Tag Archives: Industrial Heritage

The Changing Face of the South Wales Valleys Pt 3 – The Effects of the Strike

The Changing Face of the South Wales Valleys Pt 3 - The Effects of the Strike

“The Miners united … will never be defeated” was the battle cry from striking miners – but they weren’t united, and even though the South Wales miners were more united than anywhere else in the country, there were still those that went back to work before the strike ended, and that was bound to make life difficult when they had to start working together again.

There must have been other misgivings too, because although there was a wage packet being picked up again at the end of the week, they must have wondered for how long, and in the case of Bedwas Colliery, they knew straight away because it never even re-opened. By the end of 1985 another seven South Wales pits were either amalgamated or closed down, and it was the same story throughout the country.

Fortunately, Tower wasn’t one of them, and if you’ve read my previous post, The Changing Face of the South Wales Valleys Pt 2, you’ll already know why I’m pleased to say that. These people may have had a lot to contend with, but they hadn’t forgotten our support either, and they invited us to a special evening at the Fernhill Social Club to thank us for that support.

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The Changing Face of the South Wales Valleys Pt 2 – The 1984/85 Miners Strike

The Changing Face of the South Wales Valleys Pt 2 - The 1984/85 Miners Strike

This post covers the 1984/85 Miners Strike which had implications, not just for South Wales, but for the country as a whole and workers’ rights in general. It also shows how I became involved, albeit in a small way, in one of the most bitter industrial disputes in modern history.



To understand why the 1984/85 Miners Strike had such an impact on the South Wales Valleys and a pivotal point in Britain’s industrial history we really need to go back a few years. In my previous blog, The Changing Face of the South Wales Valleys Pt 1, I described how these once lovely valleys became a pretty depressing place for those who worked and lived here. There were other people who worked under difficult conditions, but the miners became one of the most powerful voices to fight for a better life.

By the 1970s some people were arguing that the trade unions had become too powerful, too undemocratic, and organized by extreme left-wing union leaders – and the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) was at the top of the list that those people were talking about.

In 1971, the incumbent conservative Prime Minister, Edward Heath, introduced the Industrial Relations Act, which amongst other things, was designed to curb union power. I didn’t think it was a particularly harsh bill, even though I was a strong union supporter, but it didn’t go down well in some circles. In 1972, and then again at the start of 1974, the miners went on strike, and to keep the country functioning – and the lights on – Edward Heath introduced a 3-day week and called for an early election. He didn’t win it, and there was another later in the year, which he didn’t win either. In other words, it was the miners who won, and for the next 5 years the unions had the labour government that they wanted.

In the 1979 General Election, the Labour Prime Minister, James Callaghan, after a disastrous Winter of Discontent, lost to the conservatives who had a new leader in Margaret Thatcher. A Soviet journalist called her the ‘Iron Lady’, and it was a label she was more than happy to be identified with, but in the red corner was the communist-leaning leader of the NUM – Arthur Scargill. The stage was set.

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The Changing Face of the South Wales Valleys Pt 1 – The Demand for Iron and Coal

The Changing Face of the South Wales Valleys Pt 1 - The Demand for Iron and Coal

This post covers a time period from around 1750 to 1983 when the valleys of South Wales changed from an idyllic rural setting to an industrial powerhouse, and then into an industrial wasteland.

Many of the pictures and videos therefore are from archive material gathered from various different sources.


I’ve often tried to imagine what the unspoilt South Wales Valleys might have looked like before the days of the Industrial Revolution: I can imagine water trickling down from the hilltops above, forming babbling brooks and streams that cascade over a series of waterfalls into the valley below: On the valley floor I can imagine the crystal-clear water tumbling over rocks onto a riverbed where trout and salmon come to spawn: I can imagine the valley slopes of oak, beech, and ash, providing a rich habitat for a variety of flora and fauna, and I can also imagine sheep grazing the upland fields to provide wool and food for the sparse population that lived here: What I, or anybody else, couldn’t have imagined though, is how dramatically this landscape was going to change forever.

Nature not only provided the raw materials to create a beautiful landscape, it also provided the raw materials for an industrial one too. Iron ore and coal were two of the most important ingredients that fuelled the Industrial Revolution, and along with the great minds of British inventors, the 18th and 19th centuries saw the country becoming one of the most powerful nations in the world. Advanced weapons of war, ships, railways, and industrial machinery were all possible because of iron and coal, and the South Wales Valleys was blessed, if that’s the right word, with an abundance of both.

