Down a Coal Mine

Fifty years ago one of the highlights of the school or college year in Llanelli was the annual class visit to a local factory or place of work such as a steel works, foundry, fire station, police station, or any of the other industries that once denominated the coastline of the town. The decline in Llanelli as an industrial town and new 'Health and Safety' laws have no doubt, reduced these useful 'windows' on working life for the young scholars of today, but consider the visit of a group of Llanelli Grammar School boys down a local coal mine in Victorian Llanelli of 1875.I unearthed an article about the event while delving through some of the old publications that are archived in the Llanelli Library. Unfortunately we are unable identify who the schoolboys were because the author of the 'essay', which appeared in schools’ magazine called The Llanelly “Aerial” of 1875, uses a the nom de plume of William Witless. Furthermore he assigns the letters A, B, C and D to identify his companions on the tour which appeared in the article, nor can we ascertain the location of the coal mine other than the fact it was probably coastal and methane free?
Down A Coal-Pit
As we had long expressed a wish to explore a coal mine, and we had a day at our disposal, an esteemed friend, Mr A., kindly offered to gratify our wish, and it need not be said that the offer was most gratefully accepted.
Our Party – there were four of us, whom we will name Mr A, our chaperon, myself B, C and D – accordingly at once made off to the pit which we were about to descend, not without some trepidation, I ween, on the part of C and D. But this of course was strenuously denied without any degree of truth; for while waiting our time and contemplating the immense velocity with which we were to descend, to us, unknown depths, the questions repeatedly asked of our kind conductor, as to the position in or on the cage, and mode of decent, amplify testified. Now we are in; C and D are clinging to the sides with faster grip and firmly closed lips, (the smoke did it of course); and as we went rapidly down that dark abyss, the gentle rushing sound caused thereby was only disturbed by the splashing of water and their throbbing hearts.
It is over; and we are now spending a few minutes watching the dusky forms of the men, lighted by a huge fire, as they shunt the trucks into and out of the cages.

Bye and bye, the foreman, who is to conduct us, brings each a candle, stuck through a piece of soft moist clay; and we are then led to a truck, at the bottom of which some chaff has been thrown, and told to get in. Some shrill words in Welsh, spoken by the driver, dimly perceptible in front, to the horse, and we are taken at a fair pace along that dark and weird subterranean vault. With the chaff beneath us, and plenty of chaff among us, our journey under the circumstance was all that be desired. At the expiration of about ten minutes we stop, and are requested to get out; and having done so are led off by our guide to an incline; and when the machine by means of which the wagons are pulled up it, has been carefully examined, and explained to D we set off once more, to see the miners at work. Taking care of our heads, and trying not to fill our boots too full of water, which is plentifully distributed along our path we arrive in about five minutes at our destination, and we are informed that we are quarter of a mile under the sea.
The colliers, who are just then sitting down to a little refreshment, on our wish to see them at work being made known to them began to work at once with a will, explaining at the same time their method of working. This pleased and interested us very much; so much so, that C and D must need try their hands also, not forgetting however to choose the easiest work. Mr A, also set to work, but chose a piece of work more difficult than which could not easily be imagined, and by his mode of working soon showed it was not the first time he had handled a pick. As for myself, chaffing C and D for their amusing and frantic efforts was much more to my taste. But my turn came at last. Tired of being made fun of so long, they insisted that a trial should be made to see it would fare with me, and Mr A most kindly resigned me his place.
Then …..............Reader, if you had to lie at full length upon a quantity of broken coal, laid any way but level, your head thrust into a large crevice, your dim light stuck by your side, with scarcely room to move an arm, the temperature about 120 Degrees, your eyes filled with coal dust, and attempt to cut coal, scraping the skin off your knuckles against sharp projecting points, and exposed to the jibes of those who could, and those who could not do better, say if you would not mention little of your efforts. All this however was in some measure compensated by seeing C and D try the same game. After these two had each received a set of jet black face improvers (?) upon which their minds had been longingly set for some time, and D's complexion had been heightened a little, we took our leave of the colliers, myself at all events impressed with the idea that their wages are not a whit too high.

The exploration of another vein was aggregated upon, and when over we returned to the bottom of the shaft in the same manner as we’d left it, and in due course were blessed again with the sight of the sun's rays. Having got rid of the superfluous coal with which we were encumbered, passed a vote of thanks to the manager and our guide, and wished our wish to and determination of seeing them again, we wended our steps homeward, satisfied and delighted with the enjoyable and profitable manner in which our morning had been spent, and feeling grateful to Mr A as the cause. On the way home -
“C, did you not feel a little timorous while descending?” “Not at all.” “Did you, D?” “Of course not.” How brave some people are when danger is past.”
William Witless
The idea that a group of schoolboys were taking a trip down a coal mine lit by candles and ventilated by a furnace fire* would probably horrify parents of today. However, at that time many lads not as fortunate as those attending school had to find employment spending long shifts working in the many coal mines that were scattered in and around the town of Llanelli.

Llanelli was once a major coal producing town which diminished in the 1870s on the opening of the much larger productive coalfields of the Rhondda valley etc. Now only the ruins of a few engine houses remain to serve as a memorial to town's coal mining past, such as those Listed Buildings which can be seen at Genwen in Bynea, and Penprys in Dafen.

Notes and Citations

Genwen Colliery Engine House. Bynea. July 2004

Wales 1895 Vol 2 page 56. The Outward Appearance of a Coal Mine. Drawing by D.J. Davies (1894). The illustration of a Llanelli coal mine.

The Llanelly “Aerial” 10 April 1875 p3

* National Coal Mining Museum before fans were introduced into the mines for ventilation, a fire would have been lit at the bottom of the shaft so that it acted like a big chimney, drawing fresh air down into the pit via the lift shaft.

Recommend Reading for the history of coal mining in Llanelli...
The Industrial and Maritime History of Llanelli and Burry Port 1750 – 2000 by Craig, Jones & Symons
Coal Mining in the Llanelli Area by M.V Symons Vol. 1 & 2