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The Story of Coalbrook Colliery

By J. Edmund Healy

While motoring between Pontyberem and Cwmmawr in 1984, I realised that the former Coalbrook Colliery site had been completely obliterated by opencast mining operations - there was now nothing to show that there had ever been a colliery there. My mind wandered to the first time I had seen Coalbrook. It was in 1912, and I was six years of age. I was accompanying a cousin from Burry Port, who was an apprentice ship's engineer, and he had been granted permission to see the operating generators and transformers at the newly built power house. As we were approaching the colliery my attention was concentrated on the high wooden bridge which crossed over the colliery sidings, the road and the railway to the waste tip. On top of this tip were two men and a horse. I remember wondering however did the horse get up there! It was being used to haul the trams of rubbish along the tip edge to the dumping point.

Over 70 years have passed since then, and I pondered whether there was any written record or history of the colliery. I am not aware of any, and I am tempted to set on paper some of my knowledge of the colliery, augmented by information gleaned from older friends in the past. The story may be appreciated by some who remember the colliery, and others who are interested in the history of the Gwendraeth Valley.

But why a story especially about Coalbrook as distinct from the dozen or so collieries that existed in the valley? Well, there are justifying reasons, such as:

  1. The excellent quality anthracite, regarded at the turn of the century as the best in the world.
  2. This - as far back as the 1830s - attracted developers from as, far away as Kent, and later from Lancashire.
  3. The foremost colliery in the valley to expand on a commercial and export basis.
  4. The immense stocking shed and the story behind it.
  5. The reservoir known as Pond Mawr.

There were many small drift mines in the valley at the beginning of the 19th century, and the biggest in the Pontyberem district was known as Gwendraeth Colliery. (This had no connection with the later Gwendraeth Colliery, Pontyates.) In Pontyberem the Gwendraeth South Pit was situated near Gwendraeth Row, and the connecting drift mine was situated to the north of the old Coalbrook mansion. The quality of the anthracite mined in this area was regarded as ideal for malting purposes, and around 1840 a firm of brewers in Kent took over the Gwendraeth Colliery as a subsidiary. The firm was called Watney, Coombe and Reid, and two of the Watney brothers - David and Daniel - came to Pontyberem to manage and administer the mining operations here. The Watneys soon became popular and respected in the locality, and were said to have earned a name as benefactors, using their influence and practical support towards improving conditions in the community.

There were no schools anywhere in the district at that time, and with the mining industry developing at a reasonable rate, the Watney brothers recognised the need for educating young men as potential officials, supervisors and craftsmen. So they organised a rudimentary school at a house in Gwendraeth Row, which soon became attractive to learners. After proceeding through stages of the three R's, the students were given instructions on how to understand and comply with regulations governing mining operations at that time.

The area was going through a comparatively prosperous period in the 1840s, progress being made with transportation via the Valley canal, and the demand for coal increasing with expansion of industry generally through the country. But the Gwendraeth Colliery was to endure a tragic calamity in 1852, when an inrush of water from disused workings was of such magnitude that of the 28 men working on that night shift only one man survived. It was the worst mining catastrophe ever to occur in the Gwendraeth Valley. The mine was drowned, and it took some weeks to recover the bodies. Apparently conditions at the mine had not been good for some time, and management had already begun driving a new mine a quarter of a mile to the east of Gwendraeth some time before the flooding. This new mine was called Coalbrook, and was to have a satisfactory existence until 1910. The flooding of the Gwendraeth mine had a very adverse effect on mining in the district for some years. The colliery had to be closed, and the site thereafter became known as Y Syrthfa, which means "collapse", though this is not a true explanation of what happened. Development at Coalbrook was a slow process, employing comparatively only a small number of men. With the gradual expansion more men were required, but recruitment was slow and prejudiced by the flooding at the Gwendraeth.

