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.

Remains of the Ironworks at Blaenavon

From around 1850 onwards, the pace started to change rapidly. As the timber supplies dwindled, then the advantages of using coal to fire the blast furnaces became more attractive, but there was more to it than that. The carbonised rock of the valleys was anthracite, a high-quality grade of coal which was hard to ignite, but when the obstacle was overcome it could be used for almost anything that needed steam power – and the valleys have never been the same since. Men with vision, money, or both, wasted no time in buying up farms, sinking shafts, and building row upon row of terraced houses for the migrant workers that were prepared to risk their lives underground.

The ‘Black Diamonds’ provided work for the miners, wealth for the mine owners, and goods for the country – but at both a human and environmental cost. For the mine owners it was about making money, but for mine workers and their families it was about surviving, and I don’t suppose any of them worried too much about the environment at the time. The valleys became one long ribbon of industry, and by 1913 when coal mining was at its peak, a quarter of a million miners were extracting 57 million tons of coal a year.

Porth (Old UK

The Rhondda Valley was particularly rich in steam coal and became the most lucrative of the South Wales coalfields. Geographically speaking, the Rhondda has two river valleys – the Rhondda Fawr (Large) and the Rhondda Fach (Small) which come together at Porth and then joins the Taff at Pontypridd. The archive picture above shows the Britannia and Merthyr II colliers at Porth. The date this picture was taken is unknown, but by 1911 some 42,000 men were working in the valley’s 53 collieries.

The mind has to work overtime to imagine what these valleys looked like at the height of their industrial activity, but they were past their peak when Richard Llewellyn wrote ‘How Green was my valley’ in 1939: The book was made into a film two years later but even though it won plenty of awards, it must have been difficult to get a real feel for what it would have been like to live during these times. Not only did the landscape turn black from slag and the smoke, life for the workers and their families must have been unbelievably hard.

In David J. Carpenter’s book Rhondda Collieries, he describes how in 1861 the population of The Rhondda was around 4,000 and by 1921 it had risen to 163,000: During the same time the number of houses rose from 561 to over 29,000. The geographical nature of the valleys meant that the pits and their associated industrial activities occupied the valley floor, and the rows of cottages were built on the hillsides.

For young migrant families, these tiny cottages were barely big enough to house their own family, but with pit wages being as low as they were, they often took in lodgers to supplement their income. Clean water was nigh on impossible to come by and sanitation conditions were poor to say the least, resulting in diseases such as tuberculosis and rickets. Malnutrition was also a major problem which meant that far too many children died at far too young an age.

Tylorstown in Rhondda Fach

If life was tough on the surface, then it must have been even tougher underground. For once I can’t imagine what this must have been like, and instead of trying to explain something I’ve never experienced, it might be better if you take a look at the 1930s British Movietone News clip below of the Powell Duffryn Penallta Colliery in the Rhymney Valley. It’s over eleven minutes long, but it’s worth taking a look at if you want to see what it was like to work underground.

Although some employers were better than others, generally speaking, profits came before people, and it was inevitable that accidents would occur in such a dangerous occupation. Carbon Monoxide poisoning, floods, faulty lifts, and roof falls all contributed to the deaths of those working underground, but by far and away the biggest cause of casualties were explosions.

Statistics only tell part of the story: In the Rhondda Collieries, David Carpenter lists the Rhondda pits which had accidents and the number of people killed, and it makes grim reading. The first major disaster occurred at the Cymmer Colliery at Porth on 18th July 1856 when 114 men and boys were killed. The names and ages of those who died bring it home as to what it must have been like. So many of those names were just children of 10, 11, and 12 years old, but most of the others were still either only teenagers or young men.

Cymmer may have been the first major disaster in the valley, but it certainly wasn’t the last. In 1867 Ferndale Colliery claimed 178 lives and two years later another 53. The list goes on and on right up until 1965 when on 17th May an explosion at the Cambrian Colliery took another 31 lives. In total, around 850 miners have died digging for black gold in the Rhondda Valley. The worst tragedy of all though occurred in the Aber Valley at Senghenydd Colliery near Caerphilly on 14th October 1913, when 439 miners (and 1 rescuer) were killed in an explosion that has gone down as the worst mining disaster in British history.

I’ve not been able to find a reliable record of the total number of deaths in the South Wales Coalfields, but whatever it is it’s far too many, and that’s not even taking into account the number of miners who have died from work related illnesses, such as pneumoconiosis (or Black Lung Disease).

The YouTube video from Daicamera below is a poignant reminder of the what the true cost of coal was.

In times of adversity, human beings can often find solace in helping each other, and the Valleys were no exception. The community rallied round when miners’ widows needed financial help or food on the table, but the community spirit didn’t extend quite as far as the mine owners.

At the onset of the First World War there was an upsurge in demand for coal, and the government took control. When the war was over, the demand declined, and the mines were handed back to the owners. The inevitable outcome was that the miners, rather than the owners, would have to pay the price for the loss of profits. Pay was cut, jobs were lost, and so were more lives, and so the miners decided to form a Union, primarily to improve wages and working conditions, but also to help provide funds for widows who were struggling to make ends meet.

