Humble Lamp Shines Light on Mining History; What Is the Most Important Object in Welsh History? Today Dr BEN CURTIS, Aberystwyth University / Cardiff University, Argues the Case for the Miner's Lamp

Western Mail (Cardiff, Wales), May 9, 2013 | Go to article overview

Humble Lamp Shines Light on Mining History; What Is the Most Important Object in Welsh History? Today Dr BEN CURTIS, Aberystwyth University / Cardiff University, Argues the Case for the Miner's Lamp


At first glance, the miner's lamp might seem a surprisingly drab and utilitarian nomination as the most important object in Welsh history. Appearances can be deceptive, though: there are few objects which so completely represent an industry that played such a central role in the creation and shaping of modern South Wales. The lamp also symbolises everything that was distinctive about South Wales coalfield society. In order to understand why all this is important, though, we need to get a better sense of the immense historical significance of the coal industry.

South Wales is built on coal, both geologically and historically. It is not an exaggeration to say that the coal industry was the main reason behind the creation of much of modern South Wales. Apart from Merthyr Tydfil and the other "iron towns" of the Heads of the Valleys, most of the towns and villages of the South Wales coalfield owe their existence to the explosive growth of the coal industry in the 19th and early 20th centuries. This development was made possible by an astonishing rate of inward migration. The Rhondda valleys, which by the 1870s had become the coalfield's main coal-producing district, exemplify this phenomenon dramatically. In 1851 there were only 951 Rhondda residents; this figure had climbed to 55,000 by 1881 and peaked at 167,000 in 1924. By this time there were more people living in the Rhondda than in Cardiganshire, Merionethshire and Montgomeryshire combined. Additionally, Cardiff, Barry, Newport and (to a lesser extent) Swansea owe much of their modern-day size and status to the wealth that they accrued from the coal trade.

The early 20th century saw the zenith of the coalfield's economic power, with its peak production figure of 57 million tons being reached in 1913. By this time, there were over 234,000 miners and hundreds of pits in South Wales. It was Britain's largest coalfield, supplying 19.7% of total coal output and almost a third of total global coal exports. In 1913, Barry and Cardiff were the two biggest coal-exporting ports in the world.

Equally significant - and not unrelated to this - was the growth of bitter industrial conflict, marked by major strikes and the spread of radical left-wing ideas among the South Wales miners. Together, these factors made the South Wales coalfield a key potential flashpoint for British domestic politics at the time.

Coal continued to play an important role in South Wales for most of the 20th century.

Following the nationalisation of the coal industry in 1947, the National Coal Board (NCB) remained the region's biggest employer for much of the post-war period.

There were 88,000 mineworkers on its books in South Wales in 1962, 14% of the total labour force.

As late as 1984, there were still around 20,000 miners in South Wales.

The modern history and identity of the Valleys is still strongly influenced by its mining past, despite the disappearance of most of the collieries.

This is partly due to continued external perceptions of South Wales as being synonymous with coal, a factor which is consciously reinforced by such tourist attractions as the Rhondda Heritage Park and the Big Pit Mining Museum.

In a more subtle and pervasive way, too, coal mining - specifically, coal mining trade unionism - has been a formative influence on the "Labourist"' mental outlook of the Valleys, characterised by close-knit, working-class communities and - generally - voting for the Labour Party. The miner's lamp in the workplace The lamp was an important feature of the miners' working environment, from the perspective of both illumination and safety. Underground work is impossible without lighting; however, one of the biggest dangers in coal mining is the accidental ignition of methane and other flammable gases - known collectively as 'firedamp' - that tend to accumulate in subterranean mine workings. In the early days of the industry. …

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Humble Lamp Shines Light on Mining History; What Is the Most Important Object in Welsh History? Today Dr BEN CURTIS, Aberystwyth University / Cardiff University, Argues the Case for the Miner's Lamp
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