Thomas Elias Jeffreys & Howell “Jeff Camnant” Jeffreys

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Thomas Elias Jeffreys (1900-1986) and his brother Hywll “ Jeff Camnant” (1910-) were well-known figures in Coelbren.  

Included in Davies (2002) is this 1920s picture of Thomas (rear, left) and cousin Howell Jeffreys (front, right).  Next to Thomas Jeffreys is Thomas John Lewis, Coelbren Farm and later Glynllech.  

The occasion was a geology mining class, led by lecturer Howell Jeffreys.  The latter should not be confused with Thomas’ brother, Howell “Jeff Camnant” Jeffreys, not shown here, but considered below.

Photo kindly provided by WT Davies with additional information from Eurof Lewis, who also comments (October 2018) that in the Neath NCB office, there were five qualified mining surveyors from Coelbren.

Sixty years later the Maesmarchog Local History Class at Banwen recorded various retired miners talking about their lives and work in the locality.  Thomas Elias Jeffreys (shown here) and his brother Hywel featured in three of these videos, now held at the South Wales Miners’ Library, University of Swansea.  

As a young man Thomas spent some time in North America, as he is shown on a passenger manifest for the “Duchess of York”, returning from Montreal to Liverpool on the 15th November 1930.

Screen grab of Thomas Jeffreys speaking in 1982.  This video recording is in the process of being transcribed - it is in Welsh - and will hopefully valuable personal insight into life in the village in the early twentieth century.


Hywel “Jeff Camnant” Jeffreys (1910-)

These young men from Coelbren, believed to be on a day-trip to Aberystwyth in the 1930s (Davies, 2006), very neatly encapsulate for posterity a complicated network of family alliances.  Five (so far) out of the six are related to each other directly in our families of interest, as cousins, or as in-laws through marriage.

Front L-R:  Jack (Bach) Jones; Danny (Temperance) Evans; Stan Kemeys

Rear L-R:   Will Lewis (Glynllech); Will (Gwilym) Williams; Hywel “Jeff” Jeffreys (Camnant).  Photo from (Davies, Now and Then series)

Hywel “Jeff Camnant” Jeffreys’ name appears in many Dulais Valley mining accounts.  Much of this may have started in the 1970s through his involvement with the oral historian, George Ewart Evans, who conducted a series of recordings with miners in the Dulais Valley.  Howell told his interviewer, “I started work at Christmas time in Banwen colliery, the 29th of December.  It was a Saturday.  I had to go sign on; and I had to show my birth certificate.” (Evans, 1976).  This would have been about 1924, when Howell was about 14.  For him, it was “the end of summer” – this being the title of GB Evans’ short story in the “Boys of Gold” collection, written in memory of Jeff Jeffreys.

Jeff Jeffreys is also referenced frequently in Rees (2008) - who possibly used the same Evans (1976) source - as a “legendary big hewer”, and the “hewer – or the face worker, was, in the days before mechanisation, the aristocrat of the mine and all other workers served his needs” (Rees, 2008, p135). He would also have been the highest paid.  One characteristic of the anthracite area was that being at the outermost lip of the overall “basin” of the coalfield, many of the mines were of the drift variety – from the BBC (1961), an unknown Dulais valley miner (possibly John Williams, later colliery manager) explains, “the [anthracite] seams in south Wales crop on the surface and there was very little need for capital to get into the seam, what was really needed was muscle and sweat.”  Hywel Jeffreys seems to have provided that in abundance, chosen to drive the “hard headings” – providing access to new coal through the rock.

Cefn Coed colliery, Crynant, 1950s.  Source: WT Davies, Now and Then series. Cefn Coed was a deep anthracite mine near the village of Crynant in the Dulais Valley and thus differed from other local drift mines.  It was sunk with great effort in the 1920s, and due to its depth - once the deepest mine in the world - was renowned as very “gassy”.  It was known locally as the “Slaughterhouse” due to the number of fatal accidents.  The site now houses a mining museum and still retains the intact headstocks of the winding gear

