Blaenavon World Heritage Site 2007
A part of Wales that changed the World.
Wales is an often forgotten nation, and yet it played a role in the World's development, that earned it its place in history. Wales lead the World's industrial revolution. Coal mining techniques were pioneered here. The World's first steam locomotive was made and used here. Iron and steel manufacturing processes were developed and perfected. Wales shipped its coal and iron all over the World.
Blaenavon, on the edge of the South Wales valleys and the Brecon Beacons National Park, has some of the best preserved industrial revolution heritage in Britain. Blaenavon, at its peak, was a World leader in iron and steel production. Railway lines to this day cross the Indian subcontinent carrying the Blaenavon Company stamp. Since its decline from that standing, it has become yet another valleys town, with its population of people who could not or would not leave when the industries were forced to end. This is a gallery of what remains.
For most of my younger life, I grew up on the other side of the mountain from here. As a teenager, I took part in maintaining some of the things you will see in this gallery.
Big Pit national coal mining museum
Run as part of the National Museum of Wales, entry is free, including the underground tour - the only one of its kind in Wales.
- Once a standard Welsh Valleys' view. This is Big Pit, one of around 30 deep (shaft) mines that used to exist in Blaenavon, and now one of only two surviving in all of Wales. Several remnants of drift mines are also visible. This shaft is not actually very deep - only 90 metres (one tenth the depth of the deepest coal mine in Wales).
- In case you were confused about where this is.
- Kitting up ready for the underground tour. Firstly there is the builder's helmet (builder's helmets suck, by the way - one hard hit, and they need to be replaced). Then there is a belt with a heavy lead-acid battery, and an Oldham safety lamp. The belt also has a small breathing filter mask, to allow you to breathe through the smoke if there is a fire underground.
- The cages (lifts/elevators). From this point on, all flamable materials and non-safety electrical equipment is banned. No matches, lighters, digital or battery operated cameras, flashguns, or even watches. Coal mines are dangerous. They produce small amounts of flamable gasses known as "firedamp", such as methane and related gasses, and the air is often filled with flamable coal dust. Of course, you may wonder how I took pictures without a camera or flashgun - let's just say that I used a small amount of artistic license.
- Canaries. Canaries? Canaries.
- Yes, canaries were the sacrificial working animals in the mine. They would die long before humans, from buildup of dangerous gasses. The mining teams would keep a canary with them, and if it died and stopped chirping, then they would evacuate. In humans, flamable levels of gas would cause dizzyness and collapse in less than half an hour.
- Early miners used candles, so if there was a gas buildup, they would ignite it. Early on in the industrial revolution, Davy Lamps (safety lamps) were invented as a way of preventing the candles from igniting the gas. The flame is kept behind meshes, through which the flame cannot pass to ignite gas on the outside. If the flame started to burn blue and larger than normal, it safely indicated that there was flamable gas in the air, and the mine should be evacuated.
- The conditions in an early mine (yes, it's a simulation, so please excuse the lighting and metalwork). Hand picked passageways, opened out on coal seams, by men working long hours in dangerous conditions, using candle light to see the black rocks. Teenagers too small to use a pick would then crawl, towing the coal away in a cart, through to the mine shaft. Children as young as 5 years of age would sit alone in the dark for upto 14 hours, with a candle if their parents could afford it, and if it remained alight, waiting for the rumble of a truck to tell them to open the ventilation control door, and let the truck through.
- The window maker. This is like a large chainsaw (see the hand for scale) that undercut the coal, allowing it to collapse and be collected. The dust it produced caused the often fatal pneumoconiosis - this was always a problem with traditional mining, but this tool made it many times worse.
- The current deep mining tool; a shearer-loader, that cuts coal faster and more safely than explosives can, and even fits pit props as it goes.
- The conveyor taking coal from the face to the shaft, replacing the older trucks. The large tunnel is normal for the mines, being the part that needs to transport the miners, coal, tools, and materials. Iron girders and wooden lining help keep the structure stable.
- Blasting the larger tunnels. Using explosives around flamable gasses has its drawbacks. In order to keep the gasses out of the older mines, significantly sized mines would dig a second shaft, and light a fire at the bottom of it, dragging air through from the first shaft. Using fire to keep flamable gasses out - hardly seems sensible. Later, these were replaced with electrical fans.
- A tunnelling tool is a safer and faster approach, using a rotary bit to dig the tunnel.
