Until now most studies of the Welsh coal boom of the late 1800s and early 1900s have concentrated on the workers and the unions. Instead, in The Entrepreneurial Society of the Rhondda Valleys, 1840–1920, Richard Griffiths focuses his attention on the middle class and reveals how several of these individuals were—by hard work, perseverance, and often creative business practices—able to build up considerable wealth and power.
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About the Author
Richard Griffiths is professor emeritus at the University of Wales and King’s College London. He is the author of a number of books on British political history, English and French literature, and religion.
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The Entrepreneurial Society of the Rhondda Valleys, 1840â"1920
Power and Influence in the Porth-Pontypridd Region
By Richard Griffiths
University of Wales PressCopyright © 2010 Richard Griffiths
All rights reserved.
The South Wales Coal Industry
The growth of the industry
It was in the early 1840s that the activities of the south Wales coalfield started expanding at an explosive rate. There had, of course, been extensive exploitation of the resources of the coalfield (which extends in a swathe from the Ebbw valley in the east to beyond Llanelli in the west) before this time. This had, however, mainly been for the benefit of the metal industries on its periphery, which had flourished from the mid-eighteenth century onwards: the extensive iron trade at the heads of the Valleys (Merthyr, Blaenafon, Tredegar, etc.) and the copper industry in the Swansea area. In both areas, the employers had been predominantly English incomers.
These various copper and iron companies developed their own mines. The coal concerned was bituminous coal, suitable for coking. At the same time, in these areas, coal that was surplus to iron founding requirements was produced for sale as house-coal. Very little coal was exported, partly because of the problem of transporting it to the coast. What coal was exported was mainly to the areas around the Bristol Channel and to southern Ireland, transported by the coastal vessels which had plied their trade there over the centuries.
This picture was changed in the early nineteenth century by a number of factors. Firstly, the transportation of coal overland was facilitated by new methods, the canals and then the railways. Secondly, the opening of capacious docks in Cardiff in 1839 provided the possibility of major shipping having access to the coal supply. Thirdly, the importance of steam engines meant that there was a new need for steam coal (found in seams way below those of the bituminous coal that had up till now been mined), for the steam engines of the railways and for the shipping of the world. This opened up a vast and completely new market.
The first new form of transport was the canals, built as part of the canal boom of the 1790s. Of the four canals built in Glamorganshire, the two that will interest us most are the Glamorganshire Canal built in 1794 from Merthyr to Cardiff, and extended four years later to a new sea lock at the mouth of the Taff, and the Aberdare Canal, opened in 1812, which ran the length of the Cynon valley from Aberdare to Navigation (the modern Abercynon), where it joined the Glamorganshire Canal. The main shareholders in both these canals were the great ironmasters and the transportation of iron was their main purpose.
It was not until the 1840s that the railways came to Glamorgan. In 1840 the first major line, the Taff Vale Railway (TVR), linking Cardiff and Merthyr, opened as far as Navigation (Abercynon), and in 1841 the line was completed to Merthyr. Though ironmasters were prominent among its directors, and though iron was at first, in continuation of what had been the case with the Glamorganshire Canal, the main commodity carried on the line, a major aim of the new railway was also to carry coal. Indeed, two major coal pioneers, Walter Coffin (who had from 1809 onwards mined at Dinas in the Rhondda valley) and Thomas Powell (who from 1829 onwards had mined extensively in the Gelligaer area), were on the first board. They were responsible for two important extra features of the original layout of the railway: a branch line up the lower Rhondda valley as far as Coffin's pits at Dinas, and another branch line from Navigation (Abercynon) to Llancaiach (in the vicinity of the modern Nelson), to link with Powell's Gelligaer mining interests.
