Banwen Colliery

“Back in tough Banwen we have a valley's lunch at Caffi Sarn Helen, baguettes, latte, Panini, and pizza slices in a building converted from the offices of the National Coal Board Open Cast. This is the Dove Centre, a community venture providing computer suite, day nursery, garden, re-education and training facilities and a home for the miners library. Founded by Mair Francis in the teeth of the 1984 strike this is an example of women reclaiming their heritage. The all-women miners support groups hanging on. Agents for change, re-educators, sustainers of life. Lesley Smith and Julie Bibby take me round, laughing, bubbling with enthusiasm for what they do. There's more life here than anywhere else I've seen in the whole Dulais Valley. On the wall are framed jackets from George's books. Boys of Gold. Where The Flying Fishes Play. A living connection with an underground past. During a break in the dampness we go outside for George to show me where the pit head once was. A bumpy green field with a wrecked car in its corner. The line of the Roman Road rises beyond, smashed by open cast and forestry planting but still visible, just. Then the rain, friend of reclamation, once more increases and we go back inside” 

From peterfinch.,co.uk, “Virtually Banwen”


Maesmarchog Colliery: outside the Lamp Room (1930s): D Miller, M Evans, D Williams.  (Source: courtesy of WT Davies, “Now and Then” series)

The miners’ dress in these photographs is interesting.  They have not yet adopted the uniform industrial uniform of later years - characterised by National Coal Board orange overalls - but instead adopt a variant of everyday clothing - including jackets and waistcoats.  It’s as if they had just stepped off the street for a quick detour down the mine. 

The usual wear is a cloth cap, old scarf, work jacket and waistcoat, old stockings, flannel shirt, singlet, and pants.  Thick moleskin trousers must be worn to bear the strain of kneeling and dragging along the ground, and strong boots are needed because of the sharp stones in the roadway…” (Coombes, 1939).

There is no set date for the establishment of a colliery at Banwen: because the coal was outcropping close to the surface, here at the rim of the coalfield basin, much of it had always been easily accessible and did not require the large amounts of capital involved in the more binary establishments of the eastern valleys which needed elaborate pit-sinking operations to get going.  Coal had been taken here in greater or lesser form for centuries, sometimes purely for domestic purposes.

Nonetheless, at the beginning of the nineteenth century, activity began to be consolidated in a more organised way around the Maesmarchog  drifts as there was clearly potential for sustained extraction.  Outside capital began to be interested and a succession of owners developed the drifts into the usual industrial organisation.

The colliery went under a number of names - Maesmarchog, Banwen - and was last officially known as “Onllwyn No. 3”.  It was part of the “anthracite belt” and this was in general slightly distinguished from other south Walian coal communities: it was found, firstly, towards the north western edge of the overall coal basin; then there was a difference in extraction methods, here, due to the geography, usually accessed via drifts rather than shafts, and finally perhaps even a difference in people and community.   One important difference was that the anthracite area tended to be more generally prosperous than other areas. 

To begin with though, these were very early collieries, hidden away and supporting small community outposts up on the moor and bog  for quite some time before organised capital found them.  Even then, access was difficult, if only in perception, and the indigenous population tended to stay put.  While there was substantial in-migration in the boom years of the mid nineteenth century, these newcomers worked alongside people who were already there and the tops of these high valleys remained relatively sealed until well into the twentieth century.  Their Welsh speaking heritage was thus transmitted in relatively undiluted form down the generations and thus there was less apparent discordance later, possibly, in an Onllwyn-born, Welsh speaking Communist general secretary of the south Wales NUM (Dai Francis, 1911-81) being a bard of the National Eisteddfod, and establishing a bilingual Miners’ Eisteddfod.  In the more heterogenous and amorphously-populous eastern valleys, such a position would have been difficult on different cultural and political levels.  The “apartness” (Francis & Smith, 1998) of the anthracite area, which is a recurring leitmotif among many commentators and observers, seems to have conveyed some special status on its representatives.

Nonetheless, some dilution of the population took place daily as the labour needs of the local collieries could not be met by local men alone.  Thus,

Men came from all parts of the country to share in this new prosperity - many to remain and settle in the village” (Evans, 1964)

Otherwise, men came daily, either part way by train or by walking on the railway line.  There were no roads yet, just cart tracks, liable to mud and flooding.


These young miners are likely to have been photographed somewhere around the Onllwyn/Banwen collieries, perhaps in the 1870s-1880s.  Unfortunately they cannot be identified but are thought to have been either from the Jeffreys or Alexander families.  Each has one of the essential tools of the trade: pick, shovel or long boring drill bit.  All of course have a lamp.  Photo kindly provided by J. Alexander.