- Coal mines are different from the stronger stone mines (such as limestone or slate). The rock is weak and brittle, and collapses. The tunnels are then repaired if the mine is still in use. If not, the mine is left to collapse and be taken back by the Earth. The normal construction, with stemples over steel, is visible here. Older mines used wooden A-frames instead. Collapses, explosions, floodings. Take your pick, old mines were dangerous, and in 200 years of mining claimed over 30'000 lives in Wales alone - ignoring those caused by pneumoconiosis.
- Once taken up the shafts, the coal trucks - each containing about a ton of coal - would be rotated in this tipping machine, and their contents taken for sorting.
- The trucks then follow the tram circuit, collecting pit props as needed, before returning to the other side of the cage to be lowered back into the mine. Big Pit was unusual in that it had a shaft large enough to have two separate cages, allowing for more trucks or miners to be raised and lowered at any one time. Incidentally, the child in this photo is 5 years old, not even tall enough to look into a mining truck. If she had lived 200 years ago, she would have been sitting alone in the dark, working a 14 hour shift. What a life.
- Pit head winding gear, the icon of deep mining. The cables from the cages pass over these large pulleys on their way to the winding house.
- The view of the winding gear, with Blaenavon in the background. This could be the view of any of the valleys mining towns, prior to their forced closure. The communities were built on the mining. The Welsh reputation as the Land of Song came from these mining towns, where the miners would form the Welsh male voice choirs. These are still maintained as a tradition (Blaenavon still has one, for example).
- The motors in the winding house.
- Before powered mine shafts, there were water balance shafts. Two small shafts beside each other, with a pulley above, and a cable down each shaft, with a platform on each end.
- A full truck is on the platform at the bottom of one shaft, and an empty truck is on the platform at the top of the other shaft. Water is poured into a tank underneath the upper platform, until it is heavier than the full truck in the other shaft. The heavy platform then descends, pulling the other truck up. The full truck is wheeled away, and the water is drained from the tank. The full truck is emptied, the empty truck is filled, and the process is repeated in reverse.
- The pit forge, with its three furnaces. Since fires were forbidden in the mine (once they realised how to be safety conscious), all tools were repaired on the surface. In many such mines, pit ponies - typically Welsh cobs - were used for hauling trucks, especially since using children for that job was banned. They would normally spend 9 years underground without seeing daylight. The ponies needed horseshoes, made of metals that would not spark, and could be fitted cold, down in the mine.
- The miners' train, used to take the miners on long journeys through the mines to the face.
- Even in current mines, logs play a vital role. Even with the metal arches, every other part of the pit is lined with these logs. There is almost no rock visible. They rot though, and need to be replaced on a continual basis, with each log lasting around a few decades. Creaking logs are also an early warning of an impending collapse.
- Of course, miners don't always collect perfect coal. They collect a lot of other rock or poor quality coal in the process, and that all has to go somewhere. So it is dumped in tips all over the surrounding countryside.
- From old industry to new. Sheep farming is now one of the biggest industries here, with the World's highest density of sheep, fed off the coal tips of the Welsh valleys. The coal produces the dark wool patches, and gives a peaty flavour to the meat. Ja, ja.
- Your camera crew; camera, support and lighting.
That was basically Welsh valleys life until after the World wars. The coal industry became nationalised in 1946, and made many strides towards mining safety, but at the cost of real money instead. In 1984-1985, the conservative government of Margaret Thatcher forced all the mines to close, but with nothing to replace them. The Welsh economy, and the communities that lived around the industries, were left in tatters. Unemployment rose to its highest level, almost certainly losing more money through unemployment benefits than the industries had been losing.
The UK, like many countries, still uses coal, primarily for power generation, and secondarily for heating. Most of that coal is imported. One pit - Tower Colliery - refused to give up, and the miners bought it for themselves, and continued to work it as a profitable industry. Next year, they will be closing, having worked all the available seams in the area they were working. There are still 8 billion tons of coal elsewhere in the Welsh coalfields, compared with the 3 billion tons that were extracted throughout the entire industrial revolution. Wales still has reserves to provide the entire UK with all of its power needs for many decades at current consumption levels.
Pontypool and Blaenavon Railway
- Near to Big Pit is the Pontypool and Blaenavon Railway, that used to service the coal mine. They have several engines here, and are very popular for their steam engines. Sadly, they were running a diesel today. It costs money to ride on the train, but it is run by volunteers who help maintain and run the trains. I used to volunteer here many years ago.
