Over 300 million years have passed since coal seams were laid down in the valleys from where I write this blog, when Wales sat astride the Earth’s equator and plants ruled the planet. The Big Pit National Coal Museum’s focuses on the last two hundred of those years and the ferocious drive of homo sapiens to dig out and burn this bounty of the Carboniferous. It is a tale of exploitation and degradation, but also of pride and ingenuity.
Big Pit, so named because of its oversize shaft, rather than the scale of the overall operation, is part of the Blaenavon World Heritage site that also includes a famous ironworks and railway, and which nestles at the southern foot of the Brecon Beacons, where markontour is enjoying a sunny Welsh holiday.
It’s a cracking museum, staffed largely by men who used to hew coal from these pits and will likely be the last generation of human beings to be sent to ‘Crawl in moleskin trousers / Beneath the rocks of Gwent’*. The tour includes an hour down the mine itself, chaperoned by a jovial ex-miner, who pulls no punches in highlighting the inherent danger in working underground, especially for a rapacious employer who values lumps of carbon more than human welfare.
Surely no-one would freely choose to spend the majority of their waking hours crawling in the darkness, but then for much of the last century people round here had little choice. At King Coal’s peak nearly everyone around here would have been working in the pits or a tributary profession, and one in ten people across the whole country of Wales worked in the industry.
In the first decades of the industrial revolution, men and older boys, armed with pickaxes and shovels, were responsible for extracting the coal from seams that were sometimes as narrow as the distance from fingertips to elbow. As the men piled up coal in carts, women and children aged 10 to 14 pushed and pulled the carts them surface, while 5 to 9 year olds held open the doors of the narrow tunnels to let them pass.
It must have been terrifying and utterly dehumanising work. Until the Davy Lamp became ubiquitous, children who should have been playing outdoors were instead buried underground, with only a candle to provide light. Worse, the candle was both a serious fire risk and was oft to blow out as the doors opened and thus they regularly worked in total darkness. We experienced this for just a few minutes yesterday and “total darkness” means just that – not being able to see your hand in front of your face until it hits you in the nose.
It was only in 1842 that children under 10 were banned from working in mines, but older children carried on working in Big Pit well into my grandparents adulthood.**
As the Big Pit Museum demonstrates, there was no golden age of mining, at least from the perspective of the hundreds of thousands of ordinary people forced to scrape a living below ground. Mining was a tough, dangerous and life-shortening endeavour, carried out for subsistence wages paid in accordance to the weight of coal you hauled out. In the words of the great Aneurin Bevan, who started work down a pit in these valleys at the age of 14 and went to become the Labour minister who founded the National Health Service (the 70th birthday of which was celebrated in his hometown of Tredegar last week):
“[D]own below are the sudden perils – runaway trams hurtling down the lines, frightened ponies kicking and mauling in the dark, explosions, fire, drowning…[And when the shift is over] There is a tiredness which comes as the reward for exertion, a physical blessing which makes sleep a matter of relaxed muscles and limbs. And there is the tiredness which leads to stupor, which remains with you when you are getting up, and which forms a dull, persistent background to your consciousness. This is the tiredness of the miner, particularly the boy of 14 or 15 who falls asleep over his meals and wakes hours later to find that the evening is gone and there is nothing else before him but bed and another day’s wrestling with inert matter.”
From the history taught at Big Pit, it is hard not to think that miners were treated like animals, except that the space and care afforded to the welfare of pit-ponies (used to drag coal carts after child labour was belatedly outlawed) appears to have been better, at least in the early years before trade unions started to extract some minor concessions to the health and safety of their members. Certainly, greedy and capricious mine owners grew rich on the labour of the families they sent down the pits, and even managed to reclaim most of the meagre wages doled out to miners, through the expediency of also owning most of the local housing and shops.
Mechanisation and tighter regulation improved safety, but nothing it seems can save a miner from the deadly disease of the lung, pneumoconiosis, brought on by inhaling coal dust day after day.
Moreover, occasional disasters persisted throughout the mining ages. Our guide yesterday talked movingly of losing a close friend to a methane explosion and then there was the unimaginable horror of Aberfan in 1966, when a giant slag heap crumbled on to the local school, killing 144 people, mostly children. My reading today, bought in the Big Pit shop, is going to be Owen Sheers’ play about the tragedy, ‘The Green Hollow‘.
Things clearly did improve markedly after the coal industry was nationalised by the post-war Labour government in 1946. Visitors to Big Pit can wander round the well-preserved pit-head baths, which permitted miners the dignity of walking home clean and dry and saved many men from ill-health brought on by infected wounds. The locker-room is also used to great effect to tell the stories of some of the former miners who escaped the pits, including Idris Davies, who went on to become a celebrated poet.
Reading a short collection of Davies’ work this evening, he sums the conundrum of the Welsh mining years: on the one hand ruthless and degrading exploitation, but talk to almost any former miner and there is also an unmistakable pride about their profession, along with a misty eye for the camaraderie that existed down the pit. There is genuine sadness that the industry is no more.
I’ll let Idris Davies have the last word:
In the places of my boyhood
The pit-wheels turn no more,
Nor any furnace lightens
The midnight as of yore.
The slopes of slag and cinder
Are sulking in the rain,
And in derelict valleys
The hope of youth is slain.
And yet I love to wander
The early ways I went,
And watch from doors and bridges
The hills and skies of Gwent.
Though blighted be the valleys
Where man meets man with pain,
The things my boyhood cherished
Stand firm, and shall remain.
* Idris Davies, from first, ‘I Was Born in Rhymney’, and second ‘Gwailia Deserta’
** Thank you to my wonderful Mum for the historical clarification, as the dates were not entirely clear at Big Pit.
*** Nb part of the above poem is used in Public Service Broadcasting’s brilliant song, ‘Turn No More’.