A MINING COMMUNITY IN
THE TWENTIETH CENTURY
A SNAPSHOT PHOTOGRAPH
During February 1837 at the Ynyscedwyn Iron Works, Ystalyfera the process by which anthracite could be used for the smelting of iron was successfully applied. The credit for this revolutionary step at Ynyscedwyn goes to two people, Mr George Crane and Mr David Thomas. The latter was to become the leading figure in the development of the coal and iron industry in Pennsylvania, USA.
This industrial discovery led to an increase in the demand for anthracite coal, with which the Amman valley was well blessed or cursed, depending on whether you owned or worked the coal. The little agricultural valley, nestling shyly between the Betws and Black Mountains, soon became an important anthracite mining area, and its soil, too poor for productive farming, quickly became more vaued for what lay under its surface. The boom in the demand for anthracite coal, along with the development of the tinplate, chemical and complementary industries, in their turn laid the foundation for the future prosperity of the new community. It soon became clear that a railway system was needed for all this industry and this was supplied by the Llanelly Dock Railway Company who extended their line to Pantyffynnon in 1840 reaching the Amman Valley as far as Brynamman by 1842. An increase in the demand for anthracite coal came also from the continent Germany and France in particular providing a secure market. Soon a full complement of social, religious and cultural structures were thrown up by these mere economic forces what we otherwise call life, in all its fullness and diversity.
This development in the coal industry of the Amman Valley resulted in the demand for human labour that was not available within the community, and could only be provided by immigration into the valley. As the isolated nature of the valley could not attract immigrants from the distant eastern valleys, the anthracite area depended upon an influx of labour for the new mining workforce from the nearby farming countryside of Pembroke, Cardigan and Carmarthenshire, along with North Wales quarrymen seeking higher wages and security for their families.
These people brought with them their traditions and customs, their religion, their culture and, most important of all, their Welsh language that the Amman Valley has maintained to a high degree to this day. In the 1971 census it was recorded that 80 percent of the valley population was Welsh speaking.
Welsh Speaking Population in 1971 Percent Numbers Ammanford Urban District Council 73.9 5,610 Cwmamman Urban District Council 89.1 3,810 Betws Parish Council 78.5 955 Llandybie parish Council 83.9 7,335
This strong language tie, along with the close inter-relationship that existed between families and neighbours, was an important factor in the outlook and unity that prevailed within this community when faced with the problems and poverty of the twenties and thirties.
The Mining Industry in the Amman Valley
Anthracite coal was once the life-blood of the valley. In 1913 there were around one hundred separate collieries in the south Wales anthracite coalfield. Many of these collieries were small slant mines which had very little influence over prices or wages. Some amalgamation did take place during the next decade, and by 1924 two large-scale companies, the Amalgamated Anthracite Collieries Ltd (AAC) and the United Anthracite Collieries (UAC), were established. Both companies were formed with the intention of uniting the anthracite mines, but this was not possible as long as both companies existed as separate trading entities. Therefore, in 1928, these two principal companies merged to form the Amalgamated Anthracite Collieries Ltd (AAC). This new company now controlled about 80 percent of coal production within the anthracite area. A short reminder of the activities of these companies before amalgamation is therefore of interest.
During 1923 the AAC Ltd. purchased a portion of the Cleaves Gurnos Company for £1,470,717. The AAC Ltd. then sold their interest to Weymouth Syndicates for £1,576,717. Within a week the AAC Ltd. repurchased the whole company for £1,768.717. The "Stock Exchange Gazette" at that period reported that the AAC Ltd. had profited by some £200,000 to £300,00 by this "double" dealing. The leading figure in this was Sir Alfred Mond, later to become Lord Melchett. Not a penny of this ill-gotten gain was invested in the industry or paid in dividends to the shareholders. The investors and the workers were thus impoverished by this drain of capital to the benefit of these capitalist gamblers, which instead went straight into the directors' pockets.
These changes in the pattern of mine ownership, along with the changes that this situation introduced into the field of industrial relations, presented the miners with new problems of management practices that were alien to the anthracite coalfield with its long established customs and practices. Disputes had occurred in the past but in relation to the Eastern coalfield the anthracite district had been comparatively peaceful.
