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The early coal owners were the copper works and ironmasters. It was after 1840 that the successful coal collieries came into existence. (It must be remembered that the coal owners did not own the coal, but the equipment and buildings used in mining. The land belonged to Landlords, such as Lord Aberdare, who became very rich from the royalties earned). Many individuals, such as Thomas Powell, David Davies, John Nixon, W T Lewis (later Lord Merthyr), were able to set up successful colliery companies as not much capital was needed to start. Some formed limited liability companies as a way of increasing capital. As many coal owners were directors of a number of colliery firms and the directors held most of the shares, they grew rich. By 1873, most of the major colliery companies in South Wales had been formed, and by 1914, the giant combines such as the Cambrian Combine, United National and T Beynon and Company, dominated and controlled 40% of output.
Some of the coal owners were from humble backgrounds, such as David Davies of Llandinam, who was the son of small farmer in Montgomeryshire. He was one of first railway builders in Wales, which enabled him to raise the money to become a coal owner. Many of the early owners were Welsh; they lived in the new mining communities, spoke Welsh, were non-conformist and liberal (like the miners). Some, such as Lord Merthyr, were generous and gave money for schools, chapels, institutes, libraries and hospitals. Many owners were also JPs, Poor Law Guardians, Councillors and MPs, such as Lord Rhondda, who controlled the Cambrian Combine, who was MP for Merthyr Tydfil from 1888 to 1910. By the end of the 19th century however, most of the owners had become removed from the daily life of the mining communities, living on big estates near Cardiff and Swansea, such as David Davies who lived in Montgomeryshire.
By the early 20th century, the attitude of the owners to the miners was that of seeing them as products rather than human beings. They often blamed gas explosions on miners smoking their pipes and fought against paying out compensation. They were against the workers forming trade unions, but had their own organization, the South Wales Coalowners Association. It was formed in 1873, and although the owners did not agree on all issues, they were all opposed to increases in wages and in trying to get higher productivity from their workers. They were concerned as the amount of coal raised per person was lower than anywhere else in Britain. The animosity that grew between the owners and the workers can be seen by the attitudes to the Powell Duffryn Coal Company, owned by Tom Powell, known as ‘Poverty and Death’.
In 1916, the coal industry was taken over by the Government to ensure that strikes that had been occurring over wages did not stop supply of coal to the Navy. (The miners were suspicious that the owners were making huge profits over the sharp rise in the demand for coal.) In 1919, a Royal Commission reported that the industry should remain with the Government and be nationalized. This shocked the owners, but in 1921 the Government changed its mind and the industry was handed back. The owners then said that wages had risen too steeply under the Government and that they should now be lowered. Any miner refused to accept this would be refused employment. This led to the 1921 Lockout where for three months the miners refused to accept the owners’ terms. They were forced back to work after support that had been promised by the Transport Workers and Railwaymen Union was not given. Depression in the industry and further cuts in wages wanted by the owners lead to the General Strike in 1926.
The Government once more took over the industry during the second World War. After the war ended an inquiry said that the coal industry should be nationalised. The Labour Government, which contained former South Wales miners’ leaders such as Aneurin Bevan and James Griffiths, agreed. On the 1st January 1947, the National Coal Board came into being, and the owners received generous compensation.
Phillips, Elizabeth. A History of the Pioneers of the South Wales Coalfield. (Cardiff, 1925).
The Powell Duffryn Steam Coal Company, Limited. (Cardiff, n.d.)
Watson, Richard. Rhondda coal, Cardiff gold: the Insoles of Llandaff, coal owners and shippers. (Cardiff, 1997)
Williams, Herbert. Davies the Ocean: Railway King and Coal Tycoon. (Cardiff, 1991).
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.
LINKS TO USEFUL WEBSITES:
Welsh Coal Mines Contains photographs and brief details about collieries and their owners.
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