In the hinterland of Swansea forming the western section of the South Wales coalfield lie Britain’s best anthracite resources, except to a limited extent in Scotland anthracite occurs in no other part of the United Kingdom.

What is anthracite? All that most people know is that it is a type of coal. Those who have used it in special fuel-burning appliances or in the open hearth fires that are common in west Wales can say from experience that it is difficult to set alight but gives a more intense and enduring heat than other coals. Those more scientifically knowledgeable will refer to the extremely low volatile content of anthracite. Housewives in the mining villages of Tumble, Cross Hands, Pontyberem, Ammanford, etc., will tell you of domestic fires that have not been allowed to go out – banked up with anthracite duff overnight and set aglow with the movement of a poker next morning when the men have to get off to the pits.

Some dictionaries prefer to describe anthracite merely in a negative way as “non-bituminous”. Actually, the word is derived from the Greek
“anthrakites” means a kind of precious stone, and the commonly accepted description of anthracite is as “a hard compact variety of mineral coal, nearly pure carbon”. It is significant that diamonds are described as “crystallised carbon” so the common reference to coal as “black diamonds” has a significance that is almost literal when applied to anthracite. Anthracite is a coal that is geologically on its way to becoming a diamond. Certainly, anthracite is a precious mineral for Britain today.

What does it mean in export potential – in terms of dollar and sterling exchange in terms of timber, wheat, etc., from Canada, in terms of political and economic relations with France and Italy? What does it mean in terms of employment for 17,500 miners and for thousands of other workers in transport and other industries bound up with anthracite, in terms of wages spent in the shops, cinemas, and public houses, in paying rent and rates, in keeping the churches? The fabric of a whole vast community is linked to the fate of the anthracite coalfield lying within a twenty-mile radius of Swansea.

As the export point for anthracite Swansea is, of course, directly affected. The decline in that export trade and its total eclipse in 1940 form one of the major set-backs experienced by the town and port in the course of a span of industrial history longer and more varied than that of any other centre in Wales and Monmouthshire, a story not of continuous development but of constant adaptation to new circumstances. The physical effect of the Second World War on Swansea was direct and more devastating than suffered by any other community in the whole principality. The main thoroughfare and shopping centre were almost completely laid waste by high explosives and incendiaries daily in 1941. It will take many years before the town centre is re-built but it will also take years of patience and effort before the adequate revival of the trade in anthracite coal is secured. Even before the physical assault Swansea had suffered the effects already of an economic “blitz” arising out of the fact that the coal export trade from Swansea as from all the ports on the Welsh coast of the Bristol Channel came to an abrupt halt when France collapsed in 1940.

With the stop in the anthracite export trade, most of the incentive was taken away from production. Many collieries closed and the miners went into the forces and the war factories. But before many months had passed the inland demand for coal began to quicken as more and more war factories came swinging into production. The demand became imperative but production could not be stepped up to meet it. For a number of factors which cannot properly be discussed in these pages, it cannot be said that all the effort has yet succeeded.

How serious is the decline in production? In 1913, the year before the First World War when the peak of production in the South Wales and Monmouthshire coalfield was reached, the output of anthracite was 4,833,000 tons. Ten years later it still stood at much the same figure, but by 1930 it was up to 5,565,000 tons and the peak point for anthracite was reached in 1934 at 6,134,000 tons.
In 1938 production stood at 5,539,000 tons and the table of annual production in the following years makes the following story:

  • 1939: 5,305,700 tons.
  • 1940: 4,903,900 tons.
  • 1941: 3,692,200 tons.
  • 1942: 3,668,500 tons.
  • 1943: 3,504,500 tons.
  • 1944: 3,040,800 tons.
  • 1945: 2,683,000 tons.
  • 1946: 2,930,600 tons.
  • 1947: 2,986,100 tons.
  • 1948: 2,933,000 tons.

What is going to happen to the anthracite coalfield is now, of course, part of the larger problem that has to be faced by the South-Western Divisional Coal Board. The Division is made up of the coalfields of South Wales and Monmouthshire, Forest of Dean, Bristol and Somerset, and extends from Radstock near Bath to points in Pembrokeshire. The anthracite mines lie in Area No.1 (the Swansea area) of the Division; the area is made up of approximately 40 anthracite and 20 bituminous mines. Geologically the seams of the South Wales and Monmouthshire coalfield contain virtually every classification from the highly volatile coal of Monmouthshire to the anthracite field north and west of Swansea. In its approach to the task of working the coalfields of the Division efficiently and economically, the Divisional Coal Board has to meet a two-fold problem:

  1. How to get as much coal as possible, as quickly as possible, in order to meet the great inland demand, and also if possible to revive the export trade and help to put the national economy in a more favourable position.
  2. How at the same time to initiate and carry out a radical reconstruction of the industry in order to bring it into line with the latest principles and practice of coal mining.

