In this section I will introduce you to some of the real people whose lives were touched in one way or another by the coal industry during its heyday in South Wales.
George Davies Became a miner straight from school in 1936.
Grafton Radcliffe Actor. Grew up in a mining village. His thoughts on his return after 40 years away and the end of mining in the village.
I started to work in 1936 at 14 years of age. It was on a Friday morning when my mate and I left school. We did not go to school all day on the day we left. After my mate and I had our dinner he said to me why don’t we go up to Blaengarw. That place was four miles up the valley from where we lived and during that time there were four mines working. When we arrived at a mine called the Glengarw Colliery or the ‘Ballarat’ we were intrigued with the drams of coal running down from the small shaft into the weigh bridge and then into a ‘tumbler’. We watched them for about 15 minutes then we decided to walk up the shaft to see the coal hauled to the surface of the mine then we stood by a place called the ‘Lamp Room’ it was the end of the day shift, 2.30pm, and workmen were returning their lamps. We stood there for some time when a man came on to speak to us and asked us what we were doing there. My mate replied “Looking for work” because he thought the man would give us a telling off for being there. This man, his name I know was Mr Charlie Palmer, said to us to stay where we were until he came back. We did because we were now frightened stiff. He came back and told us to follow him. He took us into what we now know is called a ‘consulting room’, this is where the mine officials consult each other before starting their shifts. When we went inside Mr Palmer told us to stand by a desk. The manager of the mine was sitting there. The manager’s name was Mr Williams, he asked us “When did you leave school?” we replied “This morning”. He then asked if our parents knew where we were and we replied “Yes Sir”. He asked our names and addresses and said we could start to work on the following Monday. “You start at 2.30 in the afternoon”, he said “And finish at 10.30pm”. An eight hour shift, my wages were 7/6 in old money.
When I got home and told my mother what I had done, I received a terrible row but being the youngest of six children and my mother a widow and needing the cash, I did start to work.
We travelled to work on the Workmen’s Tram. It was all wooden seats and cost 4d (four old pence) return to Blaengarw. When I arrived at the mine I had to sign on and get my lamp check. I did this and was told to wait in the Lamp Room until my ‘Butty’ arrived to take me to work. When he did arrive he said to me”Get your lamp, my name is Tom Pickford, what is your name?”
When I received my lamp it was an electric battery lamp, very heavy, 11 pounds. My ‘Butty’ had an oil lamp which was much lighter. We had to walk into the mine as it was a drift mine with a short shaft 50 yards deep to bring the coal up. On the floor was nails and sleepers and because horses had to walk into the mine the bottoms (‘Pookend’) had to be cut so that the horse’s collar would not rub the roof. While I was walking in between these sleepers my lamp was knocking the sleepers. The walk into the workplace was 1 and a quarter miles and it took us 1 and a quarter hours. I was shattered when I arrived at our ‘stall’. My mate told me to strip off down to my vest and showed me where I was to work. I could not believe it, it was only 2 foot 6 inches high. That first shift I filled 6 tonnes of coal. I thought ‘what have we done?!’ I arrived home around 12 midnight. My mother had a tin bath in front of the fire for me to wash. When I went to bed I could not sleep thinking of what had happened.
I worked as a boy until I was 17 years old then I went as a haulier ‘driving a horse’ to get more money. I done this for 3 years.
Conditions in the mine were very poor, working in water for two hour shifts, no toilets, cutting along thick dust. The length of a conveyor face was 120 yards and each collier was responsible for 8 yards each. One supply heading for supplies and one gate heading where all the coal came from the face and started its was to the shaft. The coal was conveyed along a trunk conveyor then into a journey of trams, 20 trams in all approximately one and a half tons per tram. Very low seams. Coal was cut by machines with a four foot six inch jib if it was cut dry at first but later with water. Dummy roads were cut then total collapse behind to lengthen the road in front. I done this heading work for a couple of years. I was asked by my overman if I would like to become a fireman official, I said I would. I went to a school on Monday of every week for 13 weeks, passed examination and became a shotsman. That was the start of the officials ladder for promotion. Shot firing in multiple shots, single shots, 12 and 50 shots (hard heading). I then became a fireman, went on to become an overman and safety engineer.