They came from the Swansea Valley, crossing Mynydd-y-Drum.  They crossed the mountain by day and night - in the darkness of the early morning and the late evening, lighting their way with small hand lamps.  At times the mountain looked like a moving fairyland, studded with brightly-coloured lights.” (Evans, 1964)

As a grammar-school boy in south Wales, just after the Second World War, I lived in a bi-partite world: the coastal town, which was my home, and the valley that lay behind it. The two and the school I saw as avenues to a larger world, the valley as a tunnel leading back into the narrower world of Wales.  The perception was reinforced at school by differences between the ‘valley boys’ and us, sophisticates of the town. Countrified in manner, their speech heavily-accented, and, frequently and unforgivably in those days, Welsh-Speaking, the valley boys embodied most of the traits the school hoped to eradicate.  Every morning they arrived by slow train, fugitives from the dark hinterland of coal-mining and upland farming, to be taught and polished by the Anglo-Welsh luminaries of the time.  The villages they came from Cwmgwrach, Resolfen, Creunant, Coelbren, Onllwyn, Banwen, were shadowy places, seldom visited then…

…Only after leaving school did I did get to know something of the world that lay beyond the town.  One summer I worked as a bus conductor and for several weeks I was assigned to the Dulais Valley route.  The Dulais is a tributary of the Nedd (Neath) river.  My driver was an astute man, who warned me that Creunant, a few miles up the Dulais, and our first stop, was the tipping point.  An old village…Creunant was just within the restraining influence of the town.  But beyond Creunant, he warned, we were more or less on our own in territory where the bus inspectors feared to go, or at least chose not to.  The issue was tickets….The bus company…decided it was an issue better to avoid than engage.”

from Foreword to Rees, R. “The Black Mystery” (Y Lolfa, 2008)

The “territory” beyond and north of Crynant about which Ronald Rees was warned  was thus the Upper Dulais valley or sometimes Dulais Higher administrative area, a wide open, rain-lashed and windswept moonscape which had absolutely no reason to support anything other than a few strung out hill farms - apart from the fact that it sat on top of millions of tons of coal.  There were dozens of little collieries and random mine-workings up here, springing up out of the gloom wherever a drift could be cut.  The better organised and bigger ones generally formed into the Onllwyn & Banwen collieries, Seven Sisters and Abercrave collieries.  Slightly further back down the valley was Crynant - with Blaenant and Cefn Coed as the bigger mines.

The ownership of these anthracite mines at the valley heads also differed slightly from the rest of the coalfield.  There was a procession of more and less successful individual coal owners throughout the nineteenth century, but by 1909, the Evans Bevan company controlled all the Dulais Valley mines.  Much of the land and farms were bought by David Bevan in 1885, at the dispersal of the Miers estate.  However, the resultant Evans-Bevan company appears to have been less of a “combine” than other much larger concerns such as the Powell-Duffryn Company or the Ocean Collieries Company, and was at least managed quite locally, from Neath.  While there was undoubted ongoing general antipathy between owner and workers, sometimes expressed as hatred of particular colliery managers, there was possibly less outright alienation between the two than in other areas and some commentaries describe the company in reasonably complimentary terms.  This may, of course, have simply reflected the fact that this was a prosperous coal area, with the valuable anthracite - and the men’s labour - in great demand.   “At the YMCA end of Dyfryn Cellwen were a half dozen or so bungalows, built in the last five six or years (i.e. about 1939).  Some were built of brick, others of asbestos and timber - these would have been bought from a catalogue and delivered in sections ready for erection.  There was a dozen of that type of bungalow on the Glyn Neath/Banwen road.  It was one of the very visible signs of the benefits of the prosperity, the mining of anthracite coal had brought to the valley in the late thirties, with the design of household stoves and industrial generators to burn the hard smokeless coal.  Colliers were able to buy land and build their own houses.” (Evans, 2006, p51). The market for anthracite was also essentially export and paradoxically it suffered a crisis in the second world war with the loss its principal French market.  After nationalisation in 1947, there was a great deal of trouble for the NCB and NUM jointly, in unpicking some of the very complicated wage arrangements (involving creative applications of the price-list) previously made entirely unilaterally, without reference to the Fed at Cardiff, generally in the miners’ favour, evidence some suggest (Francis & Smith, 1998; Evans, 1976) of a more considered and enlightened form of industrial relations here, but again different to the rest of the coalfield.   Later, when amalgamation  and closures began to bite in this area as well as others, orchestrated by the oft derided “N C bloody B” (National Coal Board) now held by some as simply a highly bureaucratised organ of now state rather than private capitalism, complete with its own monied elite, there appears to have been some nostalgia for the company way of doing things.  “The Evans Bevan family were never known to evict.”  (GB Evans, 2006, p17).  At least, it seems to be suggested sometimes, the men knew who they were dealing with under Evans-Bevan.

