A Brief History of Coal Mining in ResolfenThe following article is adapted from ‘Resolven’ by Alun Evans and John Mc Mahon.
“From coals for the same time nothing through the lack of workmen there .......” This could be a description of the state of the coal industry today, despite the fact that there is a small scale revival in the Vale of Neath at present. However, it in fact dates from the accounts for the Manorium de Neath in 1281. It also indicates that coal had been mined for some time before that date. Almost three hundred years later, John Leland a travelling antiquary who visited the town of Neath between 1536-38 noticed “considerable activity in coal workes and shipping”. The coal mines were all within the confines of Neath itself and were transported from the docks at Neath. River traffic was impossible above Aberdulais.
In 1791, the Neath Canal Act authorised the building of a canal between Glynneath in the north to Melincryddan in the south – a distance of ten and a half miles. Its original purpose was to carry iron ore from the various mines and outcrops at the head of the valley to the Venallt ironworks at Cwmgwrach, the Melin-y-Cwrt ironworks and Neath Abbey ironworks (whose ruins survive to this day). The canal was completed in 1795 and barges carrying 25 tons plied the waterway. In 1799, the canal was extended to Briton Ferry (Giants Grave) from where it was exported by coastal vessels. This proved a catalyst to the development of collieries in the Vale of Neath. Notably active in this regard were the Williams family of Aberpergwm.
In 1810 Rees Williams acquired property at Giants Grave for the shipment of his coal by canal, and Aberpergwm Colliery remained a Williams owned concern until 1920. In 1860, Nash Vaughan of Rheola House bought Baengwrach Colliery and in 1862 he added Cwmgwarch Colliery to his possessions. The first colliery in the Resolfen area was sunk by Whytton Lyon who gave his name to the oldest row of industrial terraced houses in the village, Lyons Place (or Row.)
Levels were opened in Cwm Clydach in 1854 by Messrs Jones and Jenkins. However, these were subject to a series of take-overs until the now familiar owners John, Cory and Yeo Company, took control and also gave their name to four streets in the village. By 1873 this had become the Cardiff Merthyr Steam Coal Company and by 1874 it had changed again to the Cardiff and Swansea Smokeless Steam Company (this was prized by the Royal Navy as a fuel for their new steamships and a third of world maritime coal in this era came from south Wales).The pit employed 89 men in 1888 and were now owned by Cory brothers of Cardiff. In 1896 the collieries were renamed Glyncastle and Rheola and along with Ty’n-y-Cwm and the Tyra Levels employed over 700 men. Ty’n-y-Cwm at the entrance to Cwm Clydach was abandoned in 1912 and in 1914 Cory Bros. opened a new level at Ffald-y- Dre above Glyncastle which employed a further 286 men by the end of the first world war. Rheola and the Tyra works closed in 1921. Ffald-y-Dre fell victim to the recession of the 1930s and Glyncastle was left as the main employer in the village. In 1935, 750 men toiled in “the Pit”. Opportunities were few at that time with some who had the good fortune to gain an education found work in the colliery office or a lucky few escaped to the pulpit or the classroom ( the famous Three Doctors of Music, David Evans, Tom Hopkin Evans and William Rhys Herbert were all colliers at one time in their careers ). Glyncastle Colliery
The coal industry dominated everyday life in Resolven as in much of south Wales until the 1960s. Colliers returning from or going to work were part of the daily street scene, many carrying bundles of sticks to be used as kindling. Free or cheap coal was another ‘perk’ of being a miner and loads were delivered by lorry and tipped outside before being carried into to the coal shed ‘out the back’. Often the whole family would assist with the chore of breaking and carrying the huge lumps of coal in buckets. A brush would then be used to gather the small coal “glo mân” which was not more than dust to be used to ‘bank up’ the fires of the house ( small coal was also used to make ‘pele’ literally Welsh for balls , a mixture of cement and small coal briquettes which were used as a cheap fuel ). It was often said about a collier’s home that there might not be too much money in the purse or food on the table, but there was always a fire roaring in the grate, winter and summer. After all, all cooking was done on the kitchen fire and making Sunday dinner or a rice pudding was a culinary challenge to arrange all the ingredients to be ready at the same time on the range (many viewers of the excellent BBC series “The Coal House” would have seen that one of the main duties of the housewife was keeping and maintaining the fire). Banked, with small coal, the fire would be kept burning ‘on a low heat’ so that a kettle could be boiled at 5am in order to make a cup of tea before the morning shift began at 6am. Coal was very precious to the household and the coal was stacked neatly with even the smallest piece of solid coal separated from the small coal with the use of a riddle (“shife” in Welsh) with a wire mesh bottom and wooden surround. However, the disadvantage of a house delivery system meant that coal had to be carried through the house and during this job small coal dust settled everywhere indoors on furniture curtains and windows. The exercise of shifting the coal was followed by the equally onerous task of cleaning the house.A by-product of the constant fires was the ubiquitous piles of ashes, either in clinkers or as a fine dust. To this day the people of Resolfen still refer to the refuse collection as ‘the ashes’ even though a note in our present day bins it says quite clearly that no hot ashes should be placed inside their plastic interiors for obvious reasons as against the galvanised bins of years ago.. Overmen at Glyncatle Colliery
The only official holiday (apart from Christmas Day), was miners fortnight, when the colliery ‘shutdown’ for the last week in July and the first week in August. The Royal Welsh Show and the National Eisteddfod still retain these dates approximately, as an echo of a bygone age when large crowds would only be available during these two weeks. Resolven became a deserted village as families migrated to the coastal resorts of Barry or Porthcawl to stay in ‘digs’,lodging houses or caravans particularly at Trecco Bay. It was not unusual for whole streets to go on holiday together. Porthcawl was thought of as being especially suitable in clearing the lungs of dust following a year’s toil underground. Even the pit ponies had a break at this time with a well earned fortnight in fields of fresh green grass and of course, sunshine ( it was not unusual for colliers to hardly see the sun for months during the winter even if they worked the day shift). For those families left behind, it was a time of picnics and general fun.
By 1950, the number of men working in Glyncastle had dropped to 262 with 165 still working at Ffald-y- Dre. Ynysarwed colliery was also facing closure during the 1950s. Eventually, Ffald-y-Dre closed in 1963 and Glyncastle in 1965. When this article was first penned in 1991, it would appear that this was the end of the story. However, in fact there have been several coal based enterprises recently including the salvaging of coal from tips in the Resolven area and other mines have actually been reopened temporarily within the Resolven ward, namely the Lyn and the Venallt. We have been reminded that the coal workings are still below our feet with orange water in the Clydach and Garwed brooks and the massive expenditure on bullrush lagoons built to resolve the problem. In an age of rocketing energy prices and the advent of clean coal technology what does the future hold? It is said that over fifteen million tons of coal are left in the Resolven seams which could well be called upon in the not so distant future; however it is unlikely that King Coal will ever regain his influence on the daily lives of the inhabitants of this typical Welsh industrial village.