To begin with, the pace of change was slow. Iron ore was easily extracted from rocks found at the top of the valleys, and the other ingredients needed to make iron were also readily available – limestone, water, and timber. In 1750, Merthyr Tydfil was just a small rural village and Blaenavon never even existed, but by 1850 Merthyr Tydfil was the largest town in Wales with the largest ironworks in the world.

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Wallsend and Segedunum

Wallsend and Segedunum

Lying about half-way between the centre of Newcastle and the mouth of the River Tyne, Wallsend is an easy and worthwhile metro ride out of the city.

As soon as you get off the train you know that you’re somewhere a bit different because the station goes by its Roman name of Segedunum, but the English name of Wallsend is perhaps just as appropriate because Segedunum was the fort at the eastern end of Hadrian’s Wall.

The wall was built during the 120s AD and was originally planned to end at Pons Aelius (Newcastle), the lowest bridging point of the River Tyne. It was then decided to extend it out here, where the river then became the natural frontier between the Roman world and the Barbarians to the north. The fort was probably built around 127 AD.

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Camden Town

Camden High Street

Camden Town

Not to be confused with the Borough of Camden, Camden Town is known for its markets, music venues and alternative cultures, it’s a place that attracts younger people with a zest for a more unorthodox style of living. If you’re into Punk, Goth. or Emo, then you’ve come to the right place.

Camden is named after Charles Pratt, the first Earl of Camden who took his title from Camden Place, his estate near Chislehurst in Kent (now part of the outer London Borough of Bromley).

Originally a part of the manor of Kentish Town, the Earl acquired the manor through marriage, and in 1791 started to change its appearance from a quiet, rural village on the road north out of London towards Hampstead, by granting leases for houses to be built.

Chalk Farm Road and Camden High Street are the main roads through Camden Town which still form part of that very same route, and at the Camden Town Tube Station junction is a pub called the World’s End, which was a rural hostelry as far back as 1690, but these days is an ideal place to go if you you’re looking to get a headache.

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Underfall Yard

Replica of John Cabot's 'Matthew' on the Patent Slip

Underfall Yard

Prior to the creation of William Jessop’s Floating Harbour in 1809, the River Avon flowed through where Underfall Yard now stands.

The construction of Cumberland Basin and the New Cut meant that an island was formed between where the river was diverted and Bathurst Basin at Redcliffe. This island became known as Spike Island.

Jessop’s plan included an ‘Overfall’ Dam to allow excess water in the Floating Harbour to flow over into the New Cut, but by the 1830s the harbour was becoming badly silted up.

Although Jessop had included sluices with his Overfall Dam, the main method of clearing the silt out was to drain the harbour and remove it by hand, which was less than ideal to say the least.

Isambard Kingdom Brunel was brought in to make improvements to both Cumberland Basin and the Overfall Dam, and for the Overfall Dam he recommended developing Jessop’s sluices further and using dredger boats to remove the silt.

He devised an Underfall system where three shallow sluices could be used in a way that would control the harbour water level according to the tide and weather conditions, and a fourth ‘deep scouring’ sluice which could be opened at low tide when a powerful undertow (undercurrent) would suck the silt into the New Cut to be carried away by the next tide.

This Underfall system is still in use today, although a more modern system of dredging is used.

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Cumberland Basin

The view across Cumberland Basin towards Clifton

Cumberland Basin

I deliberately kept my previous article about Bristol’s Floating Harbour short and sweet for two reasons: The first one being that I didn’t want people to immediately lose interest in a topic that is important to the city’s heritage, and the second one is because my name isn’t Isambard Kingdom Brunel.

All the same, I’ve decided to include some information about the Cumberland Basin for anybody who would like to know a bit more about how this important part of the system operates.

The Floating Harbour project was awarded to William Jessop, an engineer from Devonport, who started work on the scheme in 1804. It took 5 years to build and was officially opened on the 1st May 1809.

For the Cumberland Basin, his plans included two entrance locks from the river into the holding basin, and a junction lock between the basin and the Floating Harbour. Why it was called Cumberland Basin I’ve no idea, but it was used as a lock when there were a lot of ships sailing in and out of the harbour.