The TVR was merely the start of the extensive rail exploitation of the south Wales valleys, with a plethora of different companies vying for the trade – but its pre-eminence, and Cardiff's new dock facilities, meant that, though Newport (serving the Monmouthshire valleys) and Swansea (serving the western valleys) were also major coal exporting ports, Cardiffbecame the most successful of them all. In 1839, the Marquess of Bute (who owned most of Cardiff, and whose estates in the rest of Glamorgan contained much of the land where coal might be expected to be found) had opened the West Bute Dock, which could accommodate major seagoing vessels. This was just in time to cope with the trade provided two years later by the TVR. Three further major docks were to be built at Cardiff between 1859 and 1907, and rival docks at Penarth (1865), and Barry (1889) added further to the capacity for export from the central part of the south Wales coalfield. By 1862, two million tons of coal were being exported annually from Cardiff Docks and by 1913 this had risen to over ten and a half million. Very large amounts were by now being exported from Barry and Penarth as well. Those three ports, serving the central part of the coalfield, were in 1913 exporting 19.3 million tons, compared with Swansea's 4.7 million and Newport's 3.5 million.
It was, then, in 1839–41 that the enormous Glamorganshire coal boom of the mid-nineteenth century started. At first, a large part of that boom consisted of small mines still producing bituminous coal; but soon the demand for steam coal for the engines of industry and transport took over, and coalowners sank deeper and deeper mines in order to reach its rich seams. The use of steam for shipping was soon to be the major driving force in the development of the coalfield, and this was given an even greater boost when, after a series of trials in 1847–51, the Admiralty declared that Welsh steam coal was the best available. From then on, Admiralty orders were given almost entirely to Welsh suppliers. Despite desperate efforts from the coalfields in the north-east of England to stem this, a further report in 1860 came down even more strongly in favour of Welsh coal. And it was not just the British Navy that chose Welsh coal; the same was true of the navies of the world.
The Rhondda Valleys
There are two RhonddaValleys, the Rhondda Fawr (big Rhondda) and the Rhondda Fach (little Rhondda).The two rivers flow down from the mountain range at the top of the coalfield, and join at Porth, the 'gateway' to the Valleys. From there the Rhondda flows south-east for four miles to Pontypridd, where it joins the river Taff. This stretch is known as the 'lower Rhondda'.
Walter Coffin from Bridgend had, in 1809, started mining at Dinas, just a mile up the Rhondda Fawr from where the town of Porth was later to grow. He had started by mining the No. 2 Rhondda vein, which was bituminous coal of excellent quality. But in 1812 he sank a pit to a lower seam called Bodringallt, or No. 3 Rhondda, 'very superior coal', which speedily became known as 'Coffin's coal'. This coal gained an enormous reputation, 'especially for coking purposes and smith's work'. In the succeeding years, Coffin sank further shafts to the No. 3 seam. Until the mid-1840s there was little other mining in the Rhondda, apart from a few small levels in the Hafod area, below the confluence of the two rivers. The opening of the TVR branch line to Dinas in 1841, however, 'stimulated the interest of mining adventurers', who began to operate in the vicinity of Porth and the lower Rhondda valley. One of the first of these was George Insole, a Cardiff coal-shipper who had been mining at Llantwit Fardre, and who now, having leased 375 acres from Evan Morgan of Ty'n-y-cymmer Farm, started his extensive operations in Cymmer, on the south-west side of the river at Porth, with his first mine, the South Cymmer Level, in 1844.This was to be followed by Cymmer Old Colliery in 1847, Upper Cymmer Colliery in 1851, and New Cymmer Colliery in 1855. Meanwhile another pioneer, John Calvert, sank the Newbridge Colliery in the lower Rhondda Valley, at Gelliwion near Pontypridd in 1845. Most of this early activity, however, was in an area within a mile or so of the centre of Porth. In 1845, Leonard Hadley, a Caerleon miller, sank the Troedyrhiw Pit just a short distance up the Rhondda Fach, while just beyond it, about a mile from the centre of Porth, Shepherd and Evans sank the Ynyshir Pit, also in 1845. Meanwhile, David James had sunk the Porth Colliery (1845) and was soon to sink Llwyncelyn Colliery (1851), while in 1852 Thomas, Cope and Lewis sank the Tynewydd Colliery, right in the centre of Porth.
