Garw Valley, A Short History

Garw Valley, A Short History, 1850 – 1950

Submitted by Colin Williams, with this introduction……

In 1987 my brother Alan H. Williams died, and when I was attending to his Estate I came across a handwritten essay by him entitled “A Short History of the Garw Valley”. This was done as a requirement of a “teaching course” funded by the R.A.F. for  personnel leaving after the Second World War. He passed the test and remained a teacher for the rest of his working life.

(Originally a handwritten essay)


A Short History of the Garw Valley  – 1850 / 1950
51 The Avenue, Pontycymmer        A.H.Williams – August 1950

The Garw Valley is situated in the centre of the South Wales coalfield, eight miles north of the market town Bridgend lying between the two well known valleys of Maesteg and Ogmore.

The history of the valley is typical of many places in South Wales. The valley developed with the production of coal. Coal has made the valley what it is today, a huge seam almost hidden by steep mountains.

One hundred years ago the valley was a beauty spot known only to a few farmers and the parish priest, a thickly wooded valley with two or three small sheep farms nestling in the hills.

It was at this time that the coal and iron masters were searching South Wales for its iron ore and coal. In East Glamorgan at Merthyr and Ebbw Vale iron smelting was reaching its peak and the great change gradually moving down the Neath Valley to Resolven and Neath.

Measteg and Ogmore began yielding iron and coal but the Garw Valley was still untouched by this industrial fever, a fever which blinded man’s to the beauty of the country side that they were dispatching.

The first miners came from the neighbouring valleys to sink trial Levels in the sides of the mountain. These Levels looked like rabbit holes in the mountain side each with its “droppings” of slag and rock at the entrance. The men who opened up these Levels called themselves “Private Contractors”. They were their own masters and first class coal miners. These men usually employed two helpers and they would have to pay them while the main roadway was driven into the hill side. Surveying seems second nature to these old contractors, they always found the coal, worked most it and then left for another valley.

The history of the valley starts with these men who first started operations some time between 1860 – 1870. They kept no records, all contracts between employer and employee were strictly verbal and the same applied to the distribution of the coal. It is unfortunate that no records are available; some of the older members of the community can still remember these wild, hard working men and their history alone would make exciting and informative reading.

The Levels were opened up by tunnelling into the side of the mountain until the coal seam was found. Once the coal was found the “face” was opened up an either side of the main tunnel and the coal could be gained fairly easily. The methods which were used to win the coal varied according to the contractor and the site of the Level itself. Generally the coal seam was followed and very often this would lead to difficult problems of ventilation and drainage. The contractors found many ingenious ways of solving these problems but in some cases the workings had to be abandoned. Ventilation was unnecessary until the workings had penetrated deep into the mountain side. It was solved in most cases by sinking an “Air shaft” from a position above the mouth of the Level down to that point of the workings which was furthest away from the mouth of the tunnel. When this system was used the air was circulated through the coal face by using “Brattice cloth” which was hung like curtains across the roadways at carefully chosen spots. In this way the “cloths” acted as valves or air locks. This method was used extensively in the Garw Valley and there is no record of fires being used to force the air up through the “Upcast Shaft”, a common practice in the South Wales coalfields.

Although drainage was a serious problem in Levels it was usually overcome simply by draining the main tunnel in at a slight gradient. The water would then drain away quite easily and the problem would not arise again unless the coal seam sloped in the opposite way. If this was the case the workings would have to be abandoned for pumping machinery was unheard of.

At the Garwfechan Colliery, which was quite a big Level the water was used in a very ingenious way to help in the transport of the coal. The seam that was being worked was quite level, without any faults and, as a result, ideally suited for the method employed. When the coalface had been opened up on either side of the main tunnel it measured about two hundred yards in a straight line, at right angles to the main roadway. A channel about one yard wide and eighteen inches deep was cut in the bed rock, along the length of the face. In the first instance this channel was about four feet away from the face of the coal to enable the colliers to cut it. After the coal had been cut it was loaded into shallow flat bottom boats which were towed out to the main tunnel. These boats carried approximately thirty hundred weights which was quite a load in those days, usually the coal had to be carried in “curling boxes” or sacks which at the most could only be used for one hundred weights. When the distance from the canal to the coalface became too great for easy working or safety reasons, the old channel was drained and filled in and a new one was cut near the face. I have mentioned this method because it is unique in my experience throughout the Welsh coalfield.

