This article was first published in the December 2015 issue of BBC History Magazine
Sitting on the north-eastern edge of the south Wales coalfield – an area of about 1,000 square miles, stretching from Pontypool in Torfaen, to St Brides Bay in Pembrokeshire – the huge, red winding tower of Big Pit is an impressive and unmissable sight for visitors as they pull into the museum car park. Once the heart of mining operations at the site, its powerful engine still winds people up and down the 90-metre mineshaft, although these days the only passengers are visitors who have chosen to embark on a 50-minute guided tour of the former mine. The shrieks and groans of the winder – introduced in 1952 as a replacement for the steam-powered original – echo constantly across the site.
Those wishing to take the underground tour are provided with a hard hat, safety lamp, waist belt with battery, and a rebreather that can filter toxic air for an hour – just in case! As the elevator cage comes to a shuddering halt in the gloom below, tour groups are led through the cramped, dark and often damp tunnels, where hundreds of men once worked in gruelling conditions, cutting coal by hand and transporting it to the surface. The underground stables for the pit ponies who pulled heavy trams of coal, and rarely saw daylight, are
Emerging into the fresh air, visitors are free to roam the site, which has retained many of its original structures, among them blacksmiths’ buildings from the 1870s; a lamp room, where miners collected and returned their equipment; and a fan house, which provided essential oxygen into the mine, and removed or diluted unwanted gases, dust and fumes.
Elsewhere, a walk up to the former canteen (now a cafe), and then on to the viewpoint above, provides a stunning panorama of the site and the remnants of its industrial past.
Standing on the site of an earlier mine (Kearsley Pit), which was sunk in 1860, Big Pit is an amalgamation of several other mines, and came into being in 1880 when the existing 30-metre shaft was deepened to 90 metres. “Coal mining had been present in Blaenavon since the late 18th century, but by the time Big Pit opened, the British coal mining industry was experiencing an unprecedented boom,” says Ben Curtis, lecturer in modern Welsh history at Cardiff University. “The pit is named for the width of its shaft, which measures 5.5 metres at its widest point, and was big enough to wind two trams of coal side by side – the first of its kind in the area.”
And Big Pit continued to grow. By 1896, 528 men were employed at the site, producing gas, house and steam coal. By 1908, manpower at the pit had risen to 1,145.
“The south Wales coalfield is basin-shaped, with coal seams dipping from the rim to the centre,” says Curtis. “Big Pit sits at the edge
of this basin, where the coal is easier to reach, so its shaft is relatively shallow compared to more central sites like Deep Navigation Colliery near Merthyr Tydfil, which boasted a shaft of nearly 700 metres.”
By the early 20th century, in terms of size of workforce, coal had become the single biggest industry in Britain. That workforce expanded from 109,000 in 1830 to 1,095,000 in 1913.
“At this time, mining productivity in south Wales was something like 300 tonnes of coal per person, per year,” says Curtis. “That’s equivalent to one miner cutting around a tonne of coal every day, by hand. What’s more, colliers were paid according to how much they mined. The more you cut, the more money you were paid.”
Killed in ones and twos
Coal mining was one of the most dangerous industries in Britain throughout the period. “Most people tend to think of its dangers in terms of the terrible pit explosions,” says Curtis, who has been involved in a recent disability history project focusing on three British coalfields between 1780 and 1948. “However, these tragedies are not really representative of the whole spectrum of dangers. In fact, the total number of people killed in dramatic mining explosions is a tiny fraction of those killed in ones and twos by things like falling roofs.”
A permanent disability was far more likely than loss of life. Some 16.5 per cent of British coal miners were injured every year between 1910 and 1914. And by 1914, a miner was killed every six hours, and severely injured every two hours, in the British coal industry.
“One of the most common disabilities experienced by miners – and one that current and former mineworkers are still suffering, and dying, from – is pneumoconiosis, a lung disease caused by prolonged exposure to coal dust, which accumulates in the lungs”, says Curtis. “Eye-strain from poor light, inflammation of the joints from crawling and kneeling in cramped conditions were also common. But losing a limb wouldn’t necessarily put an end to a mining career – in the 19th and early 20th centuries, you could still potentially work underground, or transfer to a job on the colliery surface, such as sorting and sizing the coal.”
Pit explosions, when they did occur, could be horrific and deadly. Britain’s worst mining disaster took place at Universal Colliery, Senghenydd in October 1913, when an explosion ripped through its underground workings. The disaster is believed to have been caused by a build-up of methane – known as firedamp – which had been ignited by an electric spark from a piece of mining equipment.
Flammable gases were a common problem in coal mines; visitors to Big Pit are not permitted to take any electrical equipment into the mine for this very reason.) Some 439 miners and one rescuer were killed in the disaster, with rescue attempts continuing for three weeks after. Big Pit, too, had its share of accidents, including an underground fire in December 1908, which killed three people.
And it wasn’t only men who faced daily dangers. In the early days of the industry, women, and children as young as eight could be found toiling in darkness for up to 14 hours a day. But in 1842, following a Royal Commission report on working conditions for women and children in the mines, an act of parliament prohibited all underground work for women, and boys under 10. Women still worked at the colliery surfaces – albeit in small numbers – until the early 20th century.