At this stage, however, Rhondda mining represented 'no real break with the past', the bituminous coal produced being 'mainly for domestic purposes or to provide coke for industrial use', with little effort being made to reach the deeper steam coal seams. This was in part because the seams of steam coal were much nearer to the surface in the Aberdare valley, where the main effort with regard to steam coal had up to now been made. It was also because, thanks to Coffin, the Rhondda was so highly reputed for the numbers 2 and 3 Rhondda seams, which produced 'housing and coking coals of the highest quality.'
In this first stage of Rhondda expansion little effort was made to move further up either valley (the highest point, up the Rhondda Fawr, being Coffin's Dinas pits, and, up the Rhondda Fach, the Ynyshir pit, about a mile from the confluence in each case). This was in part due to the caution shown by the TVR, whose directors had been reluctant to undertake the great cost of building a line beyond Dinas until they knew what mineral prospects there were in the region. In 1850, however, the TVR offered £500 to anyone who would sink an exploratory pit in the upper Rhondda Fawr. This offer was taken up by the trustees of the Bute mineral estates, who decided to try to sink a pit there to the steam coal seams. A trial pit was sunk in September 1850 at Cwm-Saerbren, near Treherbert, right at the head of the Rhondda Fawr valley, and in 1851 it reached the Upper Four Foot seam of steam coal. The Cwm-Saerbren mine started production in 1855, in an area that one contemporary observer described as having been until then 'a desert, as far as the working of coal is concerned'.
However, with the great success of the Aberdare valley as a steam coal provider, there did not at first seem much reason for the Rhondda to ape its success. Later, however, the picture changed. By the mid 1860s, the steam coal seams of the Aberdare valley were almost entirely worked out. This was the point at which the Rhondda valleys took over the baton. From 1864, the steam coal industry in the Rhondda underwent a vast expansion, with mines sunk at Ystrad, Pentre and Llwynypia in that year, at Tydraw, Treherbert, Treorchy, Cwmparc and Ton Pentre in the following year, and with continuing expansion thereafter. A small number of people, showing considerable foresight, had however moved into the production of steam coal in the upper Rhondda Fawr and the Rhondda Fach ahead of this 'gold rush' of the mid-1860s: Carr, Morrison and Co. at the Tylacoch Colliery in Treorchy in 1855; David Davis at Ferndale in the Rhondda Fach in 1857; T. Wayne at Pontygwaith in the Rhondda Fach in 1858; and Siamps Thomas, with his partners William Cope and John Lewis, atYnysfeio near Treherbert in 1859.
Immigration to the valleys
The coal boom attracted great numbers of workers to east Glamorgan and to Monmouthshire. Initially, the vast majority came from other parts of those counties, and from other parts of Wales (and also a certain number from the west of England), often from the rural areas where, amid a severe agricultural depression, the prospect of work, and the higher wages provided by the coal industry, were a powerful incentive to move. As Chris Williams has put it:
In comparison with other manual workers of the late Victorian and Edwardian era, albeit in scant compensation for the awful dangers they faced, coalminers were well paid, and those of south Wales better paid than most of their British counterparts.
In later years, however, the fluctuations in the coal trade meant at times that wages went down rather than up, as we shall see.
As the century wore on, immigration from England became more common, particularly from the South West (Somerset, Devon, Gloucestershire and Cornwall). There were also other minorities, such as the Scotsmen who accompanied the Scottish coalowner Archibald Hood to Llwynypia in the 1860s, and a number of Irish coalworkers (though Irish immigration was mainly restricted to the navvies used in the building of the railways and the urban substructure).
The Rhondda is a very good example of the dramatic rise in population in the coalfield in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Between 1841 and 1924, the number of people in the Rhondda rose from less than a thousand to almost 168,000, which was 'more than the combined populations of Cardiganshire, Breconshire and Radnorshire'.
For most of the nineteenth century the predominant language in the Glamorganshire valleys was Welsh. Many of the coalowners were Welsh-speaking, and Welsh was the language of the vast majority of the workforce. It was used at home, at work, and of course in the chapel. It has been noted that 'English workmen were obliged to acquire a smattering of Welsh in order to work alongside their more numerous Welsh colleagues.' It was only later, from the last two decades of the nineteenth century, that a greater influx of English workers made a difference to this. Although at first it remained on the whole true that 'the Welsh language was still supreme in the home, at work, and in general intercourse', there nevertheless eventually came a significant decline in use of the Welsh language.
