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The Welsh Coalfield

Wales Has Two Coalfields Back To Welsh Menu

Wales has two coalfields, the South Wales Coalfield extending nearly 90 miles, from St. Bride's Bay in the west to Pontypool in the east, and the North Wales Coalfield, extending from the Point of Ayr in Flintshire south-eastwards to Hawarden and Broughton, near Chester, and then southwards to a few miles below Oswestry, a total distance of 45 miles.

The South Wales Coalfield, much the larger of the two, is an elongated, oval basin of Carboniferous rocks which is completely exposed, that is, the coal measures outcrop all round its periphery, except for two areas in the south-west which lie beneath the sea of Swansea Bay and Carmarthen Bay. Its width from north to south varies from a maximum of 16 miles in the main part of the coalfield, between Pontypool and Ammanford, to four miles, at the most, in the detached part of the coalfield in south Pembrokeshire. The Pembrokeshire field is very disturbed and although as many as 19 collieries were working there in the 1850s, these were mainly small concerns, and after 1903 the industry declined, until in 1 914 only four collieries remained. In 1948 the last one was closed.

In the main South Wales coal basin the strata dip from all sides towards the centre but there are also minor folds, the most important of which is the anticlinal system running east-west from Risca by way of Pontypridd and Maesteg to Aberafan. The effect of these anticlines is to bring up to within reasonable distance of the surface many important coal seams, which would have otherwise been very expensive to reach.

Along the greater part of the North Crop the seams dip gently and as a result the outcrop of the Middle and Lower Coal Measures is comparatively broad, a factor which influenced the location of the great ironworks development of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, particularly in mid Glamorgan and north-west Gwent. Here both coal and ironstone were abundantly and easily available by simply digging for it, hence the patches and scourings along the heads of the valleys which can still be seen.

On the South Crop, the measures dip steeply, making mining operations more difficult, but the proximity of the coal measures to the sea in southwest Wales had an important bearing on the development of coal mining in this area from the thirteenth century onwards. The output of the South Wales Coalfield in 1855 was approximately 8 ½  million tons.  The next half century or so was one of intense development, culminating in an output of approximately 57 million tons, or one fifth of the total output in the United Kingdom in the peak year of 1913.  The South Wales output gradually fell to 45 million in 1930, more rapidly to 35 million in 1939 and even more rapidly to 20 million in 1945. It increased to 24-25 million during the 1950s until 1957, after which it began to fall again. In 1974, the output was approximately 8 ½  million, practically back to the 1855 level.

The South Wales coals vary widely in range from the best anthracite to the prime coking coals and include the famous dry steam coals, the coking steam coals and the best metallurgical coking coals - the latter, incidentally, is not mined in any other part of Britain except Durham. Some higher volatile coals also occur along the south-eastern edge of the coalfield.

In 1913 there were 620 coal mines, including small mines, working in the South Wales Coalfield employing 232,800 men. At the end of 1975 there were 42 mines administered by the National Coal Board, employing 30,800 men, and 80 small licensed mines employing 600, still in production.

The North Wales Coalfield occupies a crescent-shaped area extending from north of Flintshire, southward through Denbighshire and into north-west Shropshire.  The coal measures are exposed, that is, outcrop, on the west side of the coalfield, but to the north-east they pass underneath the Dee Estuary and to the east they extend beneath a covering of newer strata of the Cheshire Plain and are continuous underground with the Lancashire and Staffordshire coal measures. The coalfield is divided into two parts by the Bala Fault, and in the northern, Flintshire section, the coal measures appear only in a narrow coastal strip, now mostly worked out.  The only surviving colliery, Point of Ayr, has an unusually favourable field under the Dee Estuary.  South of Flint considerable reserves have been abandoned and flooded after working the Main Seam only. In the main Denbighshire field, which is a maximum of nine miles in width, the depth of the coal measures increases rapidly towards the east so that the area available for development is limited.

The North Wales coals are mostly high volatile, medium to strong caking coal.

