82. Coal in Wales during 1920-1930 CE
NOV. 30, 2023
Pete takes Ryan to the Welsh valleys to discover the history of coal mining. Learn everything you need to get started on your new career underground. Discover the miner-turned-author who literally wrote the book on the subject. And find out why an American singing legend singing ‘Old Man River’ meant so much to the people of South Wales. Dig it!
Wales or Cymru, which is Welsh for Wales, is a country which is a constituent part of the United Kingdom (England, Northern Ireland and Scotland).
The capital city is Cardiff and the total area of 21,218 km2 (8,192 sq mi) or 27 Wales to a France. It has a population of 3.1 million, similar to Bosnia and Herzegovina and Puerto Rico and the predominant religion is ‘no religion’ at 46.5% with 43.6% Christianity, 2.2% islam, and a smattering of the others.
The languages are English and Welsh, the latter being a Celtish language spoken by about 18% of the population. However, the Welsh government has plans to double the number of Welsh speakers by 2050.
But why would they have to do that – to offset the effect of the English of course. Specifically, after being widely used in the medieval period, in 1536 Henry VIII’s Act of Union banned Welsh as a language for official use (although obviously people still spoke it). And so it was for 400 years – in fact Welsh would not be reinstated until the 1967 Welsh Language Act which gave some rights to let people to use the Welsh language in legal proceedings.
Wales is mountainy and green, hills and famously valleys. Not Himalayan mountainy though, thing craggy hills of Scotland rather than mount Everest. The main range is the Snowdonia range, and mount Snowdon or Yr Wyddfa has the distinction of being the UKs busiest mountain.
These mountains also impact the weather – rising air causes the release of water in the form of rain and as a result, according to both Wikipedia and my experience, is one of the wettest countries in Europe.
The flag is one of my favourites and also one of the 3 in the world to the feature a dragon (Bhutan, Malta). Y Ddraig Goch or The Red Dragon is so called because, well, it’s a big red dragon, mostly, really stylised and cool looking, on a background divided into a white top half and a green bottom.
The red dragon itself has been a symbol of Wales since around 655, which was the reign of Cadwaladr, King of Gwynedd, which is an area in Wales, hence it is also known as the red dragon of Cadwaladr.
The National Anthem is Hen Wlad Fy Nhadau or Land of My Fathers. The lyrics were written in 1856 by a Welsh weaver and poet named Evan James to a tune written by his son James James.
But there’s also another song which is quintessentially Welsh and particularly relevant to this episode. It’s sometimes known as the Welsh rugby hymn. It’s actually called Cwm Rhondda after the Rhondda valley in Wales and it was written by Welsh composer John Hughes in 1905.
As well as being associated with the Welsh rugby team to this day, it also features in the 1941 film How Green Was My Valley, directed by John Ford. This film shows the life of the people in the South Wales coalfields and notably won the Oscar for best picture that year, beating among others a little known also-ran called Citizen Kane.
Famous Welsh people – for a small area we are really spoilt for choice, especially in roles requiring great voices, such as acting with Richard Burton, Catherine Zeta Jones, Michael Sheen, and Anthony Hopkins. In music we have Tom Jones, Bonnie Tyler, Charlotte Church and the great Shirley Bassey. In literature we can thank the Welsh for Dylan Thomas and Roald Dahl and in politics we have seen Nye Bevan, who was largely responsible for the creation of the National Health Service in the UK, and David Lloyd George, British Prime Minister 1916 to 1922. Lloyd George was not only Welsh, he is the only prime minister speak English as a second language.
There is an easy joke about the Welsh and sheep that I’m choosing to ignore this episode, but it is worth knowing where it came from, apparently 90% of Wales’s land area is devoted to sheep farming. There are about 9.8 million sheep, which is largely because the soil is not very suitable for the growing of crops. Unsurprisingly lamb is one of the country’s top exports.
Another major export being the evocatively titled ‘other transport equipment’. But specifically, for Wales it means wings. Broughton in Flintshire, Wales is a site where nearly 5,000 people make wings for Airbus aircraft. After manufacture, the wings are themselves flown to other Airbus plants where the planes are assembled.
The national flower is the daffodil, one of my favourite flowers, but that is a more recent interloper on the scene compared the older symbol of Wales, the Leek.
This supposedly stems from the time Cadwaladr (remember him), ordered his men to strap a leek to their armour or helmets to distinguish them from the enemy in the heat of battle.