The coming of the UAC Ltd. presented the Anthracite District with a challenge they could not afford to ignore. As profit was the main aim of the UAC Ltd., the only way to attain maximum profitability was by increased exploitation of the work force, which again could only be attained by an attack upon long standing customs and practices within the mining industry in the valley. The reply of the miners' union to the policy of the UAC Ltd. was to organise an Anthracite District Combine Committee which was formed during 1923 and included all the UAC Ltd. mining union lodges (i.e. branches) within the area. This presented a united front of anthracite lodges to confront any attacks upon living standards planned by the UAC Ltd. The Emlyn Colliery, Penygroes was still in private hands, owned by Aeron Thomas & Sons, and at the request of the Emlyn Lodge it was agreed that this lodge be affiliated to the Combine Committee thus establishing a total anthracite miners' solid front to face come what may.
The period between 1923 and 1925 was relatively peaceful. There was an occasional go-slow or short strike of a day or so at an individual pit, but no real issue around which a call for united action could be justified, or demanded, arose.
1925 - The Anthracite Strike and the 'Battle of Ammanford'
Then, during 1925, the UAC Ltd. created a situation at Ammanford No 1 Colliery by challenging the rights of the important custom of seniority rule, which protected the workmen from victimisation from management.. This rule, the "last in, first out" principle, ensured that whenever there were redundancies the owners couldn't use that as an excuse to lay off union activists. All men were protected by their date of employment at the pit with those most recently employed the first to be laid off. The problem arose at Ammanford No 1 when management refused to acknowledge and implement the seniority rule. The Ammanford No 1 lodge decided to strike over this issue. Within a short time the whole of the Swansea District Anthracite miners, including Emlyn Colliery, Penygroes, were on strike. There followed a period of riotous and bloody confrontation between the miners picketing the collieries and the police, most of who had been imported from outside the valley to protect the men still at work and the company's property.
Finally, one evening, groups of workmen visited each pit in the Amman and other valleys and, after some troubles, cleared the men out of every pit in the Swansea District. The worst riot took place at Ammanford No 1, on Pontamman bridge, between police and strikers where many were injured on both sides. This situation resulted in a high number of local people being committed to trial at Swansea and Cardiff Assizes for unlawful and riotous assembly with 58 miners being imprisoned. The AAC Ltd. gave up the struggle after this and recognised the seniority rule within the Anthracite District. The miners had won the struggle but they lost Ammanford No 1, for this pit was closed by the UAC Ltd. for good in reprisal. However, as all the men from Ammanford No 1 were relocated to other nearby collieries this must be seen as a victory.
An uneasy peace existed in the valley until 1926 when the General Strike brought the whole valley into industrial dispute and found the anthracite miners still loyal and solid in the struggle for the miners' cause and the future of the community. After the retreat of the TUC after only 9 days of the General Strike, and the long, seven month struggle of the miners afterwards, there was a return to work under the harsh conditions of longer hours of work for lower wages. This despite that the Miners' union had adopted the slogan during the General Strike "Not a penny off the pay, not a second off the day". The Amman Valley was to face the darkest hours of its history. The year 1927 witnessed the closure of pits along the whole valley, from Brynamman to Caebryn and Tirydail collieries. The period between 1928 and 1930 witnessed the closure of practically every pit within the valley and some were closed for good.
This situation prevailed throughout the Anthracite District. The few at work suffered long working hours, low wages and short-time working. The mass unemployed suffered the degradation of poverty. One particularly nasty twist given to this poverty was the "Not genuine in seeking employment" clause in the Unemployment Benefit Act. Another was the large number of short-time workers given work for only two or three days a week. After this was the "Three within six" clause that demanded that the unemployed person must be unemployed for any three days within six to qualify for benefit. As the working week for miners began on Monday and the calculating days for benefits at the Labour Exchange commenced on Wednesday, this caused quite a problem for people on short-time working, and could mean the loss of substantial benefit. Both these clauses meant an additional hardship to the worker's family. This period, without doubt, was the beginning of the end of the anthracite coal producing era within the valley.
With the coming of the Thirties there was a slight recovery in the anthracite coal industry. This recovery protected the Amman Valley to some degree from the ravages of the depression suffered by the communities within the eastern region of the coalfield. The official government unemployment figures show the true horrors of the depression in the Rhondda Valleys compared to the Amman valley and nationally.
Area 1923 1924 1925 1926 1927 1928 1929 1930 Amman Valley 0.06 3.3 8.6 - 33.0 27.7 14.0 14.2 Rhondda Valleys 1.2 4.4 20.1 - 34.2 29.5 25.0 36.4 National Average 2.1 6.9 21.0 - 30.3 31.8 21.9 26.6
NOTE: The unemployed figures for 1926 cannot be calculated as miners throughout Britain were on strike for seven months during the general Strike.
