Miners for the Day – Big Pit. Welsh 100 – No 38

Christmas had finished and after our brief outing to Nash point we were eager to get another of the Welsh 100’s ticked off. But.. And it’s a big but, the rain kept on falling, so what could we do? Where could we go that would not be affected by the constant downpour? It had to be something inside, so why not go not only inside but also down deep? The only place to go would be down a coal mine. We live in South Wales surrounded by closed pits, landscaped coal tips and friends who are ex-miners. Add to this that my great-great grandfather was a miner in North Wales and we have a link. OK a tenuous link, but still a real link. Then add to that the fact that the whole thing is free – then there is no reason at all not to go down a deep black hole, is there?

Having got all dressed up and ready to descend 90m down a big black and dirty hole we were stripped of all out valuables. Was this a robbery? No it’s the safety procedure and all items of “contraband” were taken from us and kept locked away in the guides locker. Yes, you read that correctly, they use the term contraband to describe any item that could possibly cause a spark while we are underground. This includes anything with a battery, cameras (obviously but disappointingly), watches, lighters and matches. But hearing aids have been allowed since the 1970s. Even though the is now a tourist attraction it is still classified as a working mine, and so all rules and regulations still apply to anyone going underground. There is always the risk of methane gas being released and concentrations building up from the remaining coal and so for one I’m not going to take any risks. However, it does mean that we don’t have any photos from underground.

 After the safety briefing we were all crammed into the cage lift and whisked 90m down the mine shaft to the entrance to the tunnels. Big Pit got it’s name not from the size of the pit itself, but from the width of it’s working tunnels. Now even though we’ve been down here before many years ago, I still don’t have anything to reference this from, having only been down slate mines before. All the guides are ex-miners and have known pits in their working days. Our guide is also a member of the mines rescue team – so we were in good hands. And of course, he also had the typical Welsh humour to help with his explanations.

The tour underground is extensive and we saw some of the newer and older workings, including the pit pony stables. If you ever get the chance I really recommend the visit.

 After each shift all the lamps were stored in the lamp room where they were charged ready for the next shift of miners. This was also one point of safety. Early check systems usually employed a single check for each underground worker, which was usually taken home at the end of the shift. At the start of the shift the check was handed to the lamp man and exchanged for a safety lamp stamped with the same number as on the check. At the end of the shift the miner handed his lamp in and retrieved his check either from the lamp man or from a ‘tally board’. 

Check systems varied between coal fields and altered over time, by the late 1970s a three check system (safety check system) became common. In this system each underground worker was issued with three checks, often of different shapes and sizes, one to be handed in to the lamp room, one to be handed to the banksman before the miner descended the shaft and one was kept on the person during the shift.

Canaries are still kept in the pit head building at Big Pit, even though they have been replaced by modern technology in the form of handheld gas analysers. They were formally phased out of British mining industry in the mid 1980s, but their use was so ingrained in the culture miners report whistling to the birds and coaxing them as they worked, treating them as pets.

But why would you need a canary in a mine? The canary is particularly sensitive to toxic gases such as carbon monoxide which is colourless, odourless and tasteless. This gas could easily form underground during a mine fire or after an explosion. Following a mine fire or explosion, mine rescuers would descend into the mine, carrying a canary in a small wooden or metal cage. Any sign of distress from the canary was a clear signal the conditions underground were unsafe and miners should be evacuated from the pit and the mineshaft made safer.

The site has some of the oldest large scale industrial coal mining developments in the South Wales Coalfield, with workings dating back to 1810 on the Coity Mountain. The nearby Coity pit had been driven in 1840, but was a then traditional circular single tramway 12 feet (3.7 m) in dimension. The new main shaft was sunk in 1860, named “Big Pit” due to its elliptical shape with dimensions of 18 feet (5.5 m) by 13 feet (4.0 m), the first shaft in Wales large enough to allow two tramways. On completion it became the coal-winding shaft, while the older Coity shaft was used for upcast air ventilation (1).

In 1878, the main shaft was deepened to reach the Old Coal seam at 293 feet (89 m). By 1908, Big Pit provided employment for 1,122 people, and by 1923 at peak, there were 1,399 men employed, producing: House Coal, Steam Coal, Ironstone and Fireclay; from the Horn, No. 2 Yard, Old Coal and Elled seams. On nationalisation in 1947, the National Coal Board (NCB) took over the mine from the Blaenavon Co. Ltd, which employed 789 men.

By 1970 the workforce only numbered 494, as operations had focused solely on the Garw seam, with a maximum thickness of only 30 inches (760 mm). The NCB agreed the development of a drift mine which by 1973 meant that windings at Big Pit had ceased, with coal extracted close to the refurbished Black Lioncoal washery The Coity shaft was abandoned, with the Big Pit shaft used for upcast air ventilation and emergency extraction. The pit finally closed on 2 February 1980 before opening again in 1983 as part of the National Museum of Wales. 

Before pithead baths became widely available, most coal miners, already exhausted from a day’s work had little choice but to travel home from work still filthy with coal dust. Their clothing was often soaking with sweat and mine water and they were at risk from contracting pneumonia, bronchitis or rheumatism. Once home they had the task of removing as much of the dirt as possible in a tin bath in front of the fire.