Food wise – Wales is the home of Welsh Cakes, a curranty, scone-like bun or cake that looks a bit like a crushed raisin scone – but are jolly nice. They also have Laverbread which is neither lava nor bread . Laver is a kind of seaweed which is washed and boiled until it becomes kind of a puree which is traditional eaten fried with bacon and cockles - for breakfast
History of Wales
280-300 million years ago in Wales there were massive swampy forests in what we now know as Wales. Layers of trunks and branches of trees fell down to the ground and because of the swampy water, they didn’t rot away completely due to the lack of oxygen.
So thick layers of wood accumulated and the weight gradually squeezes out the water from the rotting plants and they start to compress. Remember this, we’ll be coming back to it in 300 million years.
Fast forward to 230,000 years ago, neanderthal man arrived in the area and started hanging out. One of those neanderthal’s carelessly leave a jawbone lying around for us to find at the Bontnewydd Palaeolithic site in North Wales. He and his friends had the place to themselves for a couple of hundred thousand years until 31,000 BC when Mr Homo Sapiens joined the party.
They hunted and gathered until around 4000 BCE when someone said, “What if we tried a bit of farming,” and at a stroke disruputed the hunting and gathering industries.
They had a nice time, having a bronze age and moving into an Iron age until the arrival of the Romans who, presumably adding some kind of raincoat to their togas conquered Wales from about 48CE and hung around for another 300 years.
Back to mining, even the Romans appreciated the country for its minerals, digging up gold, copper, and lead for the empire.
Then in 410CE the Romans realised the weather wasn’t actually going to clear up in a minute and left Britain to return to sunny Italy.
500 to 700CE was known as the age of the saints as various monasteries were established and Wales was basically a number of different kingdoms, including Gwynedd in the Northwest and Powys in the East.
9th century the first person to rule a significant chunk of Wales was Rhodri the Great, king of Gwynedd, then around the 10th century, Vikings started to show up for a bit of light pillaging.
Then starting around 1039CE, Gruffydd ap Llywelyn was a king who not only saw off the Vikings but also became King of the whole of Wales.
Then 1066 and the Norman invasions, which start in England, but William the Conquerer, loved to well, conquer and he kept going until the Normans had taken over Wales as well.
There were some Welsh rebellions, winning back authority from the Normans but in 1171 the Welsh leader Rhys ap Gruffydd met King Henry II and agreed to pay tribute in return for the role of Justiciar of South Wales.
This is particularly notable because Rhys celebrated by organising a poetry and song festival in 1176 which is generally regarded as the first recorded Eisteddfod, a traditional Welsh festival of poetry art and song that occur to this day.
There were various treaties, rebellions and conflicts between the Welsh and the English for the next 100 years or so until 1284, when the English King Edward the first aka the hammer of the Scots and the none-too-gentle-on-the-Welsh-either brought and end to all the fighting.
This resulted in the Statute of Rhuddlan, which was a change in the constitution annexing the Principality of Wales to the Realm of England. Also the King of England’s son became the Prince of Wales.
And that was it, with rebellions breaking out from time to time, probably most notably in 1400 when a chap named Owain Glendwr managed to free a large portion of Wales, getting international recognition and setting up a parliament but that only lasted 5 years before the English ultimately took control again, although Glendwr himself was never caught or betrayed despite the offer of huge rewards. As a result he remains an evocative name in Wales.
Then came Henry VIII who abolished the Welsh legal system and as we said, banned the Welsh language from officialdom.
Then it’s all rather folded in with the history of the United Kingdom as a whole until the industrial revolution. The rise of ironworks and the need for coal had a major impact on the area with the population of Wales doubling from half a million to a million between 1801 and 1851 and doubling again by 1911.
But the growth could not be sustained. Industry in Wales started declining from about 1920, and gradually poverty and deprivation became increasingly common.
Mining in particular continued to decline and by the 1990s there was only one deep pit mine remaining in the country.
In 1997 Wales voted for devolution – ie more local control, (albeit with a majority of just 50.3 per cent) and the The National Assembly for Wales was set up in 1999.
And that’s where we are today.
Although what’s not often talked about as much today as you might expect is that the capital city Cardiff is home to a time rift, which is why the Torchwood Institute is based there to battle various alien menaces. That institute’s work was documented by the BBC in the series Torchwood, featuring famous members such as Captain Jack Harkness and of course, um, Dr Who.
Coal in Wales in the 1920s
Ok, so our subject is coal in Wales in the 1920s. But we have to ask, what is coal?