Another feature of the Amman Valley during his period of depression is the fact that, in spite of the hardships, there was no loss in the population between 1921 and 1931, while the Rhondda lost 22 percent in the same period. Population in the Amman Valley increased every decade from 1851 to 1931. But after the explosive growth between 1901 and 1911 (Ammanford alone grew from 3,508 to 6,074 in this decade) the influx of people into the Amman Valley coalfield slowed down somewhat but still kept growing for about twenty years or so. Until the depression of the 1930s, that is, when the population figures started to flatten out before entering an actual decline as people began to leave the area in search of work, a trend that has only been reversed in the last twenty years or so.
The case that the anthracite district was in a more favourable situation than the other coal mining areas in Wales, can be shown by the immigration into the Amman and Neath valleys. Over one thousand workmen migrated into each of these localities during the depression years. Also, although both the Amman and Neath valleys were anthracite coal producing areas, the Amman Valley was never designated a depression area by the Government, though Neath was. The population movement of the Amman Valley and District is best demonstrated by the censuus returns for the past hundred years:
Census Year Population of Amman Valley and District Population change over previous decade (%) 1861 4,395 n/a 1871 4,636 + 5 1881 5,349 + 12 1891 6,805 + 27 1901 10,185 + 50 1911 18,584 + 82 1921 21,325 + 15 1931 22,313 + 5 1951 20,424 - 8 1961 19,412 - 5 1971 18,325 - 6 Note: These figures are for Llandybie Parish, Ammanford Urban District Council, Betws Parish and Cwmaman Urban District Council. There was no census in 1941 due to the war.
The rise and fall of the Amman Valley as the queen of the anthracite area can be seen in the records of the mining manpower during a crucial period in the anthracite coal industry.
The manpower in the anthracite industry in the Amman Valley from 1911 was -
Year Manpower 1911 8,060 1921 9,300 1931 8,540 1941 4,580
When the post-war Labour Government nationalised the mining industry in 1947, creating the National Coal Board (NCB), great hopes were held for the democratisation and accountability of the industry, now, in theory at least, owned by the people of the country. In the process the regional mining unions were all merged into one union for the entire industry and renamed the National Union of Mineworkers the NUM.
But suspicions were aroused from the very beginning when many of the former mineowners were installed as managers of the newly nationalised collieries, merely transferring their roles, status and attitudes, from private sector bosses to public sector ones instead. The old pre-war mineowners thus made their fortunes three times over. Firstly, during the war, they made vast profits providing coal for the war effort and industry, still a steam driven, coal fuelled world. Secondly, on nationalisation, they received compensation at full market prices for often completely depleted mines that had to be closed immediately after nationalisation. And thirdly, they were often kept on as managers at their old pits.
The hoped-for role of the NUM in an equal partnership with management and workforce, both at pit level and in developing a national strategy for the industry, came to nothing. Indeed, the newly elected Labour Government often saw the role of the mining unions as solely to hold back the workforce from any industrial action over wages, conditions and pit closures. The leadership of the mining unions, at pit and national level, all too often proved agreeable to their wishes.
And increasingly it was the government who dictated national energy strategy, and not the much-heralded 'partnership'. The consequences of this somewhat one-sided arrangement was soon to be seen in the waves of pit closures that started in the fifties and soon grew into seismic proportions throughout the sixties. Wages too were badly hit during this period and the national miners' strikes of 1972, 1974 and 1984/85 merely brought all that was simmering within the mining industry to boiling temperature.
Perhaps a glimpse of the tensions that existed between unions and pit management, as well as between the union leadership and its rank and file members, can be seen in the development of the NUM in the western valleys after nationalisation. No doubt such developments as these were repeated in mining valleys and districts throughout the rest of the British coalfields. The old pre-war union organisation in the area, a joint combine of union lodges of all the mines within the Anthracite District, had developed, out of necessity, to combat attacks from the newly created combines of mine owners. This structure, far from being abandoned with nationalisation, had to be revived within three years of the mining industry allegedly passing into the hands of the 'Nation'.
And it had to be revived perhaps resurrected would be a better word for the return to life of what had been thought of as dead and buried for the very same reasons that it had been created in the first place as a defence against an aggressive employer who cared little, if anything, for the needs of those whom it employed.
The scale and speed of the local pit closure programme after nationalisation in 1947 can be seen from the following table.