It will be seen from the maps that the levels were numerous and they are to be found all around the sides of the valley. Most of them can still be traced today and, except for two which later were enlarged and extended into Collieries, they are all derelict. The two levels which developed into Collieries were the International and the Glengarw both at Blaengarw and both producing high grade Steam coal under the modern National Coal Board.

Disposal of the coal after it had been won was yet another problem that these contractors took in their stride. The coal was taken by horse and cart to be sold in the neighbouring valleys. This meant that the coal had to be taken along the mountain tops to places like Brynmenyn, Blackmill, Maesteg and Abergwynfi. These places were all on the railway line which was not to come up the narrow valley for a number of years.

As Levels became more productive, small gauge tram road were built along the sides of the mountain and down to the bottom of the valley. This was a great improvement on the old transport and horses and small traction engines pulled “journeys” of tubs filled with coal. This coal was then transported to the nearest railhead at Brynmenyn. The levels continued to produce house coal up until 1925 when most of the Contractors were absorbed by the Deep mine companies.

Accommodation of the workers was no problem for the contractors, one or two cottages were built in the valley, but most of the men were content to walk three or four miles daily from the neighbouring valleys. At this time there was no social life in the valley and it must have been very dull for the very few people who did live in the small cottages.

In 1865 a party of “Sinkers” arrived in the valley to sink the first pit for the “Ffaldau Coal Company”. These men belonged to a class of workmen who were kept hard at work all over the Welsh coalfield during the second half of the nineteenth century. Their job was highly dangerous but they were very well paid for the skilled work they had to do.

The “sinkers” were accommodated in two wood huts on the banks of the Gelliron a little stream which joins the Garw river. This gave the name Pont-y-cymmer to the little settlement of 1865. In 1866 the pit shaft was completed and coal was found shortly afterwards. Workmen began to pour into the valley and cottages were built for them by a few enterprising builders who realized the need.

From the ordinance Survey of 1875 we see that the Garw Valley in 1875 was made up of the following; Chapel Street, Railway Terrace, Braichycymmer Row, these cottages and the old “Atlantic” Hotel at the North end of the present day Oxford Street The above are all marked on the map in red ink.

During the following twenty years the valley became the scene of tremendous activity. New pit were sunk machinery was installed and rows of cottages were built to accommodate the workers and their families. In 1866 the Ffaldau Colliery was producing coal 1870. The “Atlantic Coal Company” opened the International Colliery in 1876 the Glenavon Coal Company opened up the Glengarw Colliery and the Ocean Coal Company opened up the Ocean Colliery. The ill fated Lluest Colliery was opened a year later.

All this happened in living memory and the older inhabitants of the valley give wonderful pictures of the wild work and play during those days. The atmosphere could be compared to that of the pioneering towns of the U.S.A.

Rows of cheap cottages were built by the “Coal – owners”. These cottages are today symbols of the South Wales coal mining industry. Long rows of houses, without individuality or convenience built to accommodate the workers who poured into the valley seeking employment. Most of these immigrates came from South Wales but many came from much further afield. To this day there are the descendant of people who came from the Forest of Dean, Gloucestershire, Bristol, Somerset and Cornwall. These people still carry the nicknames which their grandfathers earned because of the old Welsh custom.

As a result of this rapid influx the social life of the valley prospered and soon all the activities which had made Wales famous were thriving in this small community. One of the customs which has long since died shows the cooperative social spirit of the valley. Whenever a new pit shaft was finished and the first coal was raised it was the signal for a general holiday. Everybody stopped work and the celebrations started at once, after lasting for two or three days. During these celebrations the people sang and danced, sheep were roasted whole over an open fire and beer flowed like water.

The steel Winding frames which marked the pit top also marked a period of prosperity and full employment. The coal industry thrived from 1870 until just after the 1914/18 war not without tragedy however. Coal mining today is a dangerous occupation and in the early days of the history of the valley a number of men were killed annually.

In 1889 twenty men were killed in an explosion which devastated the Lluest Colliery. It was fortunate that the explosion occurred during the early hours of the morning before the “dayshift” had started. It was; later established that the disaster was caused by an accumulation of gas which was ignited by a naked flame. The pit has been idle since that day and has long since become a derelict ruin.

