The Turn of the Wheel

Mining is a hard job, so why did the Ceredigion lead miners think their lot was worse than coal?

‘It’s hard, duw its hard. Harder than they will ever know….

Max Boyce, himself a former coal miner, penned a few poignant songs and poems about the work underground. He does a great job, but then, to fully understand is to do – and most of us have never or will never get close to that.

To give more background to the book ‘The Turn of the Wheel’, I am today looking at the differences between the two types of mining in more depth and why the lead miners would look down on those who hacked out the ‘black diamonds’ – even if they had no direct link to the area to compare.

Firstly, you have to look at the geography. South Wales became quickly an important producer of coal. It was blessed with deep inlets, from which industrial ports could develop and thrive. The coal belt spread far and overlapped an important iron ore region around Merthyr. The production of iron and steel required copious amounts of coal, which was produced on the doorstep. Transport links were set up quickly to send the mined and forged products eastwards to the large industrial towns or out to sea.

By contrast, Ceredigion was relatively undeveloped. Ceredigion mines produced lead and from the mid 19th century, zinc. Within the lead was a small degree of silver which provided extra income. The mines north of the county produced a small amount of copper. there were also attempts to gain Manganese and Arsenic, but the numbers were trivial. There are three ports in Ceredigion; Aberystwyth, Aberaeron and Cardigan. None were developed to a degree that would have attracted the larger ships and heavy industry. A Cardigan railway company attempted to float the idea of developing the port for transatlantic travel, but never raised the money to do so.

What Ceredigion lacked was a source of fuel. Even with the advent of the railways, coal needed to be hauled over 60 miles, to reach the mines. Coal would be used for firing smelters and heavy engineering. Whereas there were cases of smelters and foundries on the coast, especially at Aberystwyth, there was still the additional cost of manhandling the coal to the mines many miles inland – on basic roads. These did not last and the mines found it cheaper to export their wares in the raw form.

Coal is a rock made of lithified plant material and the only depositsin Wales are between 270 and 350million years old. The Ceredigion rocks are of an older age. Any coal at that time formed would have been destroyed millions of years ago by the pressures and heat of tectonic activity in the earth. The rocks that remain that remain are of siliceous mud origin.

The economies of using coal also had an impact on mining working practice. All mines have a problem with water – some more than others. The water table, the level of saturation of the land, is always higher than the tunnels that the mine would reach. To access the deeper ores, the mines would have to be pumped by machine. The most efficient way of doing this at the time was by coal. This is most obvious in the Cornish tin mines, where the iconic pumping houses, with their spindly chimneys are dotted across the landscape.

Although a few mines did have these pumping engines – Frongoch and Cwmsymlog are examples. The majority relied on the one commodity the county could offer a lot of – water. Lakes were built and thousands of miles of water channels called leats were cut into the hills, to provide the mines with water for their waterwheels o power the heavy machinery. Water was also used to power the mills, where the ore was broken up, ground down and seperated from the waste rock. Water was also used to slush away the waste sand from the pure ore also.

The output of metal mines to coal was lower by volume. This is because of the manner of the production. Coal is in effect a fossilised swamp, buried and baked and subjected to pressure for so long as to purify the carbon and lithify the mulch. It tends to form a more linear deposit, with a larger surface area. Now that is not to say that faults in the rocks have not moved things about. Anthracite deposits have seen great tectonic activity, which is reflected by the way the deposit is smaller and more difficult to get.

Metal deposits are formed differently. tectonic activity produces great fissure in the bedrock. Superheated waters are then forced through and on cooling, crystallize minerals. Many of these are sulphur rich metal ores, plus quartz. What it does mean though, is that the fissures are at a steep angle and of varying width from inches to six foot diameter. Miners will only tend to work out what they get paid for, so the mines are more focussed on a smaller surface area.

This means that the subsidence that the land suffers in coalfields is less likely in Ceredigion. With a coal field, the practice was to dig out the coal and then take away the props from areas that have been worked out, leading to subsidence issues over time. Because most mines are not in the vicinity of settlements, any collapsed tunnels rarely affect housing. Although the good people of Taliesin, near Talybont, would beg to differ, as the mine shaft is within the area of some of the housing and has collapsed, causing visible subsidence near to the houses.

However, the higher production by volume became attractive to railways, as a means of regular transportation. Thus good transport links of road and rail were developed.

A lack of infrastructure meant the mines of Cardiganshire tended to be tucked away in remote valleys. the production of coal in , say, the Rhondda, led to the development of swathes of transport infrastructure. The greater number of people led to the creation of many towns of terraced houses for the workers. In contrast, the undeveloped Ceredigion mineshad limited housing development and many mine families relied on more traditional methods of housing. There are examples of terracing being built, but not all settlements are by the mine. Most miners at the remoter mines were put up in barracks during the working week and then returned home on the Saturday afternoon, to return early Monday morning.

The lack of coal supply also had another effect on the technology of the mines. There are limited examples of cages being used for transporting the men underground. Frongoch and Bwlch Glas were two examples, but these were introduced in the 20th Century. Most mines relied on the traditional method of getting the miners to access their work via a network of ladders from the surface.

Both suffered problems with ventilation. Coal miners also had to contend with flammable gases. Metal miners had to contend with acidic water from the breakdown of the sulphur minerals. Some mines were renowned for their high acid content, which attacked the man and his equipment . Both sets of miners suffered the consequences of dust. Silica rich, it tore the lungs apart over time, leading to premature deaths.

However, the Ceredigion miner would have felt they had lesser amenities, more primitive working practices and a less accessible product. Consequently, they were said to look down on their brothers in coal. History does tend to put a twist in the tale, however. The collapse of the metal mining industry, due to larger cheaper deposits in the New World, led many to move to South Wales, where they ended up working in coal mines.

By Geraint Roberts

Stuck in a limbo and desperate to do something meaningful, what to do? That is where writing began for me. A creative way of expressing myself and a chance to harness my wondering imagination. I close my eyes and I'm there. Wish I'd picked 'there' as a warm sunny day on a sandy beach, with the waves gently lapping on the shore...but I have to let the story load in my mind, then watch it unfold, wherever it may be. Currently I'm on a windy bridge, or a Devon beach, or a Cornish ti mine, or a submarine, or looking towards a Hebridean port...

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