Further mining legislation was passed in 1850, addressing safety with the introduction of coal mine inspectors, and raising the underground age limit for boys to 12.
“As well as new legislation, the 19th century also saw new mining technology gradually introduced to collieries,” says Curtis. “Improvements to machinery resulted in deeper shafts, as the technology enabled mines to be ventilated more efficiently and coal to be wound up the shaft quicker.”
But some of these developments, while improving productivity, introduced new dangers for miners. Electrical machinery in enclosed spaces could cause injury and dangerous sparks, while powerful coal-cutting machines introduced in the 1920s and 1930s increased the amount of coal dust being thrown up into the air. This in turn saw a surge in diseases like pneumoconiosis.
Power of the unions
Miners’ determination to improve their working conditions and wages led to a scattering of localised unions springing up across Britain’s mining communities.
In 1888, the Miners’ Federation of Great Britain (MFGB) was established in Newport and 10 years later the South Wales Miners’ Federation (SWMF) was formed, following the defeat of a strike by south Wales miners over pay scales, which had led to a six-month lockout of workers.
By 1914, there were over 234,000 miners in south Wales and the SWMF had become the largest affiliated union within the MFGB, the biggest union in Britain at that time. In 1899 it had joined the MFGB, followed by the Northumberland Miners’ Federation and the Durham Miners’ Federation in 1907 and 1908 respectively.
But despite a united front, from 1914 the industry went into decline. “The First World War greatly disrupted the south Wales collieries, which had relied on exporting their coal,” says Curtis. “Add to this the fact that many miners volunteered to fight, as well as the growth of coal industries in other parts of the world such as Germany, Poland and the US – not to mention an increase in the use of oil – and it’s not hard to see why the coal industry was soon in crisis.
“The 1920s and 1930s was a difficult period for the coal industry, characterised by a fall in output and prominent industry-wide strikes. In 1947, nationalisation of the coal industry seemed to many miners to offer the prospect of a brighter future. But by the 1960s, pits began to be measured by their productivity and smaller sites closed in favour of larger, more productive ‘superpits’. Workers started leaving the mines, concerned for the future of the industry.”
Decline and fall
Although the coal industry still employed around 700,000 mineworkers in Britain during the 1940s and 1950s – and even as late as the early to mid-1980s boasted a workforce of around 200,000 – the decline seemed irreversible.
In 1981, mining strikes looked likely after Margaret Thatcher’s conservative government proposed further pit closures. Thatcher backed down, but in 1984, the issue reared its head once more after it was announced that 20 pits were to close, with a loss of some 20,000 jobs. At its height, the strike involved 142,000 miners but, after a year-long stoppage, in March 1985 the National Union of Mineworkers was forced to bring the strike to an end. Pits closed rapidly over the following years and in 1994 the industry was privatised.
“Almost everything we think of as defining south Wales today has been shaped by the legacy of coal and the mining communities of south Wales – from the prominent position of Cardiff, Barry, Swansea and Newport as former coal exporting ports, to the historically strong support for the Labour party, to the popularity of rugby, and the traditional association with male voice choirs,” says Curtis. “It’s no exaggeration to say modern south Wales was built on coal – geologically and historically.”
British coalmining: five more places to explore
National Mining Museum Scotland, Newtongrange, Midlothian
Where mining history is on show
This four-acre site – located at the former Lady Victoria Colliery – captures the developments in mining over generations. Highlights include the most powerful steam winding engine in Scotland and an extensive collection of mining-related artefacts and equipment.
Woodhorn Museum, Ashington, Northumberland
Where you can view miners’ art
Woodhorn is sited in original colliery buildings, along with a new building, inspired by the huge coal-cutting machines once used underground. Displays paint a picture of life in this former mining community, which is also home to the Ashington Group Collection – a series of paintings by artists known as the ‘Pitmen Painters’.
Welsh National Mining Memorial, Senghenydd, Caerphilly
Where victims are remembered
This monument and memorial garden commemorates the explosion at Universal Colliery in Senghenydd in 1913 in which 439 miners died, as well as other Welsh mining disasters. About 17 miles away, in Six Bells, Blaenau Gwent, stands the Guardian, a massive statue that memorialises victims of the Six Bells disaster of 1960, the worst in post-1945 Welsh history.
Beamish Museum, Beamish, County Durham
Where mining life is recreated
This open-air ‘living history’ museum aims to give insight into life in the north-east of England in the 1820s, 1900s and 1940s. The 300-acre site boasts a former drift mine, mining village and a re-creation of an early 20th-century town.
National Coal Mining Museum for England, West Yorkshire
Where visitors can go underground
Based at the site of the former Caphouse Colliery at Overton, the museum offers guided underground tours where visitors can experience the conditions miners worked in and see the tools and machines they once used.
Historical advisor: Ben Curtis. Ben’s latest book is The South Wales Miners, 1964-1985 (University of Wales Press, 2013); Words: Charlotte Hodgman