My life down the pit, by Terry Dury

Former miner Terry Dury’s fascinating talk on 19th May 2016 on the coalmining industry of South Wales was a very personal account of life down the pit in his grandfather’s time and of his own experiences at the coalface in the 1960s and 1970s, mostly at the Ferndale Colliery.

The majority of the Rhondda pits were opened between 1840 and 1880, with the coal produced bringing wealth and development to Cardiff, Newport and Barry, the docks of the latter being built by David Davies of Llandinam. However, the beneficiaries of this wealth were not the miners, who worked under the most extreme conditions and lived in real poverty. Until the enactment of the Mines and  Collieries Act 1842 even children as young as 6 years old worked underground in almost total darkness, alongside their mothers and older siblings, for pay of about 2 pence a day. Out of their pay, the workers had to buy oil for their lamps and tools for their work, which were supplied by the mine owners. Shifts were 10-12 hours a day, 6 days a week. The young children were employed to open and close ventilation doors and, using harnesses, crawl along low tunnels pulling tubs loaded with coal from the coalface. Many miners were killed or maimed, above and below ground. Families hit by such tragedy would be thrown into even deeper poverty, as the mine owners paid no compensation, and new recruits were easily found to replace the losses. The pit ponies were considered more valuable than the men as they required more training. In 1867 178 miners were lost in a gas explosion at the Ferndale Colliery, and just 18 months later a further 53 were lost in another gas explosion. Such losses were typical across the south Wales pits at that time. The worst recorded was a loss of 439 miners in an explosion at Sengenydd pit in 1913.

Terry’s grandfather moved from Somerset to work in the Treorchy pit, and it was only in his time that miners began to build the beginnings of a health care service in the early 1920s by contributing 2 pence a week to funds which established the first miners’ hospital in Treherbert. When Terry himself began work underground in the late 1960s at the age of 18, conditions were still poor. Despite increased mechanisation, the working environment remained extremely dangerous and very unpleasant. The coal seams were only 2’ 9” (83cms), 3’ 6” (105cms) or 4’ (120cms) deep, and miners crouched at the coal face using heavy pneumatic picks and drills. It was very physical work in hot, sweaty and dirty conditions. Their safety equipment had improved over Terry’s grandfather’s time, with electric lamps, knee pads, gloves, safety boots, a helmet, and a respirator (which usually made them too hot and sweaty to be practical) being issued. They also used water detectors, because seepage from natural underground reservoirs was common, and mines were equipped with pumps to keep the water levels to a minimum. However, working a seam of coal sometimes breached the reservoir and miners could be trapped or overwhelmed by the ensuing flood. Terry’s illustrations and graphic descriptions of working life underground had the audience totally absorbed, but few of those actively involved in that industry will miss their days at the coalface, with the last colliery, Tower, closing in 2008.