‘The Price of Coal’

‘The day’s work is done, your tools are ‘on the bar’. No more sweat and no more pain. Rest in peace.’ Tribute left at Gleision Colliery, September 2011

The deaths of four miners at the Gleision Colliery in the Swansea Valley are a tragic reminder that even in our high-speed, high-tech society it is still possible for men to lose their lives doing dangerous manual labour. And it doesn’t come more dangerous than mining, which is why, in Britain in 2011, four men have died in a dark tunnel underground, hewing coal from the bowels of the earth..

Garry Jenkins, 39, Philip Hill, 45, David Powell, 50, and Charles Breslin, 62, have joined the roll of honour of the hundreds killed in mine disasters in Wales since the green valleys were first torn open in the search for the black stuff. These catastrophes have successively rocked close-knit communities, devastating families and causing unimaginable grief. Who can conceive of what the wives and childreminers3n of these men are suffering? And this after the agony of waiting for news. The story of Wales is a story of such loss:

The worst disaster in not just Welsh, but British, coal-mining history was the Senghenydd tragedy of 1913 in which 439 miners were killed in an explosion and fire, and this barely a decade after a previous disaster in the same mine in 1901 which buried 78 men alive after three early morning explosions shattered the pit-head. Into the 20th century the horror continued: 1934 was the year 266 men were killed in an explosion at the Gresford Colliery, Wrexham, an event which gave us, ‘Gresford: The Miner’s Hymn’:

They spend their lives in dark, with danger fraught,

Remote from nature’s beauties, far below

Winning the coal, oft dearly bought

To drive the wheel, the hearth make glow.

The most recent mining disaster in Wales before the horror of Gleision, was the Cambrian Colliery explosion of 1965, at Clydach Vale in the Rhondda Valley, in which 31 men perished. This tragedy has particular resonance for me because I was born in the Rhondda and my grandfather worked at Cambrian, although he had retired through ill-health before the explosion. My grandparents’ home in Clydach Valminers2e was a stone’s throw from my own in Tonypandy and whenever I was in their house as a child I could see the old tin bath in which my grandfather had washed away the grime of his shift still hanging on the back door.

All I knew was that he had been a coal-face worker, cutting the stuff right out of the seam while on his knees; this sounded awful enough, but it wasn’t until I read George Orwell’s first-hand account of going underground with miners in the 1930’s (my grandfather was in his twenties then) in his book, ‘The Road to Wigan Pier’, that I finally had it brought home to me the conditions he endured:

The machines are roaring and the air is black with coal dust – the place is like hell… Most of the things one imagines in hell are there – heat, noise, confusion, darkness, foul air, and, above all, unbearably cramped space. Everything except the fire, for there is no fire down there except the feeble beams of Davy lamps and electric torches which scarcely penetrate the clouds of coal dust….

 …You crawl through the last line of pit props and see opposite you a shiny black wall three or four feet high. This is the coal face. Overhead is the smooth ceiling made by the rock from which the coal has been cut; underneath is the rock again, so that the gallery you are in is only as high as the ledge of coal itself, probably not much more than a yard.

The first impression of all, overmastering everything else for a while, is the frightful, deafening din from the conveyor belt which carries the coal away. You cannot see very far, because the fog of coal dust throws back the beam of your lamp, but you can see on either side of you the line of half-naked kneeling men, one to every four or five yards, driving their shovels under the fallen coal and flinging it swiftly over their left shoulders. They are feeding it on to the conveyor belt..

It is impossible to watch the ‘fillers’ at work without feeling a pang of envy for their toughness. It is a dreadful job that they do, an almost superhuman job by the standard of an ordinary person. For they are not only shifting monstrous quantities of coal, they are also doing it in a position that doubles or trebles the work. They have got to remain kneeling all the while–they could hardly rise from their knees without hitting the ceiling–and you can easily see by trying it what a tremendous effort this means…’

Ali granddad and mom photoCorroborating Orwell, my mother remembers her father ‘working in what he called the 4ft’, the cramped tunnel in which he hacked away at the face for hours on end. What a life! What a way to spend forty years! For it’s a working life that began at the age of fourteen in the Gorky drift mine, also part of Cambrian, where, in 1941, another disaster might have claimed him had he not, by pure chance, been on a different shift that day. Seven men were killed and 53 injured when a trolley carrying them to the works below sped out of control after the brakeman above suffered a blackout. Most of the deaths and injuries were caused by men jumping from the trolley only to be thrown back under it by the narrow walls of the shaft. It is a strange and sobering thought that if fate had assigned my grandfather another shift, my mother might never have been born and I would not be writing this article.