Colliery Date of Closure Approximate manpower before closure Maerdy, Tairgwaith 1948 300 Glanamman 1949 150 Saron 1956 250 Brynhenllys * 1956 350 Gelli Ceidrim 1957 350 Llandybie 1958 350 Blaenhirwaun * 1959 450 Cwmllynfell 1959 350 Steer Pit, Tairgwaith 1959 400 Mount (Butchers) 1959 200 Great Mountain * 1961 800 East Pit, Tairgwaith 1962 700 Cross Hands * 1962 400 Cwmgors 1963 550 Wernos 1966 600 Pantyffynnon 1969 600 Total manpower 1948 1969 6800 Note: Collieries marked * are strictly speaking outside the Ammanford and Amman valley area but provided employment for a considerable number of men in the area.
By the 1980s, the only nationalised mines left in the area after this butchery there can be no other word for it were the following:
Colliery Total manpower
(industrial grades only)
Abernant Colliery and Washery 1094 Ammanford Colliery 400 Cwmgwili Colliery 377 Cynheidre Colliery and Washery 893 Note: Ammanford colliery was redeveloped and renamed Betws in 1976. After being privatised in 1993 it was closed for good in June 2003, the last deep mine in the Amman Valley.
The general decline after nationalisation can be seen for South Wales as a whole:
Year No of Collieries Manpower Output (tonnes) 1949 194 106,000 24,209,000 1959 141 93,000 21,192,000 1969 55 40,000 12,788,000 1979 37 26,500 8,046,000 Source: NCB, South Wales Area, (quoted in 'The Fed: A History of the South Wales Miners in the Twentieth Century', Hywel Francis and Dai Smith, University of Wales Press, Cardiff, 1998
BRITAIN'S COAL INDUSTRY IN 2005
By the end of 2005 there were just 8 deep mines in production in the UK, producing about 10 million tonnes of coal a year. Of these 7 were owned by one company UK Coal Plc., who were handed the entire coal mining industry in England on privatisation in 1993 or what was left of it. The 8 pits were:
MAJOR BRITISH DEEP MINES AT THE END OF 2004 UK COAL PLC OWNED DEEP MINES Mine Manpower
Thoresby, Edwinstowe, Notts 476 1.5 Welbeck, Nr Mansfield, Notts 504 1.5 Daw Mill, Nr Coventry 481 1.2 Harworth, Nr Doncaster, Yorks 481 1.1 Rossington, Nr Doncaster, Yorks 338 0.4 Maltby, Nr Rotherham, Yorks 456 1.6 Kellingley, Knottingley, West Yorks 532 1.5 NON UK COAL PLC OWNED DEEP MINES Tower, Aberdare, S Wales 350 0.5 TOTAL 3,618 9.3
In addition there were 5 smaller deep mines in production at 31 March 2005, namely:
Blaentillery Colliery, owned by Blaentillery Mining Ltd, in Torfaen, Wales.
Eckington Colliery, owned by Eckington Colliery Partnerships, in Derbyshire.
Hay Royds Colliery, owned by Hayroyds Colliery LLP, in Yorkshire.
Nanthir Colliery, owned by M & W A Anthracite Ltd, in Neath, Port Talbot, Wales
Aberpergwm Colliery, owned by Energybuild in Glyn Neath, Wales.
Current figures on coal mines and coal production can be monitored on the official Department of Trade and Industry (DTI) website by clicking HERE. Betws, the last mine in the Amman Valley, closed in 2003. Within a year of closure, the site of the former colliery became a yuppie housing estate, with homes for sale at prices few in the Amman Valley can even dream about, and none can afford. These DTI figures also reveal that Britain is now a heavy importer of coal. In 2003 we produced 25.1 million tonnes of coal at home (12.5 million tonnes from deep mines and 12.0 million tonnes from open cast sites) yet the same year we imported 36.2 million tonnes from abroad. The four pits which were closed in 2004 resulted in our home-produced output declining by 25 percent that year, so we'll have to import that amount to make up the shortfall. Bonkers is just a polite word to describe what's going on.
What were once living pit communities have declined into high unemployment zones, with little future for children who have grown up since the defeat of the National Union of Mineworkers in the 1984/85 strike gave the go-ahead to butcher the coal industry. Many miners who were once gainfully employed were thrown on the scrapheap of middle-aged unemployment or forced into low paid service-sector jobs, paying a fraction of what they earned in mining. The pit-head gear that could once be seen from all around has been blown up and the pit entrances sealed for ever. Some of the mining equipment that wasn't destroyed has been put into mining museums instead. Weeds that were kept down by the tread of thousands of men going to and from work in three shifts a day have colonised the surface of the local mine, and silence reigns where once was the noisy clamour of people going about their daily work.
