up until the conversation with my grandfather to get some insight into his life as a miner my involvement with his former industry as I explored earlier involved a childhood visit to the Big Pit. I vaguely remember two years ago driving in the vicinity of the Colliery-turned-museum and mentioned visiting it to my Grandfather who abruptly retorted “why would I want to visit that for, I spend half my bastard life down the mine!“. Sitting down with my grandfather to discuss his working life, what became evident that despite the bleak and difficult task he faced daily he looks back on that dangerous era with fondness of the camaraderie he shared with fellow miners. Indeed, most of the stories I will be unable to air on such a public forum due to the nature of life as a group of men’s men in the workplace.
Randall Davies left school at 14 years old and with times hard was expected to find gainful employment immediately to help support both himself and his family in the days before things such as benefits became prevalent. After initially wanting to become a fireman but losing interest after 6months, in June 1953 Randall entered the Collier industry by enrolling at the Caeduke Training Centre near Gorseinon. For 16 weeks he alternated between the training centre and Pontardawe Tec where he learned the industry before graduating to his first job at Y Daren drift mine near Trebanos. Around this time 30 men worked on the surface and underground where Randall worked a further 120 men were employed. Staying at the mine for 2 years Randall eventually left to the nearby small Cwmglyd mine by his childhood home of Ynysmeudwy. It was here that Randall recounted a story that brought him to almost tears of joy in remembering an occasion where he and other youthful workmates attempted to break an on-site record. He said “the record of drams being brought up from underground was 8, 8 was considered safe. I was 17 years old and went for 9. The drams ofcourse rolled away and back into the mine and pulled the place apart. Ruined it. The mine was closed for 3months because of the damage!”
With his position naturally untenable, Randall left the colliery and spent 9 months working in the Steelworks in Port Talbot before completing his 2 years National Service in the Armed Forces. After temporarily returning to the same colliery (“they forgave me because they always needed miners“) Randall then moved to London and specifically East Ham and Whitechapel in the East End whilst working for Dagenham Ford factory and the North Thames Gas Board during the height of the Kray twin’s reign. Returning home after 12months, much like other men of his ilk in South Wales there was no other realistic option other than returning down the mine. He spent 2 years working at Cwmgors Colliery and it was here he stated that he became a qualified collier although his time here was more memorable for an accident he suffered during one shift. “This guy I worked with, we used to always come across big rocks and used to throw them out of the way. One time he threw a rock towards me and it hit me on the arm and cut it deeply with a lot of blood. The usual doctor was an alcoholic and refused to come out to the house to treat me so another Doctor, Seth Jones from Brynaman, a good man, came out and stitched me up. He remained my Doctor from then on“. In 1964 Randall moved to the Wernos Colliery near Tycroes and stayed for a year until it closed in ’65. Recounting a memory he said “one time there was a fire. It happened overnight and we were the day shift. When we turned up it was decided that no one could go underground as it was too risky, except the mines rescue. The boss then decided that he wanted 20 miners to go down with the rescuers. I had a friend sitting with me at the table who said to me ‘fuck them, I’m not going it, its too dangerous, they can sack me if they want’. The boss then put everyone’s name into a hat and drew the first name out of the hat and surely enough it was my friend. Fair play to him though because he stood up and shouted to the manager ‘fuck off, I’m not going’. He never went down!”. When the Wernos closed shortly after Randall made the short transfer to the Ammanford Number 1 colliery and working here from 1965 until 1971 in secure employment. After taking a couple of years of much needed respite from the grinding work that was the life of a collier, Randall began another long stint at Cwmgwili Colliery where he worked from 1974 until 1981. With only a workforce of 379men around this time the colliery nevertheless produced high outputs of anthracite coal and would have been hard work meeting demands. Randall finally moved to his last place of work in 1981 to Abernant Colliery where rather than working underground he was employed at the Abernant Coal Preparation Plant, better known as a Washery. It was that his job was to “wash all the rocks and soil off the coal so that it could be sold. As the mine was closing they made me redundant just before the end in 1988, telling me to ‘piss off and leave before we shut the place’. They gave me a miners lamp as a retirement present and that was the end of my life on the mines“.
What did working down the mines actually entail however? With the amount of mines and collieries throughout the area ever increasing it was no surprise to note that there was a great rail transport link between the villages and it was through this method that the workers would make their way to their relative place of work. The uniform, Randall says, consisted off “big boots with thick overalls, and a helmet with a big lamp on the front. We also had another safety lamp on the belt which if it turned blue meant there was gas. If it turned blue, run like fuck! Although, it often turned blue all of the time anyway. It’s also true about the canaries, they were kept down some mines to detect gas. The tools we had were a pick and shovel, as well as the saw and hatchet. In the days before heavy machinery, my job was to stand at the coal face and using my pick and hatchet to scrape and break the coal off and then shovel it onto the conveyor belt behind me. Very physical work. The hatchet itself was always kept sharp because if the bosses noticed it wasn’t sharp you’d be in big trouble. Big trouble! Every moment of spare time underground would be spend sharpening the hatchet. What we’d have underground is our own section which was called a stint. We’d get off the underground tram and walk to the face where we’d be knackered before we’d even begin work. The typical stint would be about 12ft long and about 4ft to 8ft high so not much room to move around. We’d scrape and break the coal off using the tools and the conveyor would take it to the end of the coal face where the drams were filled up to be taken to the surface. That was it for the duration of the shift apart from when the belt stopped which signalled lunch“.