Shot firing under the old coal owners was bad; managers would not buy the exploders that were becoming available. We used to drive what we called air bridges; they were small hard headings, driving through the strata approximately 8 feet high by 6 feet wide. This means boring a round of holes about 30 to advance approximately 17 yards. I used to do this with a ‘Little Demon’ shot firing exploder; you fire one shot at a time whereas you could fire 25 shots at a time if the manager would buy the exploder. While firing one at a time I had to walk back into the heading after firing a shot to connect another detonator the smoke was unbearable, burning your eyes terrible. After a while we had exploders that would fire 50 shots a time and sometimes more.
I became an overman and took charge of night work. I was responsible for all operations during the night and had to make all the decisions. Became safety engineer, responsible for all operations during the night for a number of pit safety rules, standards, laws, keeping managers on their toes regarding safety and workmen.
Seeing Blaengarw again, for the first time in forty years was like beholding a ghost town.
As I gazed upon the scene of desolation that is now The Square, I could not help remembering the hub of activity it once was.
Until the colliery closed in 1985, there was a railway bridge spanning the road at the foot of the hill, across which the ‘Ocean Loco’ daily hauled wagon after wagon of best Ocean Colliery steam coal to the local Great Western Railway marshalling yard, from where began its export journeys to the four corners of the world.
With Ted Rees at the helm and, in my day, Dai Jenkins and Cliff Griffiths as brakesmen, this ramshackled contraption, which had an efficiency that belied its looks, has since passed into Blaengarw folklore.
Nearby were the commercial and house coal weighbridges, both manned by men of culture.
Will Owen, at the commercial end of the operation, was also the secretary of Blaengarw Workmen’s Hall and brought many films of Shakespeare and grand opera to the local screen. Ieuan Williams, who ran the housecoal depot, later founded Cor Meibion Cwmgarw and was its conductor for twenty-five years.
Will Owen first weighed the laden wagons of coal, then consigned them to Roath Basin and other dockland locations. Ieuan Williams’ duty was to despatch the one-ton-per-month of concessionary housecoal to the homes of those miners entitled to receive it.
The housecoal was transported by Hughes-the-Farm and his sons. It was extremely hard work, and not only for humans. The Hughes method of transport was horse-and-cart. As no one animal could have hauled ton after ton of coal per day up steep Blaengarw gradients, a team of horses harnessed one behind the other in single file had to be used. Getting a load up the precipitous approaches to, say, Tymeinwr Avenue, was a major operation. The horses first had to be galloped into the slope at full speed in order to ‘get a start’ on the hill. Once there, they had to be kept going at all costs. The sight of those creatures careering up the incline in full flight, with the Hughes boys shouting, screaming, cajoling, bullying and generally stirring them on to even greater effort, only needed John Wayne riding shotgun to resemble a stagecoach sequence from some Hollywood Western.
Later, Hughes-the-Farm invested in a lorry. While one was glad for the animals’ sake, housecoal deliveries in Blaengarw were never the same again.
To the other side of the railway bridge stood Wally Carpenter’s coach depot. Should that description conjure visions of a fleet of luxury expresses, let me disillusion you. Carpenter’s Coaches were as dilapidated as the Ocean Loco, but minus its efficiency. They broke down so often that cheeky children sang a song when passing the depot, loud enough for Wally to hear, but always at a safe distance from his boot (which otherwise would have been implanted in their backsides) that included the words, “You’ll never get to heaven on Wally’s bus. It will get half way, then the thing will bust”.
Before becoming a coach proprietor, Wally Carpenter was one of four taxi drivers who regularly plied for hire between Blaengarw and Ffaldau Square. The others were Bloom Braund, Leyshon Rees, and Archie Carlyon, the fare was threepence in old money and all did a roaring trade. (Also plying for hire was a horse-drawn passenger carriage called a ‘brake’ It was operated by a Mr Jones, whose present-day descendants are still collectively known as ‘Jones Brake’).
Wally was known to be a polite driver who always held open the passenger door for his customers to alight. In truth, politeness had nothing to do with it. Unless opened and held in a certain way, the door would have fallen off, as it invariably did whenever impatient passengers attempted to get out unaided.