FLINT. Flint, Flintshire. 20th. May, 1828.
The colliery was the property of Mr. Thomas Eyton and was one of the pits of the Dee Green colliery. It was reported that an explosion claimed between nine and eleven lives and injured eleven others. The firedamp had collected in a part of the
pit unobserved by the workmen and a boy incautiously took a naked light to the spot and a tremendous explosion followed immediately. There were upwards of thirty men and boys in the pit and nine were killed on the spot and eleven others dreadfully wounded. Most had broken limbs and were badly scorched. Some of the unfortunate men had large families and a woman who lost her husband and son had given birth only a few days before.

MOSTYN. Mostyn, Flintshire. July, 1840.
The shaft was 390 feet deep and when the pit fired, large lumps of coal were blown up the shaft. Eight were killed in the explosion and one man and a boy were brought out fearfully burnt. Eleven lost their lives and five others were seriously injured. The disaster left six widows and thirty children fatherless.

St. DAVID'S PIT. Llangennech. Llanelli, Glamorganshire. 6th. July, 1840.
The pit was 660 feet deep and was the largest and deepest in the district. Two men and three boys were killed in an explosion at the colliery and twenty six others injured. Some accounts five the death toll as four but is probable that some of the injured later died. The men were killed by the afterdamp when they stayed in the workings after the blast. and the gas accumulated while the men were eating. The jury returned a verdict of 'Accidental Death' and did not attach blame to any party.

Dinas Middle Pit. Glamorganshire. 1st January, 1844.
The overman had left the examination of a stall to a little boy who accompanied him. When the men who worked there entered with a naked light, there was an explosion. Eight men and four boys lost their lives and three other lads were injured. There had not been a serious accident at the colliery for years and this was supposed to have made the men confident and careless.

The day shift had descended and the explosion occurred about 8 a.m. after the overman, Griffith Williams, had gone down about 4 a.m. to make his inspection. He took a boy with him, Edmund Llewellyn, who made the tests in the heading where the explosion took place and was confined to one of the two headings. Had the accident occurred half an hour later, the loss of life would have been much greater.

Those men who died were:-
William Harrhy aged 20 years.
David Job aged 14 years.
Thomas Leyshon aged 16 years.
David Morgan aged 14 years.
Thomas Morriss aged 48 years.
William Morriss aged 17 years.
Lewis Morriss aged 12 years.
David Phillips aged 22 years.
Edward Powell aged 21 years.
John Richards aged 14 years.
Thomas Rowlands aged 61 years.
David Rowlands aged 9 years.
The injured were:-
William Llewellyn,
William Williams and
Thomas Evans.

At the inquest, the Coroner severely censured the overman and invited the jury to return a verdict of manslaughter against him. Edmund was a son of the manager of the colliery, Mr. Daniel Llewellyn and the jury returned a verdict of ‘Accidental Death.’

Landshipping. Haverfordwest, Pembrokeshire. 14th February, 1844. The colliery was the property of Colonel Owen. The colliery had been worked for many years and the workings were carried under the River Dunleddy but for sometime this area had not been worked for three years. When these workings were reopened the water broke in when about fifty men, women and boys were at work.

There was a violent rush of water into the workings and they ran for their lives but about forty lives were lost.

Immediately after the accident it was found that the ground underneath the mud on the river bed, a little above low water mark and directly above the level, had given way and eyewitness stated that the water rushed down into the workings with great force. A contemporary writer observed:-

“It is possible, that, on the minds of many who read the account, an impression may be left, that as the calamity was occasioned by the sudden bursting of a mass of water, which, rushing at once through all the levels, penetrated directly to the exterior shaft. It may be supposed that a permanent communication would thus be opened between the pit and the river, in which case the probability of the bodies of the unfortunate men being sooner or later found, might be reasonably inferred. But this must go on the supposition that the level of the water now in the pit is the same as that of the river in all circumstances, in which case the aperture, through which the water rushed, must lie considerably lower than any part of the river’s bed left dry by the ebbing of the waters.