As was the norm during 20th Century South Wales and indeed before, with most men employed in the colliery it was not unusual for Randall to marry into a family of miners himself. His wife Muriel Edwards was the daughter and granddaughter of colliers and herself has recollections about men whom have long passed away. Her father David Robert Edwards was employed at the East Pit in Tairgwaith and one prominent memory of his daughter was the time he suffered an accident, unfortunately a common occurrence underground as evidenced by the appalling fatality rates. “I remember as a small girl one day a man came to the house with my father’s work clothes and left them all by the back door, where they were full of blood. A Tram had gone over his leg. He was in Morriston Hospital for a while, I think some weeks and I remember having to go visit him. After he recovered he then went to work at Abernant Colliery where he retired at 65“. David Robert, who was popularly known as Bob, was also the son of a miner and his dad John Edwards was also based at the Tairgwaith colliery, working in the Steer pit. Although only young when her grandfather was working Muriel also has a memories of John as a miner. Although their job wasn’t something that was discussed in the family home, Muriel says that “every day he used to walk from the house to the bottom of the Cefen (Cefnbrynbrain) where a train would take him to work in Tairgwaith. As he lived with us I also remember him coming home black from head to toe each day and having a bath in the tin bath that was in front of the coal fire. I was always amazed at how black the water would go and sometimes even helped wash his back. Another memory I have of my grandfather was that every friday he would get paid and would bring me and my sister Grace ice cream as a present. She would have vanilla and I would have a choc ice“.
When discussing the mines, arguably it is impossible to avoid the subject of the Miners strikes in 1984 as the episodes still remain a source of bitterness almost 30years later.
Working at Abernant Colliery at the time, Randall was in the middle of the strikes and happily recounts his involvement in the battle against Thatcher’s policies. The National Coal Board claimed that to increase profitability they had to force numerous job cuts across the nation and attempted to force miners into redundancy, something the powerful National Union of Mineworkers trade union disputed. In 1984 they savagely announced plans to cut around 20,000 jobs and would in turn ensure Wales amongst others would lose their primary source of employment. On 12 March 1984 president of the NUM Arthur Scargill announced there would be a national strike from all NUM members and the colliers subsequently downed tools and walked out.
Randall remembers the time well, something that shaped the end of his working life and no doubt accelerated the end of his life underground. “I was at Abernant when the strike happened and it was fully supported. Regardless of what those Nottingham bastards who didn’t strike claimed, there WAS a pre strike ballot and we voted the year before to give the NUM full control and decision making despite the claims to the contrary. The union voted to go on strike, so we followed with full support. Those who didn’t strike, the scabs, I won’t even look at them today. I won’t talk to them either. Even in the same village, they will always be scabs. There were many things that happened during the strike, which are funny now looking back but at the time were deadly serious. These scabs were taking the dinner off our tables. One time at the colliery a scab lorry pulled into the compound. It was brand new and still gleaming and began to stock up on coal. We couldn’t allow this to happen, as the coal leaving the colliery would weaken the strike. The driver began by saying he supported the strike and was on our side yet here he was trying to take the coal away. Before long his wagon was placed on the tracks and one of the trains rammed straight into it! There was hell of a mess on the wagon. It was destroyed. The driver was seen running up the road screaming ‘you welsh bastards!’. Another thing we used to do was ring the police unidentified every time a scab lorry turned up as they were never insured. 50yards down the road after leaving the collieries the driver would always be pulled over and arrested and it would be a small victory for us”
“Going to pickets also was a regular occurrence, showing solidarity on marches. One time we went to Port Talbot and there was a big roundabout in the centre, the middle of the roundabout full of dry grass. On this occasion the roundabout was set alight as part of the picket which didn’t please the police so they called in the fire service. The police by the way were animals, thugs in uniform. The firemen however refused to break the picket line and began arguing with the police. The fire in the meantime became so big that the smoke covered the motorway nearby and caused traffic to be halted for hours. A victory.”
One of the problems that the strikers face was the fact that as they weren’t working, money was scared and many already poor families slipped into poverty. The strike eventually failed in no small part to colliers needing to return to work to feed their children. As the housewife and with four teenage children to feed Muriel remembers the difficulty of those 12 months by describing them as “very hard and difficult to live through. The strike was for a year so during this time the club in Ystradowen used to supply food in a cardboard box which was all donated food that all the miners received. It only contained essentials like butter and sugar but this and help from my mother and neighbours was needed.”
Although those that broke the picket line, “scabs”, remain groups of people still capable of raising tempers 30 years later, Randall becomes agitated at memory of other people whom he still hates. During the strikes the NUM funded the striking miners with pay of £25 a week to keep them going. Dwindling funds after almost a year of striking again was another reason why the strike would eventually be defeated. Muriel luckily had another job in a local factory and therefore whilst her wage was by no means enough to live comfortably it was more than many other families had. As Randall states “some other men didn’t have any other income so what some of us did was donate the £25 pay to others to help them. We were all helping each other. However there were bad eggs who claimed strike pay whilst wives had jobs and they even worked elsewhere whilst supposedly striking. Bad eggs and who were as bad as the scabs“.
Randall’s last memory during our chat was a happy memory of good times gone by. Anyone whom has travelled through the Amman Valley from Ammanford to Ystradown is aware of the plethora of Miners Hall’s, each in differing states of dilapidation and usage. Randall mentions that each Friday on pay day (when they used to receive cash payment in a brown envelope from the office) part of the pay was taken by the management and put towards the Miners Hall’s. Randall himself contributed towards the building of Brynaman Miners Hall which today has been reinvented as the Cinema. Ofcourse, pay day often meant one main thing and that was the pub. “Work hard, Play hard” I mention to him and Randall simply responds with reminiscing smirk. My Dadcu…the Miner.
In memory of the four tragic Swansea Miners, if you want to donate you can do so at http://www.minersappealfund.org/