CELEBRATING YOUR PROJECTS
A new project has uncovered a wealth of information about the lives of Welsh coal miners, as Alan Crosby discovers
Exploring the lives of miners in Wales
This month I’m profiling a project being undertaken by Glamorgan Archives, based in Cardiff. With a Wellcome Trust Research Resources grant, the Archives has started the ‘Glamorgan’s Blood: Dark Arteries, Old Veins’ project. The intriguing title is a quotation from Rhondda Valley, a poem by Mervyn Peake (1911– 68) about the coal which was the “limb, life and bread” of the county.
The project involves cataloguing and conserving the records in the National Coal Board (NCB) collection held by the Archives. The material spans two centuries, from the 1790s to the 1990s, and there are 225 boxes, 884 volumes and 470 rolls of plans. Almost all the archive relates to Glamorganshire, and the aim is to complete the work in December 2019.
There’s a wealth of material that will be of tremendous value to family and local historians. This was by far the largest industry in Wales in the 19th century and most of the 20th. Its very rapid expansion from the 1830s onwards transformed the Welsh Valleys, creating new towns and drawing in hundreds of thousands of migrants from all parts of the British Isles. But life was hard, often short, and the social and environmental conditions of the coal valleys were notoriously poor.
The archives are wide ranging, covering not only the NCB but also many predecessor companies nationalised in 1947 – for example, the records of ten colliery companies. At its peak in 1913 there were 620 mines in Wales, and in 1920 there were an astonishing 271,000 miners and colliery workers.
Records of workers have unfortunately often been lost, but the NCB collection includes the rare survival of 187 paybooks for employees of the United National Collieries Company. These give fascinating detail about different rates of pay for specific tasks, such as ripping – clearing the roof so horses and trams (trucks) could use the passages; gobbing – packing rubbish and waste into the spaces left when coal was removed; and timbering – erecting props to support the roof.
There’s lots of material on industrial diseases, injuries and disabilities. Mining was a particularly dangerous occupation, and sources such as accident and compensation registers reveal much about the many hazards, including the much-feared ‘miner’s lung’ or pneumoconiosis. The documents capture the experiences of individuals and their families.
During the 20th century, miners’ welfare became a major issue. The more progressive companies made major improvements in safety and the health of the workers. One innovation was the installation of pithead baths at many collieries. A series of records relate to these, including manuals on how to use them, important for men who had no experience of using communal facilities of this sort.
I asked Louise Clarke, the archivist in charge of the project, about its value for family historians. She told me: “We frequently have requests from genealogists seeking information on our colliery records but the material was uncatalogued and largely inaccessible, so there was a lot of frustration felt by family historians. On completion of the project, material will be easier to access, with the names of collieries searchable in our online catalogue. The collection is of special benefit to those interested in finding out about what life in the coalfield was like for their ancestors, with material concerning pay, working conditions, welfare, industrial accidents and industrial disease”.
Louise herself was especially interested in the documents relating to compensation case documents, but she also found an unexpected treasure. “It’s a set of company publications, The Ocean and National Magazine, which contain articles, poems, cartoons and other content that gives a vivid glimpse into life in the coalfields in the 1920s and 1930s”.
Life was hard, often short, and the conditions of the coal valleys were notoriously poor
Recording lives for posterity: a mine rescue team (top) and a training certificate issued by Brynmenin Rescue Station, 1920