My mother also points out what a great emphasis was placed on education in the mining communities as this offered an avenue of escape from a life underground. For my grandfather however, as with so many others, there was no chance of any such escape; his wages were badly needed by the family and so down the pit he went when no more than a boy. I met him a few years later, of course, and I do not think that family bonds nor the tendency to think well of loved ones now departed have coloured my view when I say that he was a man of great warmth, humanity and a marvelous, flashing wit which he used to reduce us to tears of laughter or enthrall us with elaborate and ridiculous tales of outlandish achievement, such as competing in the Olympics or riding the winner of the Grand National.

These tales, humorous as they were, often led me to sadly wonder what a man of his obvious gifts, his intelligence, his aptitude and sheer goodness, could have made of his life had he not been forced to spend it in darkness? Poet Thomas Gray pondered this question at the graveside of a working man, and captured perfectly the poignancy of lives constricted by unequal chances:

Full many a gem of purest ray serene

The dark unfathomed caves of ocean bear;

Full many a flower is born to blush unseen,

And waste its sweetness on the desert air.

miners4How many great minds, or ‘Miltons’ as Gray asks, had their talents suffocated underground? How many great writers, poets, philosophers and scientists crouched at the coal-face instead of over books of study? How many walked bent double along dank tunnels instead of through the cloistered halls of academe? My grandfather’s lightning wit and wondrous storytelling would have mesmerised a class of his own students as much as it did us. But it was not to be.

His work, however, was still noble. All miners share the accolade of a spirit and courage to which the litany of their untimely deaths is a testament. There is a bravery inherent in going underground and a dignity and virtue in doing the back-breaking labour that carries such risks. I haven’t the time nor the space to list all the Welsh mine disasters here, nor have I forgotten the other mining tragedies in the British Isles and worldwide. The miners, too, who have suffered and died of illnesses caused by their years of toil have not gone unremembered. These many victims of sudden death or slow decline all belong to a distinguished and singular class of men. The very least they deserve are safe working conditions and decent pay, things they have had to fight for tooth and nail against those who value profit above human life and human dignity.

One of the most significant of these struggles was in 1910 when a cartel of mine owners, the Cambrian Combine, setting all conditions and pay, posted lock-out notices after Rhondda miners refused to accept the withdrawal of allowances that pontypridd 1910made up their wages if they worked a difficult seam of coal. Wages were linked to amount of coal produced so a troublesome seam meant a significant drop in the already low amount paid. When the men went out on strike, thousands from other pits did the same in solidarity leaving only one functioning pit at Llwynypia. Tensions rose dramatically after the Cambrian Combine tried to bring in strike-breakers here and in the unrest that followed pitched battles were fought with police. Later, colliery officials’ houses and shops were targeted and when a miner, Sam Rhys, died after being hit with a police baton, Winston Churchill gave the green light for General Macready to send in the military, a move which ensured that Churchill’s name is despised in Wales to this very day.
It is reported that miners and their wives fought with troops wielding rifles with fixed bayonets, but the worst violence was seen on one day now known as the Tonypandy Riot when 80 police and over 500 others were injured. Jail sentences imposed on some miners were followed by a 10,000 strong march in protest, but in the end, hunger won. The men returned to work after a year on a pittance wage of £2.1s.2d.
Twenty four years later, the Gresford disaster of 1934 was followed by an historic enquiry which paved the way for post-war nationalisation of the industry. Cyril Jones, a partner in the law firm that represented the miners believed, according to his grandson, that ‘what happened that day was one of the best arguments in favour of nationalisation and taking the mines out of the hands of private coal owners.’  Mine safety has ever been compromised by the drive for profits, financial cost taking tragic precedence over the cost in lost lives.

Last week, a friend of the family of Gleision miner David Powell said: ‘The pit was constantly filling with water – it was a constant battle to keep it pumped out so the men could go down there.’ My own cousin worked at Gleision for only a few days because it was ‘so dangerous’ he refused to return. It is clear that safe working conditions for miners in this country is not an issue that belongs to a bygone era, but one that requires continual vigilance. How otherwise can we call ourselves a civilised society? David and his comrades are now apostles of empathy for all the victims of mining that have gone before them, and for all miners still quarrying, wherever they are. Here’s to them! And here’s to my grandfather, Iestyn Davies, ‘dad’. I can’t think of a finer dedication to him – and them – than the one that hung for years on the wall of Llanhilleth Workmen’s Institute:

A Welshman stood at the Golden Gate his head bowed low

He meekly asked the man of fate the way he should go

‘What have you done?’ St. Peter said ‘to gain admission here?’

‘I merely mined for coal’ he said ‘for many a year’

St. Peter opened wide the gate and softly tolled the bell

‘Come and choose your harp’ he said ‘you’ve had your share of hell.’


Images from top: 1. Original types of miner’s safety lamps. 2. Miners singing at the Bryn Verteg Colliery, Ystradgynlais, Wales. 3. My Grandfather and mother. 4. A young miner feeding a pit pony. 5. The miners, with their ‘Hungry’ banner, in procession to Pontypridd in 1910.

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