Today even though the Levels have stopped producing the deep mine collieries are still very productive. The average output of the valley is about 14,000 tons per week and in a few months time the oldest Colliery “The Ffaldau” will be producing as much as the combined output of the other three. This is due to the discovery of huge deposits of coal in the “Gelli deg” seam.

Nationalisation of the Coal Industry was regarded by most of the miners in the community as a personal victory. It was the fulfilment of a hope which for years they had dreamed of. Vesting day was marked by impressive ceremonies at every pit head in the Garw. Colliers with coal dust joined by colleagues and relatives joined in the singing and the speech making which marked a really historic occasion.

Our community has always been radical in its politics. This meant during the first half of the present century that Socialism thrived. Nationalisation of coal was always the ardent wish of the men whose work depended directly or indirectly on this important commodity. The long struggle towards the goal which has now been achieved has produced leader of whom the revered Kien Hardie himself would have been proud.

Most of these men graduated from the ranks of the now obsolete South Wales Miners Federation, a strange union which now forms part of the National Union of Mineworkers. The 2 ”Lodge – secretary” of the S.W.M.F. often held a precarious position open to the violent criticism of the mine members and the open abuse and contempt of the “Coal owners”. However many of these men did survive and went on to do good work on behalf of the men they represented.

One of these men was Edward John Williams known to most of his friends in the Garw as Ted Williams. Today he is the Right Honourable, E.J.Williams J.P. High Commissioner in Australia. He came to the GarwValley just after the World War 1 and in1919 was elected Miners Agent for the Garw Division. He was elected to Parliament as the representative of the Ogmore and Garw Division of the County of Glamorgan. While an M.P. he held a number of important secretaryships including those of the Colonies, Admirably and Foreign affairs. In 1945 he became Minister of Information, a post which he held until he was appointed High Commissioner in Australia. Not all the Lodge secretaries have reached the same political height as Ted Williams, but they have been a big influence in the affairs of the S.W.M.F. and today they are carrying on the good work in another nature of the valley in the present day head of the Executive of their powerful union.

Nowadays the people of our community are more political conscious than they have ever been; twenty years ago a much more powerful influence over shadowed politics. Religion was a great social force which organised the spiritual life of the community and which educated the members of the community Religion fostered culture. Religion in the valley is pronominally Methodist the chapels were all built very early in the history of the valley the first being Calfania at Tylagwyn built in 1850 and the last being Mt.Tian at Blaengarw built in 1904. However for years before the chapels were built friends met to worship in the front rooms of their houses. It is only about ten years ago that the last of the great preachers of the valley die, Mr. A, Alsop. M.A.  Right from its earliest beginnings the valley has always had at least one great preacher whose oratory was reminiscent of the old revivalists, preachers who would scrounge a congregation of its sins in one meeting, preachers whose passion and ferrate could make even the blackest sinner to tears, preachers who filled their chapel to capacity ever Sunday evening. Unfortunately since the death of the last of these great men religion seems to be fighting a losing battle.

Today there are twelve chapels and three churches in the valley and even though they have not the congregations which they would like to have they are still a powerful force in the valley. They have done immeasurable good for the community. In the early days they were the schools and meeting places for all social events. They were the centre of community life and during the awful depression of 1921 and 1926 they were the soup – kitchens which fed and clothed the children. One of the earliest chapels a Wesleyan chapel which later became known as “Bethel” was the first school.

It must seem flippant to say that Education came to the Garw valley on the back of a donkey and yet it is perfectly true. During those days the nearest Post offices was at Blackmill in a neighbouring valley about four miles from the town of Pontycymmer. The mail was brought to Pontycymmer by a postman named Michael Doolan an Irishman. Michael used a donkey for his round and in his spare time he started a school in the big kitchen beneath the shop of a Mr. Thomas Bale. This shop is still in existence today and the original Thomas Bale is still alive and occasionally serves in the shop that bears his name.

As the number of children increased Mr. Doolan was forced to move his school to the vestry of the Wesleyan chapel where he instated the “monitor system” which continued in the chapel until the first school the “Ffaldau”, in 1900. Today there are nine schools in the valley which cater for the different departments and a Grammar school which has a fine scholastic record.