This plaque stands near the DOVE Workshop at Banwen and is one of the very few acknowledgements of what went on here for hundreds of years.

The earliest recorded coal mining in the Banwen area commenced at Dyffryn Cellwen by a William Jenkins and the deep mining of coal continued in the Banwen Pyrddyn area through successive developers for a further 398 years until 1962.  

During the early period of mining at Banwen it was usual for young children to work alongside their parents. An  example of this is illustrated by Katie Jones, a young girl who is recorded as being employed as a “collier boy” in the Banwen Mine during the nineteenth century. 

Following the initial development by William Jenkins, Mary Williams was granted a 99 year lease to mine on three hundred acres on the Banwen Pyrddyn in 1670.

Evan Evans Bevan purchased the colliery in 1909 then named the colliery Maesmarchog Colliery and renamed it the Onllwyn No. 3 Colliery but the mine has always been referred to locally as the Banwen Colliery. 

By the 1930s it had become one of the largest anthracite mines in the world, employing one thousand two hundred men.  The coal seams worked in the area were the Stwrin, Four Feet, Eighteen Feet, Nine Feet, Cornish, Harno, Brass, Greys and Bluers.  In 1947 the mine was incorporated into the National Coal Board until its closure in 1962.

The Banwen open cast coal site and the Banwen tip recovery development operated between 1986 and 1995 reclaiming the land previously occupied by the Banwen Colliery.

Edgar Pugh unveiled this plaque on 31st May 2002, being the oldest surviving collier of the Banwen Colliery.

This plaque is dedicated to all the men, women and children who worked, often in appalling conditions, under the ground you are now standing on.

At the surface of Banwen mine.  The timber is destined to be cut and shaped before being taken into the mine.  In the basket I believe are wooden notches used to tightly wedge in the horizontal timber supports to the uprights.  Part of the collier’s job was to maintain the roofs and they were paid for this on a piece basis, as for anything else.   

Photo courtesy of WT Davies


Working at Banwen Colliery

By George Evans, Neath

I started at Banwen Colliery when I was 14 years of age in 1940 and I worked there until France fell later that year, which affected the demand for anthracite coal. A lot of men were out of work, and many of them joined the forces. 

I was too young to be sent away so I was sent to a new colliery that was opening, a drift. Me and my friend were sent there as, how shall I say, dog's bodies.

The food was very short and after a while they gave miners an extra couple of ounces of cheese I think. When you're shovelling for seven and a half hours a day, it's a very physical job. Then they brought in colliery canteens to boost the food rations to give us extra food. When a man works very hard he doesn't have time for a lot of food.

I went away in 1943 when I was 18 and joined the armed forces and I came back in 1947 when Nationalisation had come into force.

At Banwen there were 1,300 men and 90 horses working. The stables were as good as anything you would see at Newmarket. They were immaculate. The horses were washed, and because it was a drift mine the horses came out everyday and were hosed down with the water used in the engine houses.

I worked until 1961 at Banwen, when I knocked my eye out. We were changing the timber that had been squeezed out by the weight of the rock and someone had used a piece of ordinary wire to tie up the cables. When we moved it, the wire sprung out. It took my eye out. Eventually they had to remove my eye in hospital.

Afterwards I was sent to a Government training centre on Western Avenue in Cardiff. In those days you couldn't loaf about. If you had an accident you still had to go and train. There was a place that trained people who had chopped their leg off or knocked their eye out on Western Avenue. 

I had a claim to fame there. The Royal Mint was being built and they were training disabled men to work there. They were bringing guys down from the Tower Of London where the Royal Mint was. I used to weigh the blank coins in the morning and take them to the machines. After the lads had printed the coins I would pick them up and they were bagged ready to be taken to London. These were the first half penny and penny coins to be used and they were made in Western Avenue.

I finished my training and worked in a hospital for a bit. Although the people I worked with were lovely people, after you have been in industry for a long time it is very difficult to work anywhere else. I don't ever remember being unhappy at the colliery.

From the BBC “Coalhouse at War” project.


A uniquely local account of working as a collier’s boy in Banwen colliery is given by Joseph Emlyn Jones here.