The Gwendraeth Valley canal had been extended as far as Pontyberem by the mid-1830s, and although it provided a cumbersome mode of transportation some of the difficulties were eradicated as time went on. But it became obvious that progress in the Gwendraeth Valley was not to compare with that in other coal producing valleys in South Wales. True, these were developing on a bigger scale, with greater output demanding greater investment and efficiency. The canal would have been replaced by a railway by 1850 had there not been a lack of foresight and initiative on the part of the industrialists at the lower end of the valley in Burry Port and Kidwelly. It seems that the construction of docks at Pembrey and Burry Port was also burdened by lack of enterprise and finance and for a few decades progress was anything but satisfactory.

The Burry Port and Gwendraeth Valley Railway eventually reached Pontyberem by about 1870, and this was a recognisable boost to coal-mining in the area. Even so, matters were financially precarious. Coalbrook (by then known as Pontyberem Colliery) was involved financially with the B.P. & G.V. Railway Company, whose capital outlay was not being redeemed satisfactorily. The failure of the West of England Bank in 1880 was disastrous for the Pontyberem Colliery Company, as well as for the B.P. & G.V.R.Co., and although coal continued to be produced at Coalbrook, there was a period of uncertainty and gloom. The Pontyberem Colliery Company was eventually re-formed in 1887 by a Mr. Hugh Herring, who also opened a new mine at Capel Ifan about that time.

There was by now a growing shortage of manpower, and an appreciable number of men were attracted from the rural countryside around Carmarthen to obtain work in the valley. This often entailed finding lodgings at Pontyberem and most residents took in lodgers. Many of these immigrants married locally and built their own houses in the district. Later, recruitment was extended down the valley to Burry Port and Kidwelly. Eventually arrangements were made for the provision of workmen's trains, an innovation which prospered and was well patronised - especially between 1900 and 1930.

Around 1890, a new era of prosperity began for the old Coalbrook mine. With the valley railway and the dock facilities now well established, markets for coal were found in France, Spain, and even Canada. In fact the demand for Welsh anthracite in Canada provided a boom at Coalbrook, and this is where the large stocking shed comes into the story. The difficulty with the Canadian market was that the shipping route was through the St. Lawrence river, and this was frozen and not negotiable for about six months of the year. As the market was healthy and looked good for some years to come, it was decided to build a huge stocking shed where thousands of tons of coal produced during the winter months could be stored for release when the St. Lawrence again became negotiable in the spring. The shed was built in 1892 and proved a great asset for 20 years. It enabled production to continue throughout the year without interruption by shipping delays.

An interesting side-aspect of the stocking-shed activity was the provision by management of sustenance for the men who worked overtime when shipping to Canada was resumed in the spring. Beer was obtained in two-gallon cans (stên) from the New Lodge Inn, and a quantity of 'Picé Peggy' from Mrs. Thomas, Pen-y-bont cottage, near the New Lodge. Peggy was among the first to know that cargoes for Canada could now be loaded, for she would have received an advance order for her popular large currant buns for the workers. Another more important aspect of the release of stock-coal was the priority given to Coalbrook by the railway company in the form of empty trucks during such periods, much to the dissatisfaction of other collieries in the valley. There was usually a shortage of empty trucks, mostly owned by the railing company, and the company contended that they could not afford additional trucks. Consequently, the various companies in the valley commenced providing their own trucks; these new trucks were distinctively painted: 'Pontyberem Best Anthracite', 'Pentremawr Colliery', etc.

The construction of the reservoir (Pond Mawr) took place in the 1880s, when the need of a constant and adequate supply of water was required for generating steam, as steam-driven plant was introduced. The colliery owned all the land for approximately a square mile around the mine and this gave ample room for a reservoir. A brook running from Mynydd Sylen was dammed, and in time Pond Mawr became a landmark. It was about 100 yards in length, 60 to 70 yards at the widest point, and 30 feet deep at the walled end. A small pump-house was built, together with two filter-beds, near the weir. Besides providing ample water for the colliery boilers, it had been stocked with brown and rainbow trout for anglers. In suitable weather, it was popular for swimming, but was dangerous, and a number of swimmers drowned there over the years. The reservoir was drained in 1967 to permit opencast mining operations, and the fish transferred to the Gwendraeth Fawr river.

