The Turn of the Wheel

Turn of the Wheel Pt 3: Some notes about the Cardiganshire lead miner

The life of any miner is hard: Labouring underground in narrow openings from dusk until dawn. yet this was the work for thousands of men in Victorian times.

Wales is well known for its coal mines, which dominated life in the South and to a degree, around Wrexham and Rhyl in the north. Metal miners are less well known, however the land gave up many tons of gold, silver, copper, lead, zinc, iron, manganese and even arsenic. We also should not lose sight of the slate miners and quarrymen of North Wales and Pembrokeshire, for that was an equally thankless profession.

Metal miners felt a cut above their coal mining colleagues, sardonically referring to coal as ‘black diamonds’. The idea that coal miners somehow had an easier lot, is somehow comical. But why would this be thought?

Mining in Victorian times was based on being paid for what you produced. If a miner provided one ton of it, yet needed to shift four tons of waste rock to do this, they would still be paid for the one ton. Coal and slate are more linear commodities. They are the end products of layers of rock, formed under pressure and heat over millions of years. Coal is in effect a fossilised swamp. Metal ore,by comparison, was laid down during times of underground igneous activity. Superheated waters, rich in minerals were forced into cracks created by this. These left mineral deposits, such as quartz and metal rich ores. Thus instead of having a reasonably level coal seam, the metal ore would be in a vertical lode between inches to a foot wide and a thousand feet deep! As you were paid for the ore you extracted, the work could be more problematic.

Not all coal and slate was that easy – fault movements in the rock; anticlines and synclines, and especially in the case of anthracite heavily faulted bedrock and very small seams made a difference to extraction. The irony was that many metal miners ended up working in coal after their mines closed in the early 20th Century.

Until the end of the 19th Century, miners at Frongoch would need to access the levels (tunnels) via ladders, their descent broken up by wooden stages. Ladder to stage, to ladder to stage – the descent was hard work. After a day’s hard labour, the climb upwards to the surface was worse.

The method of mining was stoping, whereby the miners created a cavern by slowly taking down the roof to a tunnel below. The deepest working at Frongoch was 154 fathoms, which is approximately 924 feet below the surface, well below the water table and sea level.

When they reached the level they were working at, the men would still have to walk to their pitch, which could be a mile away. Many used a time candle as a way of measuring time (watches were too precious and fragile in their work). The air was sometimes so poor as to need someone to fan the air towards the candle to keep it burning. Also, the lower and further in they were, the hotter it became, at the most extreme to be working in only their underpants.

The work tended to be cyclical. First shotholes were made in the rock, by a long chisel and sledgehammers. Then it was laced with black powder and later, dynamite. This was then set off and the rock cleared. As they were working above the level, the ore was shovelled into a chute and a tram was placed underneath on rails. the chute was opened, the tram filled and sent to the shaft for lifting to the surface. This continued until they had exhausted the supply. Then they started the process again. The tram load was marked against the team and then winched up to the surface via a large iron bucket or kibble. It was then processed in the mill and the ore extracted was marked for the team, based on the rate per ton agreed in the bargen.

The waste rock was rarely taken away (why would you, when you didn’t get paid for it?), and where possible reused, either to fill behind them or to pack some fragile part of the working If they were working upwards, the rubble was placed underneath planking to create a stable false floor to work on.

Until 1899, everything was powered by hand or water. Thus waterwheels were everywhere driving machinery, even underground. It was even used for pumping the more shallow levels, thus water being used to raise water. The deeper Frongoch went, the need for a stronger source became and so Cornish pumping engines were built, fired by coal. This is no surprise, as the mining belt was dominated by Cornish expertise, gained through centuries of mining tin. With the engineers and owners came the miners, and so the mining belt had a sizeable Cornish presence. In Frongoch, this caused the company to build an English language Methodist chapel for them – the first English language nonconformist place of worship in Wales. The Cornish began to leave in the depression of the 1880s, to the promise of a better future in the New World. In 1899, the mine was owned by a Belgian company, who employed about 60 Italians to cover the lack of miners in the area. This led to issues, which I will describe in a later post. The Belgians also built a hydro-electric power station, so at the last, man still returned to water for its power.

The idea of strips of terraced houses, like in the South Wales valleys, was not present in Ceredigion. This is not to say that towns did not grow with the onset of mining. Talybont, Taliesin, Cwmsymlog and Pontrhydygroes are examples of towns with a significant mining population, although hardly the Rhondda by size. Frongoch did build a small terrace, now known as New Row, for its miners. Many lived in the land surrounding. The lack of decent transport meant this hardly changed. had the railway reached Frongoch (and many schemes were mooted to do so), this may have been different.

Many miners lived in dwellings that at least originated from the ty un nos tradition, whereby a house was built on common land overnight. Providing there was a fire in the hearth by dawn, it was said to be their own land, plus an axe throws worth of surrounding land (from each side). Where possible, the land surrounding was used to grow whatever they could for self sufficiency. In New Row, the company had allowed a shop and there were the same in the mining villages.

The communities around Frongoch were larger than they are now, to accommodate the workers for the many mines in the area. Thus, the area was served by many amenities, including shops, blacksmiths, post offices and tafarns. Pontrhydygroes had four pubs and a post office for example. Even Ysbytty ystwyth had a mayor!. The most drastic contrast of the then and now situation, is the Star Inn in Dylife. Dylife was a mine and village near Machynlleth, which in the nineteenth century had a population of a thousand people. Now, the pub is about the only building that remains in that beautiful area.

There was no welfare state. if a mining family fell on hard times due to death or injury, they would be supported as best as they could by their peers. John Kitto, the Cornish mine owner for about 50 years, made sure that the area around Frongoch was supported by a good Doctor. Doubling the man’s wages from his own pocket. He also made sure that nobody was made destitute through debt to the shop. I will write more about Captain Kitto in a later post.

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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