An account of Education in the Garw valley would not be complete without mentioning one of the outstanding characters of the community. Llewellyn Jones J.P. was one of Michael Dolan’s monitors in the vestry of Bethel Chapel and he stayed on for a number of years until he was forced to leave for financial reasons. He became a blacksmith at the Ffaldau Colliery and devoted all his spare time to welfare work. He acted as secretary to the trustees who, with the aid of the S.W.M.F. built the “Ffaldau Institute”. He initiated the Medical Aid Scheme in 1910 and still took an active part in the Scheme until it was absorbed into National Health Service. He also carried on with the Chairmanship of the “Rose of Garw” Friendly Society which was started at the Ffaldau Colliery in 1884. Today he is still secretary of the Ffaldau Workingmen’s Institute and he still takes his place on the Bench at the local petty sessions. He is a man to whom everyone in the valley is, in some way, indebted and a man whom everyone respects.

Llewellyn Jones J.P. has served for many years in the Local Government Services as a County Councillor. He has helped in the administration of the Garw Valley and even though he cannot devote the whole of his time nowadays his work his work is being carried on in the same tradition by his son who is clerk to the Urban District Council.

For purpose of Local Government the Garw Valley is served jointly with the Ogmore Valley. District Councillors are elected in proportion to the population. The first council meetings were held in the Fox and Hounds Inn at Blackmill in the Ogmore Valley. Afterwards the meetings were held alternately at Blackmill and at an Inn of the same name in Brynmenyn. This arrangement was found to be the most satisfactory until the Council Offices at Brynmenyn a village midway between the two valleys, were completed in 1889. Since1889 the Ogmore and Garw Urban District Council has administrated the affairs of the two valleys. No records before 1889 are available today and this is unfortunate because I am sure that much interesting information has been lost.

The future of the valley seems secure. Economically it is in a very safe financially position the supply of coal is unlimited. Houses to accommodate a population which is still growing (14,500 in 1931) are now being built just outside the valley at Bettws. The old cottages, built by the “coal owners” are showing signs of premature signs of old age, not helped in anyway by subsidence and the fact that poor materials were used for their construction. It is the hope of people that the valley will soon be deserted, except for the pits which brought prosperity and people to a beautiful Welsh Valley.

Note: My brother A.H.Williams started work at the age of 16 in the offices of the International Colliery, Blaengarw. On reaching the age of 18 he joined the R. A. F. and when the war ended he took advantage of the R.A.F offer to be trained as a Teacher. The work “A Short History of the Garw Valley” was part of that training for such a career.     C.H.Williams.

14 comments Add yours
  1. OH WHAT A LOVELY STORY,MY GRANDAD CAME FROM LAURNE,IN 1909 HIS NAME WAS JOHN{OR JACK AS HE LIKED TO BE CALLED} BEVAN HE LODGED WITH A MRS RULE. HE DIED 3 MONTHS BEFORE I WAS BORN 1941).MY GRANNIE TOLD ME WHAT THE VALLY WAS LIKE WHEN SHE WAS TAKEN THERE BY HER BROTHER’S AND SISTER’S AFTER THEIR PERENTS DIED IN 1907. MRS RULE WAS HER AUNTY,SHE TOLD ME THAT THE VALLY WAS SO LOVELY,BUT THEY HAD TO DIG INTO THE MOUNTAIN TO BUILD THE HOUSES I THINK THAT SHE WOULD LIKE THE WAY THE VALLY IS GOING . THANK YOU FOR THE STORY. I WAS BORN 1942 AND LIVED AT 25 UPPER ADARE STREET UNTIL 1964,WHEN I MOVED TO GET MARRIED. JACQUI.

  2. My Great Great Grandfather John Jones moved into the Garw Valley in 1876. He lived in Pontyrhyl and Pantygog. He worked for the GWR as a Platelayer for forty years. He died in Cuckoo Street on New Years Eve in 1919 and is buried with his wife Sarah in Bettws Church. I’m guessing that the “Atlantic Hotel” became the “Pontycymmer Hotel” and then became the “Squirrel”? Unless of course he is referring to the Ffaldau as I’ve read on some documents that the first two pubs in the upper Garw were the Nanthir and the Ffaldau which opened within days of each other. I was born in a flat under Morgan Roberts shoe shop in 1955 and we then moved to 35 Upper Adare Street for a few years. In 1959 we moved to Prospect Place (originally called Deri Row).

  3. My mother Sarah Evans was born in James rd, Blaengarw.
    She was born April 1910 to Ginnie Evans a bit of a charactor herself.
    Like a lot of the young of the Garw my mother Sarah moved to London as young girl seeking work as a chamber maid.
    Our roots are still in the Garw which we still visit from time to time.

