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A Day in a Coal Mine: The Big Pit Mine in Blaenafon, Wales

Mining was part of my family’s heritage. Most of the men (and some of the women) were coalminers in the coal-pits of Wales. I grew up listening to my father’s mining stories. But it wasn’t until I visited the Big Pit Mine in Wales that I was able to experience something of what that life was like.

Kitted out in a helmet, cap lamp, battery pack and a miner’s belt, I entered the pit-cage and descended 90 meters to a world of shafts, coal faces and underground roadways.  Guided by an ex-miner guide, I experienced a real sense of life in the coalpit.

Until its closure in 1980 the Big Pit Mine was the oldest working mine in South Wales. Sunk in 1860, it formed part of the Blaenafon mine which is now classified as a heritage site and one of the Mining Museums of Wales. The pit’s shaft extends to a depth of 90 meters and at its operating peak in 1913 employed 1300 men. By 1966 it was the only deep mine left in that area. In 1980 the workforce had declined to 250 and the mine was closed. It reopened in 1983 as a visitor’s centre.

The Big Pit Mine is located at the head of the Afon Llwyd Valley in the North Gwent uplands, on a hillside overlooking the town on the bracken-clad moors. The entire area is covered by early coal opencasts. Iron ore and limestone as well as coal outcrops were found here. There is evidence of mining activity dating back to medieval times. The opening of the Blaenafon Ironworks in 1789 created an ongoing requirement for coal. The town of Blaenafon, founded in the 1700’s, is one of the best surviving examples of a Welsh industrial community, and still retains many characteristic features from the 19th century such as terraced housing, shops, chapels, and a Workman’s Hall.

The hour-long tour of Big Pit Mine takes you down in the pit cage into the underground roadways, through air doors, to explore traditional and modern mining methods. On the surface you can explore the colliery buildings: the winding engine-house, blacksmith’s workshop and pithead baths.

Like all mines in South Wales, coal was cut by hand and the mine employed both men and women. Until the child-labor laws came into effect at the turn of the 20th century, even children as young as four worked in the pits. In 1908 a mechanical conveyor was installed at Big Pit and it was the first one electrified. The winding gear was driven by a steam engine until 1953 when a mechanical cutter and loader pulled it along by a chain.

Exploring those black tunnels brought the lives of my father and my great-grandfather into a clearer perspective. The miner-guide explained in detail what it had been like both in the past and in present times. In the old days, the miners worked sixteen-hour days, six days a week. The miners sang as they walked to and from the collieries, their tenor voices rising in the sweet Welsh treble, songs of their labors, and joyful songs celebrating another day of life. It helped keep their spirits up.

My pit-lamp lit the inky darkness as I followed the guide through the low-ceilinged, dank tunnels and arrived at one of the air doors. The miner guide instructed everyone to turn off their lamps. I held my hand in front of my face and could not see it. This is the meaning of “pitch-black” darkness.

“That’s what it was like when the lamps blew out,” the guide said. “But of course, the real problem was the rats!”As I stood in the impenetrable darkness, my lamp extinguished, the guide explained how the children working as trappers, opened and shut the air doors when the coal trams came down the tracks.

“There were always rats, running along the walls and floor, over the children’s feet,” he said. “If their lamps went out, they stayed there all day in the dark tunnel, attached to the air door by a cord.”

Children and women were employed to load the trams and clean the pit pony’s stables. It was necessary to keep the stables clean as manure formed the deadly methane gases that caused explosion. The pit ponies lived in the mines for fifty weeks of the year, until there was a Miner’s Holiday, when they would be taken to the surface blindfolded against the glare of the sun. The miners also used caged canaries to detect gas in the tunnels. So long as the canaries sang they knew the air was clean and safe. Unlike other collieries in Wales, Big Pit Mine has the reputation of never having had an explosion or serious accident.

Mining, once Wale’s former major industry is now almost extinct. Only one deep mine is still working: the Tower Colliery, at Hirwaun, Glamorgan, operated by the Miner’s Co-operative since 1984. There are other small mines still in existence including Blaenant drift mine, which is located next to the Cefn Coed Colliery Museum at Neath, near Swansea.

Big Pit National Mining Museum
Open 7 days a week, March – November, 9.30 – 5 pm
No charge for entry.
Visitors must be 5 years of age or at least 1 meter tall to go underground.
Wear warm clothing and suitable footwear.
No electrical devices, flash cameras or lighters are allowed in the underground.

Written by W. Ruth Kozak for

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