A colliery spake: in drift mines such as Banwen, colliers would either walk in to their allotted places or would travel on the spake - a rudimentary from of miniature train.  Coming out, “riding the drams” (the coal wagons) was a common if prohibited and dangerous practice - many injuries and deaths were caused by this.

Until the mid 1980s, coal mining was a given, seemingly immutable part of British industry.  Miners could and regularly did bring the country to near standstill through strike action and their leaders were among the most powerful and regularly villified union “barons”, always at the top table in government negotiations before Margaret Thatcher decided to finish them. As the twentieth century wore on, coal’s power became somewhat mythologised although the truth of the economics increasingly denied that prominence real credibility.  The myth of the miner was enough to keep his image held high.  Some suggest coal’s real importance in the national economy was finished sometime after the first world war and this was particularly true in these first boom areas in south Wales.  The reality here at least was that narrow, old mines like Banwen were almost worn out by the end of the second world war and would never be able to operate properly in the machine-cutting age.  Banwen limped on through the 1950s, shedding jobs, tinkering half-heartedly with modernisation but reducing tonnage and manpower gradually until final closure in 1962.  Even then, close to 500 men lost their jobs.

After the colliery closed in February 1962, the opencast operations continued.  Huge machines churned up the surface of the colliery.  Heavy blasting shook the houses. The opencast worked to within thirty yards of the houses. Apart from the pithead baths and the colliery canteen, the colliery has now disappeared and with it a life-time of struggle by miners. The old rubbish tips have been smoothed over ready for the forestry to plant trees.

From Evans (1977)

Fifty odd years on from that, there is almost no trace of the mines at Onllwyn or Banwen, just strange holes, random dips and generally unnatural undulation in the fields.   Both the original drifts and the later open cast workings have been landscaped away, smothered with perma-conifer and dirt tracks.  All the trades that supported the mine have vanished and there is nothing to tell us about the blacksmiths, the carpenters, hostlers (those who managed the horses), fitters, drivers & engineers, managers and canteen staff that all thrived and bustled around this busy place.  

In January 1962, The Herald of Wales ran an article about the impending closure of Banwen Colliery  (this is shown on a wall in the DOVE Centre).

banwen mine display DOVE1


(awaiting transcription)


A regrettable lapse in editorial judgement meant that two of the three cartoons on the right hand side of the page both related to employment problems!

banwen dove centre view2

Strange undulations in the fields above the DOVE Centre 9the old NCB offices) testify to the disturbed terrain: this was the site of Banwen No. 3 colliery.  Photo by G. Jones, 2014

The local historian Chris Evans (1911-1993) saw this happening in the 1960s, when he finished his account of the village of Seven Sisters.

"Hirfynydd bears the scars of forestry, the young saplings have taken root, in a few years' time the surrounding mountains will once more be covered with that dark green look. Will the village then be forgotten? Will it return to the days of long ago with nothing to disturb its peaceful surroundings but the murmurings of the streams, the braying of the beast and the sweet twittering of birds and the memories of old men?"

Needless to say, he correctly foresaw a now well-advanced process.  The only reason for the existence of the villages here was the iron foundries and the mines; their presence now seems superfluous and it seems the mountain wants the moor back, having suffered so much rude and unnatural ingress.  There are strange, illogical and sinking road systems left, laid originally for the collieries, a lot now unnecessary, clearly under used and most badly maintained.  Now purposeless railway bridges float meaninglessly above grassy voids. There hasn’t been an obvious rush to prettify the place as there apparently seems no need.  The pubs, solidly and grandly built for hundreds of solid men with money to spend daily, ground to a halt decades ago, practically all now demolished, and nothing replacing them.  Why does this feel so different to so many other de-industrialised parts of the UK, indeed even to other old mining areas?  It is because we are still right on the margin and never were anywhere else, nothing abides on the high moor under the big skies miles from anywhere and many good reasons to be somewhere else; there was no other original reason to be here than coal and the fundamental plausibility of sustained life now seems resoundingly weak

Altogether, this looks like a photograph taken on another planet or a “Mad Max” film-set: a pre-1947 view of of the next-door Onllwyn washery, which would have processed Banwen coal, with the spoil tips clearly visible around Onllwyn housing.  The distinctive heart-shaped logo of the Evans-Bevans company is just about discernable on the coal wagons (example of which shown below, and on the Evan Bevans original brewing concern: source WT Davies, Now and Then series).  

© Crown copyright: Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historical Monuments of Wales: Aerofilms Collection.   Reproduced here under Licence no: RCPL2/3/62/022

 

© (the written content and authorial photographs) Gareth Jones 2015-19