Many other workers, apart from those who came to work in the mines, were attracted to the Valleys. Many came to work on the development of the railway system. Others were employed by contractors on roads, bridges, and the large amount of housebuilding needed for the expanding community.
The major contributors to the prosperity of the area were the coalowners. Except in the ironworking areas, the southWales valley communities depended almost exclusively on this one industry, on the back of which all these other activities flourished. The precariousness of this economy was to be shown in the coal slump of the twentieth century, when the prosperity vanished almost as suddenly as it had appeared.
Unlike the ironmasters, the majority of south Wales coalowners were Welshmen. There were the famous exceptions, of course: Archibald Hood from Ayrshire, John Calvert from Yorkshire, John Nixon from the North of England, George Elliot and Edmund Watts from Northumberland; but they were the exceptions that proved the rule. The coalowners, mining coal for sale and export, were of a different breed from the ironmasters, and came from a variety of backgrounds. In the distinction which Outram draws between 'gentlemen' and 'players' among the United Kingdom coalowners, the vast majority of the first generation of Welsh coalowners were definitely 'players'. Alongside the Cardiff coalshippers who decided to invest in the mines that provided their cargoes, one finds a large number of people who came locally from the Valleys, most of whom had already made a certain amount of money (whether as shopkeepers, contractors or landlords) in the area that had originally been made prosperous by the iron industry, and who now decided to invest in mining. As John Williams has put it:
The men who developed [the industry] were themselves a by-product of the earlier activities of the London and Bristol merchants who had become the ironmasters of Glamorgan. The industrialization that had already taken place in the county during the first third of the nineteenth century had produced a group of solicitors, mining engineers, shopkeepers and others with modest resources which they wished to employ. The iron industry was beyond their grasp: wherever iron companies were started ... they still largely raised their capital from outside.
Another area from which some of the coalowners stemmed was that of railway contracting. David Davies Llandinam was the most famous of those who, having made money from railway contracting, moved into coalmining. But there were many others, including John Calvert and William Henry Mathias.
There were also, in the first stages of the expansion, a small number of men who worked their way from lowly employment in the mines to the position of coalowner. This was because, as Williams puts it, 'local knowledge was at a premium in the coal industry'. As the century wore on, however, such modest entry into the coalowning fraternity became less and less common, as the directors of the limited liability companies which had become the norm tended, more and more, to be Cardiff-based and London-based exporters and docksmen, with at most one or two directors in each case who had experience of mining (one of whom usually held the post of 'managing director'), and with the day-to-day running of the mines being left to professional managers.
Excerpted from The Entrepreneurial Society of the Rhondda Valleys, 1840â"1920 by Richard Griffiths. Copyright © 2010 Richard Griffiths. Excerpted by permission of University of Wales Press.
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Table of Contents
List of Illustrations
Notes on surnames
1 The South Wales Coal Industry
2 'A Dogged will, a fixity of purpose, a tenacity of spirit': Siamps Thomas (1817–1901)
3 'A blunt, straightforward, and from head to feet an honest man': Richard Mathias (1814–1890)
4 The Rhondda Second Generation: William Henry Mathias (1845–1922), a Rhondda Notable
5 The Rhondda Second Generation: Some Other Major Figures
Aspects of Business and Political Life
6 W. H. Mathias and Local Government, 1886–1919
7 'The history of the undertaking is rather peculiar': The Cowbridge–Aberthaw Railway and the
Rhondda Connection, 1886–1892
8 Further peculiar undertakings: Windsor Colliery, Abertridwr and the Parc Newydd Estate
9 Heroism or Negligence? Siamps Thomas and the Tynewydd Disaster, 1877
10 The Albion Disaster, 1894
11 The 1893 Hauliers' Strike
12 The 1898 Strike
Sir William James Thomas and the New Century
13 'One of the greatest of the Welsh coalowners': William James Thomas's business
14 'Ynyshir's most noted citizen, the Principality's most noble benefactor':
William James Thomas's many benefactions, and his later years