In 1908 Coalbrook Colliery, as well as two collieries near Ammanford, were taken over by a subsidiary of the Wigan Coal and Iron Company. The new company became known as the Ammanford Colliery Co., with the brothers Howe and Erne Hewlett as managing directors. With this change of ownership a number of officials and workmen were brought from Lancashire to take employment at Coalbrook and Ammanford. Most of these were previously employed at Clockface colliery near Wigan. This change also had a marked effect at the colliery and in the life of the community. Previously, the district was mainly Welsh-speaking, but communication with the newcomers had to be in English, although quite a few were able to converse in Welsh in due course. Soon after settling down in Pontyberem, the Lancashire people took over the Old Soar Chapel near Parcymynach, and held religious services there up to about 1921.

By 1910 Coalbrook had become an uneconomic unit, partly because of the distances over which the coal had to be conveyed, and also the lack of suitable reserve coal seams. The company then opened a new drift-mine further up the valley, which became known as Glynhebog. As development at the new mine proceeded, the men from Coalbrook were transferred to the new colliery. Thereafter, Coalbrook was kept open for ventilation and pumping purposes. In 1923, Glynhebog was absorbed into the United Anthracite Combine, and a year or so later, by Amalgamated Anthracite Collieries, Ltd.

About this time Mr. Erne Hewlett, former managing director, emigrated to South Africa, having an interest in coal mines there. He became involved in the great Johannesburg Trade Exhibition in 1924, and at his request a block of anthracite was cut in the pumpquart seam at Coalbrook, crated and shipped to Johannesburgh for display at the exhibition. This rectangular block of coal weighed well over a ton, but was delivered intact and was an item of much interest. It is also of interest to record that Coalbrook coal was used by Capt. Robert F. Scott during his famous Expedition to the Antarctic in 1910. When his ship "Terra Nova" was being prepared at Cardiff Docks, the stores being loaded included 16 tons of best anthracite coal from Coalbrook.

In writing a story of this kind very many personalities associated with Coalbrook come to mind, and much as I would like to refer to a number of them, I have brought my list down to two only. Foremost must be Mr. Thomas Seymour, who was appointed manager at Coalbrook around 1870, and remained in that position until his death in 1917. Mr. Seymour was very highly respected in Pontyberem, and took a prominent part in the social and religious life of the community. He was a J.P. and local representative on the Llanelly Board of Guardians, a body which was ultimately abolished and superseded by the County Council. The other personality to be named was Mr. Joseph Roberts, J.P. who was for many years lodge secretary and leader of the Workmen's Federation. He was a sound negotiator on behalf of the miners, and a valued link between men and management.

At the outset, I stated that there was nothing left to commemorate the now obliterated Coalbrook Colliery. But still recognisable is the waste-tip on the north side of the road, the tip being now overgrown with trees. Then there were the Coalbrook stables which at one time accommodated as many as 40 horses. These buildings now comprise Coalbrook Garage. There are also the houses at Gwendraeth Row, originally built by the first Gwendraeth Colliery Company, but later renovated to modern standards.

Gwendraeth House and St. John's Church were built from Cornish Sandstone. The former as an official residence and office by the company in the 1880s, while St. John's Church was built much under the influence of the Seymour family and the Pontyberem Colliery Company in 1893. Much of Coalbrook coal was shipped to Cornish tin-mines, and Cornish Sandstone was brought back as ballast for use in colliery buildings. When St. John's Church embarked on the building of a church hall in 1965, the Governing Body of the Church in Wales insisted that the hall should be of the same stonework as the church. By coincidence, buildings at Coalbrook were being demolished for roadwidening at that time and the Church authorities were enabled, for a nominal sum, to obtain Cornish stone for the church hall and belfry. And so, some of the remains of Coalbrook are still visible for those who have a mind to see.

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