- The whistle Inn stop at the top of the line, the highest and steepest standard guage railway and station in Wales. The land here used to be a mess of coal tips. The coal board compulsory purchased the properties in the valley above here, and demolished them, planning to obliterate the remaining landscape with an opencast mine. Many local people (my family included) campaigned against it, and it was abandoned. Instead they reclaimed the land and made the artificial lakes you see here.
- Ever since I first volunteered on this railway, these 4 engines had been here, waiting for funds to renovate them. The funds never materialised, so they are now for sale.
- The largest of the engines. If you have £500'000 to spare, and somewhere to put it, this massive piece of industrial heritage could be yours.
- Of course, they also need to be renovated. The estimated cost of that renovation is approximately £500'000. So all you need is £1m total.
- The cab, missing most of its controls.
- In the car park, there is this 7 ton steam powered hammer, nearly 100 years old. One of its last main uses was to build parts of Concord. It's actually not related to Blaenavon, but it is one of the tools that would have been used in iron forges like those in Blaenavon.
- Panorama of the ironworks. From right to left; remains of the steam powered furnace air pumps, manager's and skilled workers' cottages and truck shop, smiths' shops, balance tower, furnace remains, cast house and foundry, chimney and sheds, Cowper (air pre-heating) stove.
- Model of the ironworks during part of its service. Since it was started in 1787, and closed over 120 years later, it has changed many times during its service, so the model does not completely resemble the appearence now.
- The mining cottages and truck shop. The workers were sometimes paid in truck - tokens that would not work any shops except the official truck shop. They were encouraged to get into debt so that they could not leave to work elsewhere, as they could not pay off their debts with tokens earned anywhere else. This lead to much resentment and many revolts in the towns to the West.
- Bridge alley.
- The top of the balance tower is linked by an arch to the tram lines at the top. These then took materials to the tops of the furnaces, and to link through the Pwll Du tunnel to the village of Pwll Du, where finished products were exchanged for quarried limestone.
- The balance tower worked in the same way as the balance shaft mines (see above), lifting trucks 25 metres.
- From the base, the railway left to join others, such as the Pontypool and Blaenavon Railway. Children as young as 5 years old would be employed to signal to the balance shaft controllers that there were trucks ready to ascend. Not so bad as working in the darkness of a mine, at least.
- Three of the furnaces. They are in a poor state of repair because their stone was taken to build a local church after the ironworks closed.
- The best preserved of the furnaces. The outlet is clearly visible, where the runoff slag was removed, and the iron was channelled into casts.
- View inside the furnace tower, up to where the ore was tipped into the top.
- The base of a more modern iron clad furnace. Lower cost to produce and dismantle. The ease with which it can be dismantled is why so little of it remains. Even so, it is the most complete example of its type in Britain. The heat of the furnace - about 1500°C at its base - clearly shows, as the ore and bricks have melted into lava, before cooling almost like a ceramic.
- The cast house on the right (where iron was set into pig beds), and the foundry on the left - basically a forge that could make a variety of different iron-based products. Above them is a visible vent into the flue used by the furnaces, and on the bench above that are the remains of the calcining kilns, used to dry the materials before use.
- Looking up the inside of the main visible furnace behind the cast house.
- Remains of some iron products in the cast house.
- Chains in the cast house.
- Tram wheels.
- The cupola furnace at the foundary, used to remelt iron into new casts.
- A monument to Sidney Gilchrist Thomas. At these ironworks, he pioneered a technique that would allow iron ores containing phosphorous to be used for making steel. A World changing invention that allowed countries like the Germany to use their vast ore reserves to make steel. A noble gift to the World's industry, that inadvertently also contributed to the death of the Welsh steel exporting industry - who needs Welsh steel when you can make your own. The ironworks here closed in 1900.
Pwll Du, and the Monmouthshire & Brecon Canal
- Coal tips covering the ridge between Blaenavon and Pwll Du. The area around here is also covered in scours, where streams were channeled to expose lumps of iron ore.
- The village of Pwll Du has now almost all disappeared, but once served as a quarrying village, collecting limestone from the nearby Pwll Du Quarry, and the many quarries, such as this one, on Gilwern Hill.
- The remains of Hill's Tramroad (at the bottom of the nearest green patch), which took products and materials from Pwll Du down to the lower ironworks and canal. To descend steep sections, the trams could use a pulley system, where the descending heavily laden trucks used cables to pull empty trucks back up.
- Slag remains from the Garnddyrys ironworks and forge.
- The 200 year old Monmouthshire & Brecon Canal, that was used to take industrial exports to the docks in Newport.
- Monmouthshire & Brecon Canal near Llanfoist.