After mechanisation, from the 1920s, and varying in extent and universality according to the size and particular nature of a mine, things changed as miners became less of the individual craftsmen they once were and instead worked in more non-descript teams, now subservient to the mechanical cutters and conveyors that replaced the once proud hewers, their boys learning at their side, and supporting hauliers.  About Jeff Jeffreys: “When he was sent down Cefn Coed, it nearly broke his heart.  Because he’d been driving the main drift down the Cornish [a level in Banwen colliery] for years.  He was a man to be accounted with in the Cornish.  But then he was just one bloke on a rope, pulling it….His time was past.” (from Evans, 1976).   And George Brinley Evans – who was also recorded by George Ewart Evans in the same 1976 book – recalled in 2014, “I knew Jeff Hywel Jeffreys very well we were the best of friends. He and Ernie Lambert drove the Main Drift of the Cornish down [Banwen colliery].  He was a very hard working man and a great friend of my father too.” (email to author, 2014).     

From “Strike” (Leeson, 1973):  


Retired miner and farmer, Seven Sisters, South Wales - Relating to the General Strike, 1926

“There was a bad part of it; the nastiness between the men who stopped out and the blacklegs, the rumours that went round – so and so has gone back to work, or they’ve gone back to work in Durham, and so on. But the funny thing is that everyone speaks of the lockouts in 1921 and 1926 as the best time of their lives. You could sleep late without having your lamp stopped. There was no fear of losing a shift. Everyone was the same, there was no jealousy. Everyone was idle, only the vicar was working. But we kept busy. We knew where all the outcrops were and we would mix coal with clay to make fires. It gave good heat, though it needed fire to start it. We had no right to dig for coal of course, but we all did it. It was done at night and it was dangerous, for the roof would cave in. Most of the homes had gardens and everybody tilled them or had a little patch, an allotment, and gave cabbages, turnips and swedes. The farmers gave vegetables and the bakers gave bread. We would fish for trout in the streams and gather blackberries and whinberries. The good weather made a big difference. There were mushrooms everywhere. We ate mushrooms until we were sick of them. We smoked tealeaves, rolled coltsfoot leaves, dried them and smoked them for tobacco. If nothing was saved, nothing was wasted. There was a lot pinched off the railways, but nobody pinched off each other.”


“There were two stay-down strikes in our area at the Banwen colliery. Conditions in the locality were bad and D. J. Thomas, the manager, was a tyrant. He was known locally as ‘Dai Baw’ (‘Dai Dirt’)  I took part in one of the stay-down strikes; it was over conditions in one district of the pit, known as the Cwtch (cubby hole, space under the stairs), because it was small, confined and stuffy. The atmosphere was so dank down there that the fungus grew white as snow on the floor, and the props would snap so that you wouldn’t think it was seasoned wood. I suppose you could credit Dai Baw with getting the strike going, because one of the men who wanted to get it started put the word around the institute that Dai Baw had been saying he had 1,000 men at Banwen he could twist round his little finger. That was enough to provoke anyone, and it started the men off. I joined in the stay-down because one of the lads asked me, though I noticed that in the end he wasn’t there when we stayed down. There were youngsters with us, boys of 14-15 working with men who weren’t their fathers. They wanted to stay down with us, but I didn’t want them, so finally it was about twelve of us. We made up our minds quite suddenly that we would stop in, and found a little place tucked away where we could get in, but they couldn’t reach us so easily to get us out. It was middling warm and the men brought food down to us in tin baths, searched very carefully to make sure that we had no matches. They brought us tins of sardines and one bloke looked his mate’s sardines over and said, ‘Your sardines are redder than mine.’ He looked down at them and said, ‘All right you have both of them.’ We curled ourselves up between the sleepers and the rails and tried to sleep. But there was one man who wanted to talk. Now he had twelve of us who had to listen and he kept it up for two days, driving us mad. When we finally went up, there were only eleven of us. He’d finally dropped off. When we went back and woke him up, he was mad. They tried all sorts to get us to come up before we were ready. The local official came down and tried to coax us out, by telling us stories about things going wrong at home, ‘Your wife is sick; there are ashes from your grate to your front door.’ The manager even wanted to rip the top down.

Hywel Jeffreys “Jeff Camnant” (front) with his cousin, Rhys Alexander, on Skomer Island, off Pembrokeshire.

Image kindly provided by J Alexander.

Jeff Camnant also featured in the Maesmarchog Local History class videos of 1982 and we wait to transcribe some of his recollections.

© (the written content and authorial photographs) Gareth Jones 2015-20