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The Floating Harbour

The Waterfront from Narrow Quay

The Floating Harbour

Bristol’s Floating Harbour doesn’t float, so why is it called that? It takes a bit of explaining, but to understand what the Floating Harbour is will help to explain why Bristol’s maritime history was so important to the city for so long.

The port developed approximately 8 miles from the mouth of the River Avon during the 11th century, which at the time would have had the distinct advantage of being in a very sheltered location. Not only that, the River Severn has one of the highest tidal ranges in the world, which meant that the fast-flowing tide could bring ships swiftly up the Severn and the Avon to the protection of Bristol’s inland harbour.

For centuries it worked well, but as the ships got bigger things became a bit more complicated. Anyone who has witnessed the ebb and flow of these rivers will know only too well how quickly the tide can go out as well as come in, and the bigger the ships became, the more often they got stuck in the mud – and there’s plenty of that here.

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Wheal Martyn China Clay Museum and Country Park

Wheal Martyn China Clay Museum and Country Park

Until the opening of the Eden Project in 2001, the only holidaymakers that would have been seen wandering around the St. Austell countryside were those that were lost.

The industrial landscape above the town wasn’t one of the things that most visitors to Cornwall had come to see, but anybody who decides to make their way to Wheal Martyn will be rewarded with a fascinating insight into how important the industry has been to the region.

This open-air museum, heritage centre, or whatever it wants to call itself now, incorporates all aspects of china clay from the days when William Cookworthy, a Plymouth apothecary, discovered kaolin at Tregonning Hill near Germoe in West Cornwall in 1746.

He wasn’t the first to find it of course – it had been used in China for thousands of years, but the desire for an equivalent ingredient to manufacture high quality porcelain in England had eluded the aristocracy for ages.

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The Landscape around Stowe’s Hill

Stowe's Pound and Bodmin Moor

The Landscape around Stowe's Hill


As I mentioned in my article about Minions, the village was built for the industrial activities that occurred here during the 19th century – namely copper mining and quarrying, both of which were transported down to the port of Looe via the Liskeard and Caradon Railway.

Both of these activities can be seen on a walk from the village to Stowe’s Hill along the old railway track, but my preferred route is a circular one which also includes some ancient archaeology too.

I’m not going to describe a detailed walk here, but instead I just want to discuss the landscape which provided the reason for all this ancient and industrial activity, and even if you have no interest in any of these things, I’m confident that you will enjoy the stark beauty of this corner of Bodmin Moor.

Walking from Minions in the opposite direction to Caradon Hill is Stowe’s Hill. It’s quite unmistakeable because it’s topped with granite tors, much like those of Dartmoor. These tors are the most obvious signs of granite weathering which has been taking place for tens of thousands of years.

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I suspect that some people may wonder if there’s any connection between the 2015 film of the same name and this small village on the south-eastern edge of Bodmin Moor, but as far as I’m aware it’s just purely co-coincidental. Mind you, those pesky little yellow creatures have existed since the beginning of time, and strangely enough the village has many ancient features on its doorstep, so who knows?

I don’t suppose it’s any co-incidence though that the area boasts so many ancient features, as at 300 metres, Minions is the highest village in Cornwall.

Rising above the village even further is Caradon Hill which is topped by a transmitting station with a 237 metre high mast, so the village isn’t difficult to find.

The hill also gives its name to the Caradon Mining District which is part of the Cornish World Heritage site.

During the 19th century around 650,000 tons of copper were mined in the area, and there is plenty of evidence in the form of engine houses that still dot the landscape. One of them is used as the Minions Heritage Centre where you can find out more about the landscape in general as well as the locality’s industrial heritage.

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The Tamar Valley not only divides Devon and Cornwall, but is also an Area of Outstanding Beauty (AONB) and a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

The reason for its inclusion as a World Heritage Site is that it forms part of the wider Cornish mining landscape.

Boundary lines make no distinction where the geological landscape is concerned and West Devon’s mining history is recognised as being just as important as its neighbour across the river. There are ten distinct areas that are identified as of special significance within the Cornwall and West Devon Mining World Heritage Site and the Tamar Valley and Tavistock area is one of them.

Morwellham Quay played an important part in the Tamar Valley’s mining history and should be on everyone’s list of places to visit if you have an interest in this sort of thing – and even if you haven’t.

The site and museum at Morwellham used to be financed by Devon County Council but funding was withdrawn in 2009. The following year it was re-opened as a paid for visitor attraction by the people that run Bicton Park in East Devon.

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