A young George Evans at Banwen colliery. Source: Davies, Now and Then series.
Working at Banwen Colliery
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.
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)
“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”
The Herald of Wales
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). 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!
Joseph Emlyn Jones
The poem below was written by local man Joseph Emlyn Jones, probably sometime in the 1980s.
The prenationalisation collier boy
To David Martin Evans Bevan for employ.
The night before first shift to start at seven clothes to air
My mother putting working clothes draped over a wooden chair.
The alarm clock would be set for six
For breakfast bread and cheese in those days no Weetabix.
Donning my working clothes and working boots
The walk to work before the seven o’clock hooter hoots.
To arrive at the lamp room at seven o’clock
Before descending down the drift mine which had been driven through hard rock.
To pass the daylight turn and down the hard heading
Approaching the deputies check point for debriefing.
After the fireman checked my lamp proceed to place of work
Believe me this was no place for you to shirk.
I worked with father in the four feet seam of coal
In those days no boys were signing on the dole.
Passing the haulier with horse and empty dram
Arriving at face to bore coal holes for the shotsman to ram.
After the blast with heading full of smoke
Waiting a while for it to clear for fear we would choke.
Out with the shovels to fill the dram which was in short supply
To await the haulier to come by.
The haulier would stop by the tumbling place
To tumble the empty dram in to the empty space.
The hauler would hitch the horse to the full dram
Which had been raced not the race associated with Steve Cram.
It was done to maximise the weight in tonnage
At the end of the week would help with pay packet coinage.
Each dram would be hitched up in lots of fourteen
To be taken up the drift mine and down to the screen.
On arrival each dram would be weighed separately
Every collier had a special number exclusively.
I remember my father’s special number being 041
Each dram every day would start with number one.
In between drams we would notch and stand a pair of timber
It’s unusual in saying a pair of timber which was 3 in number.
Consisting of two arms and a collar
Notched with skill by myself and my father.
One nine foot collar across the heading with two six foot arms practically upright
Wedged with wooden lids, hammered in tight.
Another task was to bore topples in the rock above
For us my father and I to walk upright and give horses room to move.
In the incoming drams with timber, sleepers and a pair of rails to lay
Also in the drams was a big lump of clay.
The clay was used for the ramming of the bore holes
Everything unloaded everybody knew their roles.
Man, boy, haulier, horse each working as a team
Digging, shovelling, lifting, helping in the four foot seam.
In the stall we would work the coal from both sides of the road
Turning the coal back out for us to reload.
Packing the muck from the topholes to the gob
All this work just to earn a few bob.
In the four foot seam there was on top four inches of clod
Which wasn’t paid for by the overman’s measuring rod.
After about five and a half hours at the coal face
It’s time to make preparation to walk to the surface
But before we do it’s time to put our tools on the bar
Sometimes reasonably close and sometimes quite far.
On handing in the lamp at the lamp room at half past two
When the working part of the shift is through.
On exchanging lamp for lamp check
Hurrying home across the fields about a mile’s trek.
In the mines there was good comradeship and trust in all
Rallying round if one or two was buried in a fall.
Kneeling in front of the fire stripped to the waist
Hence the reason for being in haste.
First one home would get clean warm water
Which was provided by my mother who reared five sons and one daughter.
As we arrived home taking turns to bathe top halves
Feet, buttocks, legs, shins and calves.
The collier’s boy working hard and exciting
The role of my mother with others worth mentioning.
The highlight of the week on Friday was the pay packet joy
That is a brief insight into the prenational collier’s boy.
Joseph Emlyn Jones
Notes on the text
Nationalisation of all large coal-mines took place in 1947.
The Evans Bevan company was the previous owner of the anthracite mines in the area, and was originally a brewer in Neath.
The lamp room was where miners exchanged a “lamp check” - a numbered metal token - for a collier’s lamp. Here, the lamps would be maintained and charged, in the case of battery powered ones. The exchange of token for lamp was also how men would be accounted for in case of accident or disaster. Older or sometimes disabled miners were usually given jobs in the lamp room.
The men would not descend in a cage through a vertical shaft; rather they would walk down the level cut in to the hillside, or in larger drift mines - e.g. later at Aberpergwm - be transported in on a motorised “spake” (a rudimentary man-carrying train)
Boys routinely started work at the age of 14 and were usually assigned as “collier’s boy” to work with their fathers, or other experienced colliers. Much has been made of the discipline this encouraged underground, reflected in the general forms of community organisation seen on the surface.
Deputies and firemen held positions of responsibility in the pit; deputies directed the work overall and firemen had overall responsibility for gas testing and general safety.
Hauliers managed the horses who dragged “drams” - small wagons - of coal out of the pit.
A shotsman had specialist responsibility for explosives.
At this time the loading of coal was entirely and intensely manual. Face workers - “hewers” - relied on their haulier colleagues to both provide the necessary empty drams, and remove them once filled. An assembled set of drams was called a “ journey”. Hewers were paid more than hauliers.
The hewer would chalk his initials and/or number on his filled dram.
The screen on the surface was where coal was processed, in a form of quality control, to separate “small” from “large” coal and to remove rock or dirt. This would form the characteristic “spoil” heaps or tips, which surrounded every colliery.
The weighing process was important as it determined a collier’s pay. The men elected one of their own to be a “check weigher” - he verified the weighing done by the colliery officials. The was a position of some importance usually held by a well-known and respected man. Often he would also be a union official.
“Jim Kremlin worked his heading in the small mine …with his fellow traveller Dai Dialectic. They were telling each other what a great man Stalin had been, after all, as they propped up their roof and wedged the props firmly, skilfully in the low darkness. Their heading was only four feet in the best places and the seeping surface-water dripped continuously about them as they knelt there in the hot, dusty dark. They were both good colliers, taking pride in their roofing and in the proper organisation of their stall, as a housewife is proud of a well-organised, uncluttered kitchen."
Colliers were thus multi-skilled: they were paid for each process they undertook and each job had a “price”, a subject of constant negotiation between workers and management.
To blow through rock, “bore holes” were drilled using manual drills and boring tools. Explosive would be rammed into the holes’ extremities and the voids repacked - or “rammed” - with clay, or, if that was lacking, sometimes dried horse manure, freely available underground.
The gob was the void left after coal had been extracted. This was repacked with waste from elsewhere. Clod was soft rock waste which could not be sent up as coal in the drams.
Colliers were responsible for buying and maintaining their own tools so via holes drilled through the tools’ handles, they threaded them on to a padlocked bar underground.
Perhaps this collier walked from Banwen colliery to Coelbren.
An undated photograph, with unknown subjects, of houses next to the Maesmarchog Colliery, in the area known as “Tir Bach”. The first Jones families in this account here lived around here.
(Source: WT Davies, “Now and Then” series)
Strange undulation troubles the fields above the DOVE Centre (the old NCB offices) and the disturbed terrain testifies: this was the site of Onllwyn colliery and subsequent open-cast mine.
The only traces of these are odd holes, random dips and generally unnatural contour in the fields. Both the original drifts and the later 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, fitters, drivers, engineers, managers and canteen staff who all bustled around this lively place.
Photo by G. Jones, 2014