You remember in our history section we had swampy forests not decaying due to lack of oxygen and getting compressed over millions of years? That’s the start of coal.
Over time, as it compresses, first of all it becomes peat, which is a kind of precursor to coal, which I hadn’t realised.
And another thing I didn’t realise is that the next stop is not just ‘coal’, there are various types of coal. The ranking depends on the types and amounts of carbon the coal contains and the amount of heat energy the coal can produce.
o Lignite is 25%–35% carbon, the lowest energy content and is crumbly and has high moisture content,
o Sub-bituminous coal is higher energy and contains 35%–45% carbon
o Bituminous coal contains 45%–86% carbon
o And at the top we have Anthracite is 86%–97% carbon and generally has the highest heating value of all ranks of coal
I’ve also seen the distinction made as, in ascending order of heat provision and hardness, house coal, steam coal and anthracite.
So that’s coal, but what about Coal in Wales. I thought I’d better get some help on this, so I contacted the Big Pit National Coal museum in Blenaevon, Wales. This is a mining museum in which you can actually go down into a real coal mine.
They also have experts, as you might expect, and one of their experts, a gentleman called Ceri Thompson agreed to talk to me.
He is not just a coal expert but an actual actual miner, so I was very lucky to meet him.
To get us started, Ceri told us about how much of a difference the discovery of coal made to Wales, inclidng the interesting fact that the British Royal Navy used Welsh coal in particular because it burned with little smoke, making it harder to see their ships. And if the Royal Navy isn’t enough to convince you, Thomas the Tank engine fans will of course be familiar with Henry the Green engine, who in the episode ‘Coal’ is feeling ill and is diagnosed with having a too small firebox. Fortunately, there’s a solution and the Fat Controller decides Henry should use Welsh coal instead, which burns better and helps Henry run well.
Ceris also explained what mining might look like in Wales in the 1920s with the miners cutting at the coal with their mandrill, a boy scooping the coal up and into a tram and the trams being linked together and taken up to the surface by a pony where it was checked by both the mine owners and representatives of the Union.
Throughout the nineteenth century, it was a private enterprise, mines were owned by private business and conditions were tough, but then World War 1 happened. With the war the mines were effectively nationalised and basically things got relatively better during world war 1 but then ran the risk of going backwards again with the return to private ownership. This led in 1919 to the appointment of the Sankey Commission
This was a royal commission, led by Sir John Sankey to look at the future of the mining industry. The commission suggested a middle ground on wages and hours, and also recommended renationalisation for the industry. So the government, who had commissioned this report, looked at the recommendations and said ‘nah, let’s not do any of that’.
Which led to some challenging times in the 1920s and a period characterised by ongoing strife between workers and owners, including the General Strike of 1926 which ended, ultimately, in defeat for the workers.
And what happened next was basically, the decline of the mining industry. Our period the 1920s basically marks the beginning of the end of coal in Wales.
These poor hands
On 9th January 1893 a man named Bert Coombes was born. He started live growing up on an English farm, which was a pretty hard life.
But then in 1910 he left home and headed to South Wales to become a miner. He worked down the pit, hard work, dangerous work and long hours. But he also had the heart of an artist, and when he got home, he would write.
He submitted various short stories, often unsurprisingly about mining and eventually he gets a story accepted by New Writing, a literary magazine that aimed to break down social barriers and published works by, shock working-class authors. It published Coombes' short story, called "The Flame”
This was the beginning of some literary success for Coombs.
But he’s important to us because eventually, he wrote a book titled These Poor Hands: The Autobiography of a Miner Working in South Wales about his time in the coalfields in the 1920s and the 1930s and in doing so, he created what Ceri Thomas said is to this day the single best record of coal mining in Wales.
It’s a good read, worth a look if you’re interested in the topic. And from my reading of it, I took away two major themes, the hard life of a miner and class struggle.
The hardship part was very simple. First off, you had to even get to work, which could be a significant walk, on one job he says,
“I was downstairs before half past four, in the morning that I started work at the new place. An early start was needed because we had to climb nearly three miles of mountain before we got to the work.”
And when they got there, the work was hard and uncomfortable, and often very wet.
“We were always working in about six inches of water… there is nothing pleasant about water underground. It looks so black and sinister. It makes every move uncomfortable and every stroke with the mandril splashes the water about your body.”
And it’s not just water, Coombs mentions they take food with them into the mine, but adds, “Food must be protected by a tin, for the rats and hungry and daring.”