The women of the house were usually responsible for the heating of water for the miner’s bath and the cleaning and drying of his clothes. In addition it was a constant battle to clean the house from the all-prevailing coal dust. This was never ending and back breaking work and exhaustion and physical strain often led to serious health problems, leading in some cases to premature births and miscarriages. 

It took considerable lobbying by social reformers, working under the banner of the ‘Pithead Baths Movement’, to convince the Government, mine owners and even some of the miners and their wives, that pithead baths were needed. From the initial campaigns of the 1890s it was a long, hard struggle to the establishment in 1926 of a special fund for the building of baths under the auspices of the Miners’ Welfare Committee. 

Pit head baths had been in use in Belgium, France and Germany since the 1880s. In 1913, a delegation was sent by David Davies, the proprietor of the Ocean Coal Company and an advocate of social reform, to see these European baths. This visit led to the building of the first Welsh baths at Deep Navigation Colliery, Treharris, in 1916. The success of the Deep Navigation baths played a key part in the propaganda campaign by those who wished to see pithead baths at every Welsh colliery (2).

In 1919 the British Government established a Royal Commission, (the ‘Sankey Commission’), to investigate social and living conditions in the coalfields. As a result a ‘Miners’ Welfare Fund’ was set up to ‘… improve the social well being, recreation, and condition of living of workers in or about coal mines.’ This fund gained its income through a levy of a penny on every ton of coal mined. The fund was used for various purposes including the provision of playing fields, swimming pools, libraries, and institutes. From 1926, an additional levy was raised specifically to fund a baths building programme (2).

During the period the Miners’ Welfare Fund was in existence, from 1921 to 1952, over 400 pithead baths were built in Britain. The Miners’ Welfare Committee’s own architects’ department established the most cost-effective way of constructing, equipping and operating baths buildings. By the 1930s, a ‘house style’ had developed, based on the ‘International Modern Movement’ of architectural design (2).

Baths stood out amongst other colliery buildings with their flat roofs, clean lines and the plentiful use of glass to give a natural light and airy feel. Some baths, such as the one at Big Pit, were rendered white which, even today, makes it a prominent landmark on the hillside. The limited resources available to the Miners’ Welfare Committee meant that many Welsh collieries were not provided with baths until the 1950s. After the nationalisation of the coal industry in 1947 the provision of pithead baths became the responsibility of the National Coal Board.

There used to be many coal mines in Wales, the exhibition lists over 600 known coal mines. Steady increases in output and manpower meant that the early 20th century gave Wales its peak production figures. No less than 57m tons of coal was produced in 1913, by 232,000 men working in 620 mines (3). The largest number of men ever to work in the Welsh coal mines was 271,000 in 1920. Post war, there was a recession in the coal market, due to a combination of a move to oil power by shipping and the development of coal industries overseas. Men were laid off: 140,000 by 1936. South Wales lost 241 mines in the same period. This decline continued into the 1980 and 1990. Now there are no deep cast mines left in Wales, only a few opencast mines and small private mines employing only a handful of men in each. Many areas of Wales are still struggling with this huge looks of employment, with many areas being among the most deprived in Europe.

Here is a well known song – part in Welsh and part in English. 

I am a little collier and gweithio underground
The raff will never torri when I go up and down
It’s bara when I’m hungry
And cwrw when I’m dry
It’s gwely when I’m tired
And nefoedd when I die

Gweithio – Working: Raff – Rope:  Bara – Bread: Torri – Break: Cwrw – Beer: Gwely – Bed: Nefoedd – Heaven

1: Wikkipaedia. https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Big_Pit_National_Coal_Museum. Accessed 2015-01-02

2: Thomson, C. (2011) http://www.museumwales.ac.uk/articles/2011-06-30/Pithead-Baths. Accessed 2015-01-02

3: BBC Website. http://www.bbc.co.uk/wales/history/sites/themes/society/industry_coal03.shtml Accessed 2-15-01-03

3 thoughts on “Miners for the Day – Big Pit. Welsh 100 – No 38

  1. Brilliant post Paul. My father was a pithead engineer. We left Wales when the pits closed because he needed work. We drove past the slag heaps each time we went back to the Brad. Methane probably caused the Senghenydd disaster in 1913. 440 killed. They were bad times and many of the men later died of pneumoconiosis. Not a job for the faint-hearted.

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    1. Many thanks Andrew. There is a new memorial garden and museum in Senghenydd, which is on our list of things to do before the weather improves and we can get our more, and also before work takes me abroad again soon. I bought my first house in Abertridwr when I first moved to Cardiff – only had a single nurses wage then. The Brad hasn’t changed much possibly since you lived here, but the heaps are not as prominent today – either through plant growth or reclamation. Perhaps the biggest change is in Blackwood where the huge tip made famous by Lowrie has gone completely and is now a park.

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      1. I was last in the Brad in Oct 13. The church has long gone. My uncle was the organist in the 60s I think. Another uncle had the grocery shop: Davies & Gratton. We were all down in Garden Street. As you say, not much has changed. It’s in my blood.

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