Empire shaft when it was in use as upcast ventilation for Blaengwrach Colliery

Blaengwrach, Vale of Neath

The construction of the Vale of Neath Canal, which was completed by 1795, laid this area wide open for full-scale exploitation, the coal seams were of excellent quality, and easily accessible, being at or near the surface. The first Blaengwrach was worked by Edward Protheroe as early as 1814. Another/or the same Blaengwrach was owned by the Aberdare Iron Company in 1858, and by N.E. Vaughn in 1860/70. The Cory Brothers worked a Blaengwrach which was closed in 1930. E.R. Williams was its manager. Those early workings are fully explained on the Cwmgwrach Colliery page.

In the late 1950s the National Coal Board decided to completely re-organise its mines in the area; Rock, Aberpergwm and Cwmgwrach, build a new Aberpergwm Washery and drive new drifts at Blaengwrach and Pentreclwydau. The Blaengwrach New Drift was opened in 1962 from near the Aberpergwm Washery into the anthracite Six-Feet seam. The mine was fully mechanised and an electric locomotive used to take men (112 at a time) and supplies in, and coal out (180 tonnes per hour) ultimately to a distance of 1.5 miles. It replaced the surface of the upper Cwmgwrach Colliery and the overland rope haulage incline to that colliery. The main drift was taken in at an incline of 1 to 400 rising using 14 feet arches. Contractors commenced work in 1960 and after driving 1,680 yards they connected to an existing upcast shaft which was deepened by 47 yards and used as the return airway for Blaengwrach. The drivage went in another 560 yards then branched into two roadways. To the right for 650 yards into the Six-Feet seam, and to the left for 560 yards into the Cornish and Six-Feet seams. The return roadway from the Six-Feet seam to the shaft was 1,370 yards long. The working area was bounded by a north-south geological fault, an east-west fault and the old Cwmgwrach workings, to the west by the 120-yard Glyncorrwg fault and to the east by the 45-yard Rhigos fault.

It was expected to work the following seams:

  • Six-Feet: 760 acres at a thickness of 54 inches.
  • Cornish: 867 acres at a thickness of 36 inches.
  • Nine-Feet: 327 acres at a thickness of 108 inches.
  • Peacock:333 acres at a thickness of 36 inches.

With the longwall method of coal extraction two roadways, say 200 metres apart, were driven into the coal seam and a coalface opened up between them. The roof was supported by wooden props and a conveyor belt laid along the ‘face. A collier was allocated a length of the face approximately six metres (dependent on the seam height and conditions) and with pick and shovel advanced up to a distance of 1.2 metres. A turnover gang would then come onto the coalface and advance the conveyor so that the cycle could commence again. Wooden props were replaced by steel ones topped with steel bars for improved roof support, these in turn being replaced by the modem hydraulic supports with a steel canopy that offered full cover on the coalface. The ‘self-advancing or walking chocs’ were attached to armoured (chain) conveyors which in turn pulled the roof supports forward in the sequence. With the roof supports secured in their advanced state, they then pushed the conveyor forward so that another coal cutting sequence could begin. Coal-getting advanced from the pick and shovel to a cutting machine that would undercut the seam allowing it to fall over and break up, making it easier for the collier to load onto the conveyor. On fully mechanised coalfaces this method was replaced by various coal cutting machines such as the popular ranging drum shearer, in which a rotating steel drum with small picks attached to it would travel along the armoured conveyor ripping into the coal and simultaneously loading into onto the conveyor.

The armoured face conveyor travelled at 145 feet per minute and the plough at 72 feet per minute so that the coal was rapidly taken away. Each cut was only two inches but on a 160-yard long face with a four-foot thick seam, 450 tons were produced each shift. The above are a simplified versions of the methods used in the South Wales Coalfield and do not cover the many complexities of coal getting such as roadside packing, withdrawal of supports water infusing, shotfiring, machine stables, advance headings, etc.

Mechanisation failed in the Six-Feet seam, and a disc cutter face with link bars and Dowty props as roof supports was abandoned, they then worked 100-yard hand filled coalfaces. Following some successes, they again tried to mechanised coal filling and on the150 yard long S22 coalface installed a disc cutter and powered supports and achieved advances of 29 feet per week. The Cornish seam turned out to be too difficult to work, with both ploughs and disc shearers being tried without success. The Nine-Feet seam was worked until the closure of the colliery at approximately 1,900 feet below the surface. On the east side, Dosco Roadheaders worked heading and stalls, to the north good results were obtained but there were limited reserves in this area. To the south, this seam was very geologically disturbed. The coal from the coalfaces was transported by belt conveyors to bunkers at both the east and west sides, the coal was then loaded into 30 hundredweight mine cars which were hauled out of the drift by diesel locomotives and taken to the coal preparation plant. The drift had a total capacity of 180 tons per hour while the washery (CPP) could wash around 200 tons of coal an hour.

In 1978 it employed 300 men and produced 73,537 tons of coal. In 1980 this colliery employed 244 men and produced 56,887 tons of coal while in 1981 Blaengwrach worked the Nine-Feet seam (N101 and N102 Coalfaces) at an average section of 1.65 metres on coalfaces 140 to 160 metres long. Coal cutting was by ranging drum shearer and coalface supports were the self-advancing type, daily advance on two shifts was planned at 2.43 metres. The saleable coal yield was 60% of the total production of coal. Manpower distribution at that time was; development 40, coalface 60, others below ground 80, surface 40. The manager was T.R. Evans. The N101 coalface had a life of 515 metres left while the N102 coalface was expected to travel 350 metres but its geology was uncertain. In 1983 it was the smallest NCB colliery in the South Wales Coalfield employing 212 men.

Blaengwrach Colliery was closed on the 14th of July 1983 due to difficult geological conditions.


Some Statistics:

  • 1920 : Manpower: 10.
  • 1922 : Manpower: 14.
  • 1923 : Manpower: 43.
  • 1924 : Manpower: 15.
  • 1925 : Manpower: 70.
  • 1926 : Manpower: 151.
  • 1927 : Manpower: 102.
  • 1928 : Manpower: 6.
  • 1929 : Manpower: 10.
  • 1931 : Manpower: 46.
  • 1932 : Manpower: 46.
  • 1933 : Manpower: 4.
  • 1969 : Manpower: 512.
  • 1970 : Manpower: 422.
  • 1971 : Manpower: 390.
  • 1972 : Manpower: 407.
  • 1978 : Manpower: 300. Output: 73,537 tons.
  • 1979 : Manpower: 268. Output: 57,000 tons.
  • 1980 : Manpower: 244. Output: 56,887 tons.
  • 1983 : Manpower: 212.

This information has been provided by Ray Lawrence, from books he has written, which contain much more information, including many photographs, maps and plans. Please contact him at welshminingbooks@gmail.com for availability.

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