It is very necessary at this point to recall that during the war the need for coal became so acute that in order to maintain supply sources many collieries were kept in operation although they were being worked at a great loss. Under Government direction a pooling arrangement known as the National Coal Charges Fund was set up. Every colliery contributed a quota towards that fund and every necessitous colliery was entitled to draw upon it according to need. In this way, the profitable coalfields subsidised the unprofitable and the position had become such in South Wales and Monmouthshire by 1946 that in that year the coalfield sustained a working loss of more than £5,000,000. In round figures, the South Wales Coalfield paid £13,000,000 into the fund and got almost £20,000,000 out of it, or a subsidy from the more profitable coalfields to the tune of more than £6,600,000.

To meet the nation’s crying need for coal to put into effect the great projects of post-war industrial reconstruction and development and also make up for the time lag brought about by the war entailed the continuance of the Coal Charges Fund although the circumstances of war had gone by. The change of Government in 1945 also meant that nationalisation of the coal mines was merely a matter of course.

As it happened when the National Coal Board took over on the 1st January 1947, the fuel crisis reached its most acute point almost immediately through the incidence of a long sustained blizzard which for some days brought mining operations to a stop and also paralysed industry generally as the result of the scarcity of fuel and power. This introduced complications into the situation but since that time the Divisional Coal Board has applied itself to its job, first by increasing the efficiency of the collieries generally, and more recently by formulating and putting into effect far-reaching development plans for specific points.

More than £1,000,000 had already been spent in re-fitting the anthracite mines. About half that amount was spent on coalface and underground equipment for mechanisation and the remainder in replacing out-of-date equipment and in work designed to bring about improvements in production and efficiency. Tareni, a colliery in the Swansea Valley, has been closed because geological difficulties encountered in the development scheme proved insuperable, and the working costs entailed losses at the rate of £10,000 per month. Because of dwindling coal reserves big working losses are also being sustained at other anthracite collieries and although the Board has given no official indication of its intention their closure is inevitable as the reserves become exhausted or too expensive to work, and because technical improvements will affect little good results. To view the position properly it is necessary to study a map of the anthracite coalfield. This shows that most of the anthracite mines are strung along the northern fringe of the coalfield where in basin-like structure the seams swing to the surface. For the most part, the anthracite mines have been developed by running slants at ever-extending distances into the earth. Many of these slants have reached excessive length – as much as a mile or more, and a depth at which it would be more practicable to operate a shaft with swiftly moving cages for carrying the coal and men. Hauling a journey of several tubs or trams on uneven rails along a steep slant is a slow and cumbersome procedure. Conveying the miners is also a slow business. At present, they negotiate the slants in carriages called “spakes” with tilted seats that fall into a level position in going along the slant.

Only eight anthracite pits now working are equipped with shafts. All the others are slants or levels and the majority are small compared with collieries hi other coalfields. At most of the pits the workings have spread out sporadically and planning has had little regard to long-term prospects perhaps because the condition of the coal trade in the inter-war years was so uncertain.

This condition of things has a direct effect on the use of manpower at the collieries today. Of the 17,500 men employed in the anthracite mines only 6,500 are actually employed at the face. About 7,000 men are engaged in haulage and a variety of other non-productive operations underground and 4,000 more men on the surface. Thus there are twice as many men handling the coal as producing it This is a totally uneconomic ratio which the Board is seeking to correct as far as possible by the concentration of manpower within pits and within groups of pits, by initiating two production shifts daily wherever possible and increasing mechanisation.

Some idea of the magnitude of the task that faces the Divisional Board can be gained from the following facts. The Swansea area sustained the biggest working loss of any area in any division of the country during 1947 at £4,300,000. Losses at heavy rates are still going on and can only be brought down by the reduction of overhead costs by concentrating manpower at a smaller number of pits and by raising the output per manshift. A large part of the responsibility for increased output per manshift lies naturally with the miner personally as well as by re-organisation of working methods. There was unfortunately a long history of difficult industrial relationships before the Board took over and the tradition is not easy to break down. Many sociological and physiological factors also influence the position in addition to the physiological fact of the severe incidence of dust disease. Mortality rates from silicosis have been high and the number of miners leaving the industry under the provisions of the Pneumoconiosis Order 1943 has affected manpower resources considerably. The Board has seriously to face the question of whether major developments involving the expenditure of many million pounds can be justified unless a bigger proportion of the anthracite miners give evidence of effort and co-operation. From a national point of view, the N.C.B. would prefer to direct expenditure into channels yielding a better guarantee of adequate return.

It is clear, therefore, that many big question marks arise in any effort to estimate the future of the anthracite coalfield, but there are some positive factors which have to be taken into account. The output per manshift is slowly but steadily increasing and the Divisional Coal Board has embarked on at least one major reconstruction scheme through its £400,000 project for Cefn Coed Colliery. Another fact is the plan of the Ministry of Fuel and Power to opencast production (i.e. working the seams from the surface at points where they outcrop) on such a large scale that an annual output of 1,000,000 tons may be possible for a limited period.


Information supplied by Ray Lawrence and used here with his permission.

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