But he does also note “we had a quarter of an hour for food.” So that was nice.
In addition, it was physically dangerous. There are numerous tales of accidents and injuries, on one occasion he notes:
“Very gently I examined the injured man and found he had a fractured collarbone and four broken ribs. He seemed relieved”
And of course just working underground, sometimes with poor ventilation, could cause general ill health, in one job he says,
“I was feeling the effects of working there myself and there was a ghostly look about many of the men who worked with us.”
And tragically there were numerous deaths, sometimes horrific. Coombs writes on one:
“Jack seemed to shiver all over, then slump forward. The father stumbled round to that side of the tram and found that a large stone had slid from the side and its sharp edge had caught Jack against the tram, almost severing the upper part of his body from the lower.”
In this case, the miner’s death saw the victim’s family compensated with just £18, and if you’re thinking that might be a lot in those days, bear in mind that a pit pony was worth £40, so a human life was valued at is less than half a pony
And if you managed to avoid death or injury, you lived in the lingering fear of silicosis, a lung disease caused by inhaling dust. There is a vivid passage when Coombs is in a pub and a silicosis=stricken ex miner comes in. Coombs writes:
“The stone dust had got inside his lungs, then every respiration had damaged and torn the delicate lining of the chest – as if rough stones were being rubbed inside a silken pocket handkerchief. This dust accumulated in his breathing organs, then closed together like cement. When the lungs were torn they were no longer air tight. Every day his breathing became more difficult, soon it would be impossible.”
So, yeah. Hardship.
And class struggle. Coombs writes evocatively of the ongoing mistrust between owners and miners, the injustices inflicted on the workers and the tricks that were used by the owners to minimise what the workers were to be paid
He recounts an early example of what we might call Hollywood accounting, to prevent having to pay the men, where the colliery also owns the sales and shipping companies that buy the coal from the colliery, so the company effectively sells the coal at a low price to itself, making a paper loss for the mine.
“What does it matter to them if they sell their own coal to themselves at a loss, as long as they get a good price for it when they sell it again as agents.”
Miners were expected not just to work, but provide and maintain their own tools
“John had a pile of tools and they were all needed. Shovels, mandrils of different sizes, prising-bars, hatchet, powder tin and coal boxes, boring machine and drills and several other things. He valued them at eight pounds (so just under half a human life) and he was forced to buy them himself. Nearly every week he had to buy a new handle of some sort and fit it into the tool at his home, so that his wages were not all clear benefit and his work not always finished when he left the colliery.”
On another occasion Coombs himself falls for one of their tricks. During one period when the miners were seeking to get higher payment for the coal because it was difficult to get out, the owners give him a good seam to work and an opportunity to earn good money on his shift. Nice of them, right. So he and his partner grafted hard to fill as many trams as possible to earn well.
“We went home very proud of our earning ability, and with the slogging that had been done quite forgotten. What neither of us realised until afterwards was that for that pound we had betrayed all hope of our fellow-colliers having the highest price for cutting coal. Their claims were defeated because it was shown that a large amount of coal could be filled … after that no one ever earned more than, or even the amount of, his minimum wage.”
So what do you do? Perhaps you might start supporting your local union,. Well, the mine owners would do what they could to prevent that
“Officials often prefer to engage men from a distance because these men are difficult to organise. They must hurry to their conveyances and cannot attend a meeting.”
And if you did succeed in becoming an activist Well in that case there were various sneaky ways the mine owners could make your life difficult
“A collier may be kept so short of rails that he has to throw his coal four or five yards farther than the man in the next place. He may be kept short of trams or timber or put in a place where the coal ifs very stiff or there is a lot of water. The man does not – he cannot – fill so much coal.”
He also talks about various industrial disputes and strike actions that took place, particularly in the 1920s. He describes the resolution of the miners.
“They were amazing in their determination, the women as well as the men. The company spread stories of big money being earned by those who worked, but the regular workmen remained penniless and loyal. All those three months, not a dozen local men broke away. “
Although there were some blacklegs, and Coombs has some choice words to say about them, describing them as, “The dregs of a large town coming to take advantage of the distress of their fellow men and help to starve their women and children; accepting a bribe to do work that was too hard and dirty for their liking when things were normal, and quite content to return to their leaning against street corners after they had done their share in lowering the standard of living.”
