The Real Valleys

So what of the Valleys?  “The Valleys” were a number of industrial towns in South Wales stretching from Carmarthenshire in the west to Monmouthshire in the east and from the Heads of the Valleys in the north to the vale of Glamorgan and the coastal plain around Swansea Bay, Bridgend, Cardiff and Newport.  The Rhondda and Cynon Valleys formed the rough centre.

The Valleys were only lightly inhabited until the second half of the 18th century when the iron industry was established in the Northern valleys, at which point South Wales became the most important part of British ironmaking – the centre of the industrial revolution.



From 1850 until the outbreak of WWI, the South Wales Coalfield (SWC) was developed to supply steam coal and anthracite.  The SWC attracted huge numbers of people from rural areas to the valleys.  The population of the Valleys was generally young and male, with migrants often coming from other parts of Wales or further afield.

The coal mined in the valleys was transported via railways and canals to the ports of Cardiff, Newport and Swansea – Cardiff was among the most important coal ports in the world and Swansea among the most important steel ports.

The coal mining industry was artificially buoyed throughout the war years, though there were expectations of a return to the pre-1939 industrial collapse after the end of WWII.  However, nationalisation of British coalmines in 1947 meant a steady decline in the output from the Welsh mines.  The post WWII decline was a country wide issue, but South Wales was affected to a higher degree than other areas of Britain.  Oil had superseded coal as the fuel of choice in many industries and there was political pressure influencing the supply of oil.  The few industries still reliant on coal, demanded quality coals, especially coking coal which was required by the steel industry.

Half of Glamorgan Coal Co’s product was now supplied to steelworks, with the second biggest market being domestic heating, which the “smokeless” coal of the South Wales coalfield became once again fashionable after the publication of the Clean Air Act.  These two markets now controlled the fate of the mines in South Wales, and as demand fell from both sectors the knock-on effect on the mining industry was further decline.

The other major factors in the decline of coal were related to the massive under-investment in South Wales mines over the past decades. Most of the mines in the valleys were sunk between the 1850s and 1880s, which, as a consequence, meant they were far smaller than most modern mines.  The Welsh mines were comparatively antiquated, with methods of ventilation, coal-preparation and power supply all of a poor standard.

In 1966, the village of Aberfan suffered one of the worst disasters in Welsh history when a mine waste tip on the top of the mountain slid down the valley side and destroyed the village primary school, killing 144 people, 116 of them children.

Margaret Thatcher’s free market economics policy clashed with those of the National Coal Board and after the government announced plans to close many mines across the UK, the workers went on strike.  The failure of this strike led to the virtual destruction of the UK’s coal industry over the next decade.  The movie Pride, which is based on the true story surrounding these times for the miners, tells the story of a group of gay and lesbian activists who raised money to help the families affected by the British miners’ strike in 1984.  It’s a great story for a glimpse into this era, with a twist.

The Valleys are now home to around 30% of the Welsh population, although this is declining slowly because of emigration.  The Valleys suffer from a number of socio-economic problems including drug abuse, high rates of teenage pregnancy and high unemployment.  In fact, in the mid 1980’s, unemployment rates in the Valleys were among the highest in the UK.

We spent the day in Blaenavon, located in Monmouthshire.  The town grew up around it’s ironworks, with the steel-making and coal-mining industries following.

The Blaenavon Ironworks date back to 1789.  The cutting edge technology of the day enabled the power of steam bringing the industrial era to new heights.  The ironworks played an important role in the development of cheap, low quality, high sulphur iron ores worldwide until they closed in 1900.

The ironworks, which is free to visit (though you can make a gold coin donation if you wish), is a wonderful look back in time and well worth the visit.  The site also contains a row of houses decorated to replicate the miners huts through the different eras, including a local truck (or company) shop from the 1840’s.  Workers would be paid in tokens which could only be used in these (usually overpriced) truck shops to buy food and other essentials.

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Big Pit stands on the eastern rim of the South Wales Coalfield, not far from the ironworks.  As mentioned above, both coal and iron were transported to the coast by road and canal.  However in 1852 the railway from Newport reached Blaenavon and production started to soar. The first coal was worked in levels dug into the hillsides, following the outcropping coal seams.  Dodd’s Slope, was rediscovered in 1989 and its entrance now forms part of Big Pit’s surface attractions.

Big Pit stands on the site of an earlier mine called Kearsley Pit.  The shaft was sunk to a depth of 39 metres in 1860.

Big Pit came into being when the shaft was deepened to a depth of 89 metres.  It got its name from the size of its elliptical shaft, which at 5.5m by 4.6m was the first in the area wide enough to wind two trams of coal side by side.

At its peak, the colliery was producing more than 100,000 tonnes of coal from an area of about 12 square miles.  Nine different coal seams were worked at some stage during Big Pit’s life and the coal it produced was first-class ‘steam coal’ for which South Wales became famous around the world. 

Mechanisation did not come to Big Pit until 1908 when a mechanical conveyor was installed.  The pit was among the first in South Wales to be electrified, and by 1910 the ventilating fan, pumps and underground haulage system were all worked by electricity.  

Output of coal peaked in South Wales in 1913 and at its busiest Big Pit employed 1,300 men.

Big Pit closed in 1980 and is now one of the world’s leading coal museums.  The highlight of a visit to Big Pit is the hour-long underground tour, led by ex-miners, which takes you down in the pit cage through underground roadways, air doors stables and engine houses built by generations of mineworkers.


Blaenavon’s Ironworks, Big Pit and town centre were heritage listed in 2000.

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