A new project has un­cov­ered a wealth of in­for­ma­tion about the lives of Welsh coal min­ers, as Alan Crosby dis­cov­ers

Who Do You Think You Are? Magazine - - CONTENTS -

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

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