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Red Line

Development of the coal industry

Although the mining of coal in South Wales can be traced back as far as the Roman period, its real exploitation began during the 17th century where its main use was in the smelting of copper. The industry was initially centred on Neath which became the first industrial town in Wales. By the early 18th century, however, Swansea, with its better port facilities, had assumed supremacy and, by 1845, was producing 55% of the world’s output of copper. At this time, coal was important only in respect of its use in smelting.

By the beginning of the 19th century, iron had replaced copper as the chief metal industry in Wales with Merthyr Tydfil becoming the largest town in the country as a result. By 1850, 40% of Britain’s iron was produced in the Merthyr Tydfil area. Two million tons of coal per annum were used in the smelting of iron, one million tons in the smelting of copper, and a further one and a half million tons being produced for other industrial, domestic and export uses.

It was not until the nineteenth century that coal became the main industry in South Wales. Initially, coal was transported by canal, but with the coming of the railways after 1840, the coal industry began to grow spectacularly. The growth of the steam coal industry, which was to transform South Wales and endow it with a world-wide reputation, came with the development of the steam engine and its use in shipping and rail, with the main “boom period” occurring between 1840-1920. Perhaps the crucial factor was the selection, after a series of trials, of South Wales steam coal by the Admiralty for use in the ships of the Royal Navy. What was good enough for Britain was good enough for the rest of the world and exports subsequently mushroomed.

In 1913, the Rhondda was at the height of its output, with over 50 deep mines and 41,000 miners. There were also around 40 mines in the Rhymney Valley. In the whole of South Wales, there were 250,000 men working in the coal industry producing 57 million tons of coal.

Before 1840, Merthyr had remained the leading coal-producing area. Between 1840-70, the adjacent Cynon Valley took over, but, after 1870, the Rhondda Valleys – emblematic of South Wales coal – became predominant. Technological developments allowed the deep seams of the Rhondda to be mined, the Taff Vale Railway was extended to the head of the Rhondda Valleys and capital investment by numerous entrepreneurs – the “Coalowners” – poured in. The Rhondda became the heartland of South Wales, its name and reputation made globally.

The coal industry starts to decline

Despite the fact that 1913 marked the high point of coal production in South Wales, the industry was already facing difficulties through the emergence of foreign competition. Although the First World War temporarily restored demand for Welsh coal, it also ultimately cost Britain overseas markets for coal. Customers were forced to look elsewhere for supplies, new sources were developed.

During the First World War, due to unrest within the industry, the government took over control of the mines for the duration of the conflict. Nationalisation (state control) of the industry had always been the main aim of the miners, and it was hoped that this situation would continue with the return of peace. However, despite a Royal Commission (under Justice Sankey) that this should happen, the government decided, in 1921, to hand the industry back to the coalowners.

Immediately, the owners demanded huge cuts in wages, which had climbed during the war years. When this was refused by the mens’ union, the owners, on April 1, 1921, locked out one million British miners. This lasted for three months until by the end of June 1921, when support promised by transport workers and railwaymen had not been given, the miners narrowly voted to return to work on the owners’ terms.

In 1921 a recovery began in the world economy and the coal industry appeared to be beginning to return to its pre-war boom conditions. By 1923 coal production in south Wales had risen to 54 million tons, the second highest figure ever recorded. However, within two decades the production of the coalfield was to be halved (1943 – 25,116,000 tons). Between 1921-1936, 241 mines closed in South Wales and the number of miners fell from 270,000 to 130,000. New fuels, loss of markets, the expense of raising Welsh coal, all contributed to this.

The coalowners responded to the problems of the industry, primarily the drop in their profits, by again attempting to reduce the price of coal by cutting wages. In 1925, when the owners demanded large cuts and longer hours, the government temporarily averted confrontation by paying the miners a subsidy to maintain wages while yet another Commission reported on the industry. The Samuel Report in 1926 recommended investment in the industry to modernise it and make it more competitive but also a temporary cut in wages until it became more profitable. The owners recognised only the need to cut wages and when this was refused, the men were locked out of work and the South Wales coalfields came to a stop. The General Strike followed.

The decline of the coal industry during the period 1919-39 turned South Wales into an area of mass unemployment. In Wales as a whole 36.5% were unemployed in 1936. This was bad enough but in some areas of the coalfield it was even worse. In Dowlais, for example, it was 73%.

One of the main effects of widescale unemployment in the industry, in an area where there were hardly any other jobs, was that people left the valley communities in droves to seek work elsewhere. Altogether, something approaching 500,000 people left South Wales in the inter-war years. Rhondda, for example, lost 36% of its population. For those who remained, the 1920s and 30s were a time of survival, not only for the unemployed, but also for those in work as wage levels fell during these years. The so-called “Devil’s Decade” of the 1930s was notorious for its images of poverty, deprivation, means test, soup kitchens and despair.

Conversely, it was also the decade of resistance, social cohesion, communal self-help and identification with those suffering similar and greater trials in other nations, most notably South Wales’s support, manifested in numerous ways, for the Republican cause in Spain. The Fed, the National Unemployed Workers Movement, the Labour and Communist Parties were all active in stimulating protests, marches and demonstrations against the situation and the inadequacy of government response.

The Fed, however, faced a situation where its membership was dwindling. It also faced a challenge from the South Wales Miners’ Industrial Union, a company union supported by the owners to destroy the Fed. From 1934, however, the Fed. concentrated on removing the “scab union”, as it was known, from its strongholds in pits such a Taff Merthyr, Trelewis, Treorchy and Bedwas. This was accomplished by the tactic of the “stay-down” strike. Secret members of the Fed. at these pits would refuse to come up at the end of their shift until the owners granted the men a secret ballot to decide which union they wished to represent them. This tactic was successful and by 1938 the company union was defeated.

During the Second World War, the coal industry was again taken over by the Government. At the end of the war in 1945, it was decided that the industry should be nationalised and run by the National Coal Board. The benefits of nationalisation were to include better safety conditions, fairer wage deals and modernisation of plant and methods of mining.

However, nationalisation did not prevent the long, steady decline of the coal mining industry in Britain nor prevent on-going pit closures. Throughout the 1950s, 60s and 70s the decline continued. In the mid 1980s only 31 pits remained employing 22,000 men. In 1984-85, one of the longest and most bitter strikes in the history of the industry against closures failed to prevent the final decimation of the coalfield in South Wales. Shortly after the end of the strike, the remaining pits were shut down. Today, only one deep mine, Tower Colliery, owned and operated by the miners themselves, is in production, employing 300 men.



Humphreys, Graham. Industrial Britain. South Wales. (Newton Abbot, 1972).

Williams, John. Was Wales Industrialised? Essays in Modern Welsh History. (Gomer 1995).

All items listed in the further reading are available for consultation in either the South Wales Miners’ Library or the Library and Information Centre, University of Wales Swansea. Click here to link to the library catalogue. 

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