Wally Carpenter’s greatest claim to local fame was his orchestra. In the days of silent films, there was always an orchestra in the pit, playing music to match the mood of whatever was on the screen at the time. At the old Central Cinema in King Edward Street, the orchestra was led by Wally on the violin, his wife at the piano, and sundry members of his family on other instruments. Although an original score always came with the films, which the orchestra was supposed to rehearse beforehand for synchronisation purposes, the Carpenter ensemble rarely bothered to do so. Instead, they had their own stock repertoire, (like ‘I’ll See You Again’ to accompany a tearful parting of lovers). And if the same music was heard film after film, week after week throughout the year, somehow, it did not matter.
The Carpenters also ran a fruit shop in Katie Street. During the war, when he became really affluent after winning a contract to transport local workers to and from ‘The Arsenal’ in Bridgend, Wally became a racehorse owner whose colours were registered with the Jockey Club. Like many devotees of the Sport of Kings before and since, his venture cost him dearly and he died a relatively poor man. A sad end for a loveable character who greatly enriched the life of Blaengarw.
Up the hill from the bridge, stood the business premises of John Davies (‘Shoni Butcher’), Meadow Dairy, and ‘Pop’ Rawle. Rawle’s was a local institution. During inclement weather, out-of-work miners congregated there for hours on end. Although they had no money to buy anything, Rawle never turned them out. When the weather was dry, their meeting place was ‘penniless corner’. This was the pavement along which the entrance to the WEXA club now stands. While we may joke about it in retrospect, the sight of so many able-bodied men, without the price of a Woodbine between them, spending their days in enforced idleness, was one of the tragedies of the age.
What is now the WEXA was then a composite building housing a department store, doctor’s surgery, a branch of a High Street bank and a printing works. Nearby was another surgery (Dr McCutcheon); a shoe shop (owned by a Mr Thomas, whose two sons who worked with him were both to die in a Japanese prisoner-of-war camp); a cake shop; Dan Owen’s grocery store; a newsagent; two fish and chip establishments; several butchers; a drapery; two more High Street bank branches; a chemist; another shoe shop; the Post Office, and the combined Blaengarw Co-operative Store and Bakery.
On the approaches to the Square from King Edward Street were an equal diversity of business premises. There was Tom Thomas(‘Tom Twice’), who combined the duties of undertaker with those of jobbing builder and builder’s merchant; the grocery stores of Leslie Griffiths and Gwyn Davies; another surgery (Dr Rees); a sweetshop; the Nanthir Hotel; a billiards and snooker hall; a skittle alley; Dai Rees the cobbler; David Thomas’ clothing store; Tom Bara’s bakery and commercial outlet; a fruit shop, run by a lady known, for some obscure reason, as ‘Blod Shake-her-arse’ (politely abbreviated to ‘Blod Shakey’); the Glengarw Colliery; Morien Morgan’s furniture emporium; J.J. Morgan’s music store, (where the vocal scores on sale included his own compositions published by Novello and Company of London); Ashley Humphrey’s second-hand store; Randall Jones’ general store and Tino Rossi’s Italian Cafe.
Whatever happened to Tino Rossi is one of Blaengarw’s unsolved mysteries. There were numerous Italian cafes in these valleys, run by families who were almost as Welsh as ourselves. When Italy declared war on Britain in 1940, these Italians were arrested as ‘enemy aliens’ and interned in the Isle of Man for the duration. After the war, they came back and some are still here. But not Tino Rossi.
Local people had long suspected Rossi of being anti-British, and there was once nearly a riot in his shop when he switched off the radio in the middle of ‘God Save the King’, muttering under his breath, as he did so, something that sounded suspiciously like “bloody rubbish”.
Rumour had it, that Rossi really was an enemy agent, and he had been executed. Whether true or not is something only the custodians of Official Secrets are able to tell us, and that will not be for another fifty years. All we know with certainty is that, although Blaengarw was his home and where his business was located, Tino Rossi was never again seen here.
Most of the businesses that flourished around The Square are no more. Tom Bara has finished baking; Dai Rees has repaired his last sole and heel; ‘time’ has finally been called at the Nanthir Hotel, and Blod no longer wriggles her rear. Only Randall Jones’ general store, now run by his son, Keith, remains. The rest, as Hamlet says, is silence, punctuated only by passing traffic, schoolchildren at lessons and play, and ‘Y Nant-Hir’, (‘The Long Brook’) babbling its way towards a distant sea.