SURFACE MINES (OPEN CAST) in 2005
At March 2005 there were 42 surface mine operations in the UK. In 2004 these produced 11.99 million tonnes with the Scotish Coal Company Ltd. and UK Coal Plc. being the biggest operators.
The regional production and manpower breakdown for 2000 2001 was as follows:
Region Manpower Output (tonnes) England 1,149 5,111,000 Scotland 1,260 8,186,000 Wales 306 1,178,000 Total 2,715 14,4457,00
Epilogue (or should that be "Epitaph"?)
At the beginning of the new millennium only one pit remained in the Amman Valley Betws, with 100 men employed. The mining industry had been privatised in 1994 and the only two nationalised pits left in Wales at the time Betws and Tower colliery were the subject of buyouts: Betws by its management and Tower by its workforce. Betws only survived for ten years before closing in June 2003 and thus ending over 250 years of deep mining in the Amman Valley.
There are also a few small mines throughout the Ammanford area; these are the former 'private' mines that were allowed to exist under licence during nationalisation if they employed less than 30 employees. Many of these operate at a level of technology and working conditions that are primitive in the extreme. They are also much more dangerous than the former nationalised mines. Many of the safeguards have been relaxed or removed completely by successive governments.
The main source of coal throughout the Amman and Gwendraeth valleys is now by the opencast method. The coal that lies just below the surface is torn out by huge earth moving equipment, leaving vast holes in the ground and resulting in massive noise and dust pollution to the people living in the area. The number of people employed in opencasting is minimal compared to the deep mining of former years, while the scars left on the landscape are just as deep and ugly.
There is little left of the coal industry in Britain and nothing in the Amman valley and district. The Government policy of privatisation in the 1990s has wreaked its havoc, and whole communities have been severely damaged in the process. The majority of people in Ammanford were once involved in the mining industry in some form or other. Almost everyone could once say, even if they didn't work in the mining industry themselves, that they had a father, grandfather, son, brother, uncle or cousin underground. Now, the mists of time are gently closing around that era and we are all, like the distinguished Welsh poet T. Gwyn Jones, mere witnesses to something we stand outside of, forlornly looking in.
Ni wn gelfyddyd torri'r glo na'i dynnu,
A fferrai'r byd o annwyd o'm rhan i.
Dysgasoch chwi gelfyddyd iaith, er hynny,
Ni byddai'r byd heb lyfrau, o'ch rhan chwi
Nid oes imi on darn celfyddyd hen
Wrth wr a godo lo, a gadwo len.
I do not know the craft of cutting coal or hauling it,
And the world would freeze with cold for my part.
You learned the craft of language, though
The world would not be without books for your part.
I am just a dabbler in an old craft
To a man who mines coal, and safeguards literature.
In many ways though the period between 1920 and 1930 in the Amman valley was also a period of progress in the valley's history. This is the period of great growth in the community's social and cultural development, with the rise of the miners' welfare halls, with their reading rooms and meeting halls, and the development of sports grounds and other activities. There existed in the valley a high cultural consciousness. During 1922 the Welsh National Eisteddfod was held at Ammanford, representing the whole valley. Operas and concerts were common in the villages with annual presentation by local artists of popular operettas. There was also an annual drama week with national figures such as Hannan Swaffer adjudicating, although most of these activities, except for local choirs, have now ceased.
During this period the Amman Valley hospital came into being in 1936, supported by the pennies of the workers. Also, the miners financed an X-ray unit under the guidance of a Dr Harper for examination of miners suffering from the dreaded diseases silicosis and pneumoconiosis so that the union could make their cases for compensation for these unfortunate victims.
This was the richest historical period in the life of our valley. Despite the trials and tribulations there was a far better cultural and community consciousness than the present one, and under the strain of a depression deeper than we have ever experienced. But this is just one aspect of the Amman Valley in the past. We hope others will make a more positive study of the valley and its people. What the future holds depends upon the activity and interest of the present community. Or, we must wait for another Ynyscedwyn miracle.
INTERNET LINKS AND FURTHER READING MATERIAL Department of Trade and Industry (DTI) The govermnent's energy statistics, including the coal industry. National Justice for Mineworkers Campaign A history of the 1984/85 NUM strike which gave the government the go-ahead to destroy the British mining industry and most of British manufacturing as well. AFTER THE MINES: Changing employment opportunities in a South Wales valley, by Stephen W Town, (Cardiff University Press, 1971). Originally a Swansea University degree dissertation, this book is a thorough sociological study of employment in Ammanford and the Amman Valley up to 1971. Plenty of statistics.
Date this page last updated: August 24, 2010