The ‘Roaring Twenties’ may have been a wonderful time for the socialites in London, Paris, Berlin, or New York, but in the Valleys, they were roaring for a different reason. Relations between those who owned the mines and those who worked in them hit a new low. A leading figure to emerge in the fight for change during this time was Arthur J Cook, a worker at the Trefor (Lewis Merthyr) pit at Trehafod. His fight for justice led to him becoming General Secretary of the Miners Federation of Great Britain (MFGB), the forerunner of the National Union of Mineworkers. His communist beliefs didn’t endear him to everyone, but when the mine owners issued an ultimatum in March 1926 to work more hours and accept lower wages, or their jobs would be withdrawn, then the mineworkers supported Cook’s rallying cry of “Not a penny off the pay, not a minute on the day”. The response by the owners was a complete lockout of all the nation’s coalfields, with over a million mineworkers becoming unemployed.

In support of the miners the TUC called a General Strike which began on the 4th May. It was well supported, but after 9 days the TUC gave up the fight and the strike was over by the 12th. The miners carried on the battle, but by November, hardship and poverty had forced them to concede. There was a lot of bitterness during the dispute, and from what I can tell, that bitterness never ever went away.

A.J. Cook

The idea of workers joining together may not have had the desired effect on their wages and conditions, but in the villages, the community spirit had always been strong. Many people got comfort from going to the many non-conformist chapels that sprung up with the increasing population, and the singing ability of colliers provided a rich breeding ground for the Male Voice Choirs. Another passion of the Valleys is rugby and it all comes together at an international rugby match as the YouTube video below shows.

Thanks to the Great Depression of the 1920s, the inter-war years saw tens of thousands of  former mine workers surplus to requirements, but with the onset of war in 1939, the need for coal again, and thousands of men joining the armed forces, it meant that there was now a shortage of labour. This shortage was filled by the Bevin Boys, named after Ernest Bevin who was minister for labour in the war-time coalition government.

In 1947 there was hope that the decline again in the need for coal could be better managed when the industry was nationalised under the National Coal Board, but the optimism was short-lived. The 1950s and 60s saw a large number of collieries close down and desperation started to spread back through the valleys again. Pits were left to rot, unemployment rose, and mountains of black slag replaced the once green hills. As if this didn’t make things bad enough, at 9.15 on the morning of Friday October 21st 1966, one of these slag heaps slid down onto 19 houses and Pantglas Junior School in Aberfan. 144 people were killed including 116 children. Obviously, the scenes are not easy to describe and so I’ve included a couple of short videos below that might help.

One good thing that did come out of the disaster was that the slag heaps started to disappear, or at least made safe, but the demise of the coal industry carried on unabated. In December 1983, with more and more pits closing, I decided pay a visit to see how things were changing, and you can see from a selection of black and white pictures that I took, that things weren’t changing for the better. What I didn’t know at the time though, was that things were going to get a lot worse, because within 6 months another national miners’ strike began, which has been described as “the most bitter industrial dispute in British history”.

In Pt 2 I’ll be describing what happened next.

Demolition of the Lewis Merthyr Colliery at Trehafod
Demolition of the Lewis Merthyr Colliery at Trehafod
Tonypandy in the Rhondda Fawr

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

  1. Fergy.

    I am enjoying this series already Malc. Certainly I do not enjoy the subject matter but I love the way you write and, like others here, I remember Aberfan even though I was only six. I probably didn’t really understand what was going on too well but I remember my late Mum crying so I knew it must be something bad.

    I do love your images. I am a big fan of monochrome anyway and it somehow just seems fitting for this piece.

    I’m off now to read Part Two.

    1. Easymalc Post author

      Thanks again for your nice comments Fergy. Aberfan was an absolute tragedy and something that is difficult to put into words.

  2. toonsarah

    ‘I’ve often tried to imagine what the unspoilt South Wales Valleys might have looked like before the days of the Industrial Revolution’ – I’ve wondered the same when visiting the area, and I reckon if you squint hard you can still see the underlying beauty in the landscape.

    I remember the news of the Aberfan disaster well. I think it was the first news story to strike a personal chord with me, not because I knew anyone involved (thankfully) but because I was at primary school then myself and it was all to easy to imagine a huge mountain descending on our school building :9

  3. Alli Templeton

    Fascinating post, Malc. I don’t know South Wales as well as I do the North, but I should do really as my mum’s side of the family come from Swansea. What really struck a chord with me is the Aberfan diaster, for the 21st October 1966 is the day my mum has always told me was the day she lost her faith. All those kids killed through sheer negligence and bad timing. She’s told me a lot about it, but I’ve never seen anything on film, so I found this really lump-in-throat-inducing. A long and dreadful history, indeed.

    1. Easymalc Post author

      No words can really describe that day in Aberfan Alli, and the worst of it all is, that it was always an accident waiting to happen – to go along with all the other ones. Is it any wonder miners became militant?

      1. Alli Templeton

        Very true, Malc. I can’t believe the mining company ignored all those warnings and other incidents. What were they thinking? I remember my mum telling me about it and the effect it had on her made a big impact on me.

  4. Easymalc Post author

    I’m not sure whether you enjoyed reading that or not Don, but I know exactly what you mean. We just got to hope China starts to cut back on fossil fuels now

  5. Nemorino

    What a long and dreadful history!
    This reminds me of Zola’s novel Germinal, about coal mining in northern France. Also Ironbridge Gorge, near Birmingham, where I used to take groups in the 1990s. (Birmingham and Frankfurt are twinned cities.) Finally, it reminds me of the Zollverein colliery in Essen, Germany, which I once toured and later wrote a blog post about:
    Just today I read in another blog: “Today the BBC reported, ‘Britain goes coal free as renewables edge out fossil fuels’. Apparently coronavirus caused demand to plummet. No coal has been burnt for electricity since April 9, making tomorrow at midnight two full months, a major milestone.”


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