Coombs is very much on the side of the workers because he sees the human cost of inequality, at one point he writes poignantly, “If a man is sensitive and thinks about things he must surely get to hate the injustice of it all. I feel I hate the continual slavery and dust, the poor clothes and bare living; the need for decent men to beg their bread; the huge van that comes around every Friday and disgorges four beefy ex-policemen, who rush into a house and come out with the furniture of some miner, whilst he stands white-faced on the side with his children crying; the eviction form his home of some miner who has opened his mouth too wide or refused to be robbed of his wages when they were due.”
The final few pages end on a bleak yet optimistic note, when Coombs is talking to a colleague
“That’s the end of another week. I’ll have a look at a game this afternoon and a couple of drinks after. Then we’ll have a good dinner on Sunday and I’ll have a good sleep. When I wakes up, it’ll be near time to come to work and another week-end ull be over.”
Not much of a prospect is it? I asked.
Course it ain’t’ he agreed, ‘but what else is there?’
‘Not much know,’ I answered, ‘but it could be a lot different.’
These Poor Hands was published in 1939 by Victor Gollancz and it was widely praised for its authenticity but also its writing.
In 1974, the Times Literary Supplement wrote the backhanded compliment that Coombes was "one of the few proletarian writers of the 1930s who were impressive as writers rather than proletarians.",
By the end of 1939 sold 50,000 copies.
Coombs continued to write through the rest of his life, often about mining, which he continued to work in until the mid 1950s when he suffered a serious back injury.
Coombs was honoured by National Union of Mineworkers for ‘outstanding contribution to literature’ although one feels they may have been a bit biased.
Bert eventually died in 1974, aged eighty one
Our last story, Ryan, on the topic of Coal in Wales in the 1920s, is all about an American singer.
The singer is Paul Robeson.
Paul was a black man born in America in 1898, so not the most advantageous start. But he was prodigiously talented.
He earned a law degree. In fact, he earned a law degree, whilst playing football in the NFL.
But such was his talent that he is known neither as a lawyer nor a football player, but as a singer.
Robeston takes a stage role off Broadway in Eugene o Neills play The Emperor Jones, in which he is a great success. One thing leads to another, and soon enough Robeson finds himself in 1928 (our time period) securing a role in Show Boat in the West End of London, singing his breakout hit from the show – Ol Man River.
So, in 1928 or 29 Robeson was walking home after the show when he heard a choir singing in the street. The singers were unemployed Welsh miners from Rhondda who had marched to London to protest the poverty and lack of support in the South Wales valleys.
Apparently, Robeson felt their plight and joined in the march, even donating some money to the miners to help them get home again afterwards.
This was the beginning of an ongoing unlikely friendship between the Welsh valleys and Paul Robeson.As he grew more and more famous, he never forget his connection to the Welsh miners
He made a point of touring Wales and on one occasion in 1934, he was performing a concert in Caernarfon in Wales when there was a disaster at the Gresford colliery, killing 266 men. Robeson decided to help and donated his fees from his concert to help the victim’s families.
Continuing the Welsh connection, in 1940 he stars in the film The Proud Valley, in which Robeson plays David Goliath, an African-American sailor who deserts his ship and becomes a coal miner in Wales, filmed on location in the Rhondda valley.
And Robeson becomes more and more interested in left wing thought and causes
This causes him to become interested in, voice support for and to visit the Soviet Union, which does not go down very well in the USA.
In fact, it gets him cancelled – not the modern kind, but the old much harder Macarthyist kind, in which the US government actually refuse to issue him a passport and when asked why he was told it was due to, “"his frequent criticism of the treatment of blacks in the United States”
In 1952, Robeson was awarded the International Stalin Prize by the Soviet Union, which probably didn’t help with all that and in 1956 he found himself called in front of Mcarthy’s House Unamerican Activities Committee.
He eventually had his passport restored and returned to travelling the world sharing his remarkable voice but his experiences had taken their toll – he became paranoid, if it can be called paranoid if they are actually out to get you – and suffered a breakdown.
In 1963 he retired from public life, where he stayed until his death in 1976.
So I’m going to leave you with a quote from Robeson “The artist must take sides. He must elect to
And with a final quote from These Poor Hands when Coombs hears a song playing,
“I recognise that it is Paul Robeson… To do anything else except listen would be to insult one whom I count as one of the greatest men of all time.”
So that’s it, coal mining in Wales during the 1920s.
And don’t forget, if you want the real mine experience, you want to get underground and you want to learn more about coal mining in Wales, , get yourself down to South Wales, visit the Big Pit and tell Ceri that Pete sent you.