The case, however, is known to be very different. At the time the alarm was given, the attention of some bystanders was directed to the appearance of the river at such short a distance from the quay as could easily be known with general accuracy. In this place the waters were seen eddying and rolling in the most violent agitation, a certain proof that the part where the ground have given way, lay directly underneath. This spot, with a considerable space outside it, was left bare by the retiring river but not the most distant sign was exhibited form any such occurrence having taken place! The only conclusion is that an immense body of mud, earth and stones was forced into the opening, completely choking up the passage through which the flood had previously entered and which, it is supposed, may n time become reconsolidated as event to allow of the working of the pits, if the water now lying between it and the shaft were drained, but of this being done, no one entertains a thought. It is, therefore, almost certain that the unhappy sufferers, so suddenly overtaken by this overwhelming destruction, will be no more seen until till the earth and sea shall yield up their dead.

Some men have descended the shaft and employed grapnels for a considerable time, but with no effect. There is something peculiarly touching in the perfect absence of every outward sign which indicate the calamitous event.

With the exception of the machinery remaining idle and the appearance of the sullen water far down the pit, everything is the same in its external character, nothing whatever to tell the passenger that within a few yards of him forty individuals have found a grave.”

Those who died were:-

  • Bedford, unmarried.
  • Two boys named Butler.
  • John Cole, 16.
  • John Cole, 25, left a mother and sisters who were dependent on him.
  • Thomas Cole, 14
  • Two boys named Daves.
  • Davies, a boy.
  • Day, a boy.
  • Thomas Gray, who left a wife and six children.
  • Benjamin Hart, left a wife and three children.
  • Benjamin Harts’ son.
  • John Hitchings, unmarried.
  • Hitchings, a boy
  • William Hughes, 15
  • James Jenkins, 14.Benjamin Jones, 25, left a wife.
  • Two boys named John.
  • Jones, a boy.
  • Thomas Llewellyn, 45, who had a sister dependent on him.
  • William Llewellyn, 30, who left a wife and child.
  • William Llewellyn, 58,  who left a wife and grown up children.
  • William Llewellyn’s son John, 12.
  • Llewellyn, a boy
  • Isaac Owens, 23.
  • Joseph Picton, 40, and three sons James, 15, Mark, 13, Joseph, 11, he also left a wife and three children.
  • Thomas, a boy.
  • Two orphans of the late Jane Wilkins.

An account of the accident was related to Mr. Dunn and he was told that only four feet of rock and sixty feet of sand were between the workings and the bottom of the river. A subscription fund was set up for the dependants of the victims and £400 was raised in a very short time.

The Landshipping disaster has been documented in several books, including a book about the history of Welsh mining disasters and the 'appalling’ conditions of 19th century coal-mining industry.

Working in mining was compared to be as risky as going to war. The Black Mystery - the first comprehensive study into mining across Pembrokeshire and south/west Wales, written by Ronald Rees. reports on the Valentine's Day disaster in 1844 when (he states) 33 miners were drowned as the river flooded the coal seam they were working in under the eastern Cleddau at Landshipping's Garden Pit.

The disaster was all but forgotten until a memorial was erected in honour of those who lost their lives - some believed to have been young boys and women. Pembrokeshire was never urbanised to the extent of the south Wales valleys and most of its coal mining heritage has been forgotten as tourism has taken over as the main industry. However, much of the county's wealth and infrastructure was due to coal mining and export.

Interviewed by the Western Mail, the author said: "According to impartial observers, there was no other land occupation that had so many ways of causing injury and death, making it equivalent to "sending raw unarmed troops into battle against a well-equipped enemy"

"Conditions were terrible but a paradox is that even though working conditions were awful and dangerous, miners were reluctant to leave the mines," said Mr Rees, a retired lecturer whose books include ‘King Copper’, a history of the copper industry in the Swansea area, and ‘Heroic Science’, an account of the achievements of a group of renowned scientists at the Royal Institution of South Wales during the 19th century.

"They speak of the mine as a close-knit community, the development of a brotherhood formed out of the danger of the work.

"Growing up in Skewen I knew a lot of miners but I never met one who wouldn't go back underground. In West Wales, the mines were generally small, not inspected and not well-managed so death and accident rates were high.

"The worst disasters were drownings in mines - I can't imagine anything worse. The smaller accidents were often due to firedamp - a mixture of methane and air - being ignited by cigarettes or candles.