  4. I am very interested in history of the Garw valley me father was born and brought up in Mount Pleasant in Blaengarw and my mother in Upper Adare St Pontycymmer
    My family always referred to one of the Blaengarw collieries as the Bala or Ballarat but noone seems to know where this name came from If anyone can help I would be grateful

  5. My great grandfather built a house/business as farrier in Pontycymmer and the house is still there,and took my daughter in law from Ireland to see the valley and she was amazed at some many houses in small locality. My grandfather worked as shotfirer in Ffaldau colliery and retired at 65 still on piece work at the coal face (a real one) and what a character. Had figuren on wall showing a camel which stated it could go 7 days without drinking,and response was “who wants to be a camel!!”. Just read obituary in Telegraph of a Garw boy who went to huge world fame as scientist/developer of nuclear power and knowledge of space travel,years before it happened. There is no doubt the impact of places like the Garw and related industries like railways/steel production have had huge impact on wales,much of it for the good,however perpetual decline,except as dormitary towns/villages is all that is left.

  6. Just a brief comment about the first chapel built in the valley proper. This was at Tylagwyn (Baptist) opened in 1831 but at that time it was called Cwmgarw. In 1888 it was re-built and re-named Tylagwyn. Calfaria in Llangeinor (Tynyrheol) opened in 1924 was a daughter chapel of Tylagwyn. The old established families paying for “Memorial” plaques in Calfaria to help pay for the cost of building. My family were members of the Baptist movement before they built Tylagwyn, and my cousins are members of Calfaria to this day. Apart from the two Parish Churches, Tylagwyn, together with Sardis, Bettws and Betharan, Brynmenyn, both built late 1820 early 1830s are the oldest places of worship in the Garw.

  7. Peter,
    While I cant realy help with why the colliery was called Bala and Ballarat, I can say that the colliery’s official name was the Glengarw and was on and around Blaengarw square. It opened around 1903 and closed in 1959, it consisted originally of a drift, a shaft was sunk later.
    If there is any further information i can help you with, I’ll do what I can.

  8. What an excellent short history. Thank you for sharing it.
    I was particularly thrilled to see the reference to my great grandfather Llewellyn Jones J.P.
    I’ve written his story on my website – http://www.myweshancestry.co.uk
    It includes some of the history of the valley with maps and old photos that may be of interest to other readers, including a sequence of Ordnance Survey maps of Pontycymmer through the ages and a wonderful view over a part of the town taken sometime before 1917.
    I hope you don’t mind but I’ve taken the liberty of quoting some of the passages from your history (with citation).
    Thanks again
    Alan

  9. I have thoroughly enjoyed reading your stories. I believe my grandfather, John Williams, started work at Blaengarw with his father when he was aged 13. He then went on to become Miners’ Agent for the Forest of Dean and was a member of the Miners’ Federation. I know he lived in Mount Pleasant as a child and had a brother (my uncle) called Emlyn. However, I believe he also had a sister but I cannot find any information about her on the censuses. Can anyone help? Thank you

  10. Louise.

    I will try and help but I do need a liitle more information. When was your grandfather John Williams born? If he was 13 then I can calculate the earliest he could have lived in Blaengarw. Do you know where he was born, and his parents names? Please bear in mind that Blaengarw is not mentioned as a mining community until after the 1881 census, although Pontycymmer & some of Pontyrhyl are listed.

    Any names, dates and places would help.

    Sincerely

    Colin.

  11. Louise, Thomas Williams b1852 m Margaret Williams b1853 both of Merthyr Llangeinor, Issue: John Williams b1889, Emlyn Williams b1893 and my grandmother Minnie Williams b1897 all born in Blaengarw. Minnie married Thomas Davies a school attendance officer from Pontycymmer and in later life they lived in Pen Y Fai, Bridgend. She died in 1974.

  12. My father was bob parker 42 cuckoo st.Welsh gds . killed arras 1940. sisters vera,megan, Louvain Meyrick. I was born Oxford ,Oxford Welsh cowley car industry 3000 came from valley 1926- 1933.

  13. My father Granville Chamberlain worked in the Ocean Colliery all his working life except for the World War ‘ll, when a group of miners absconded from the valleys to join the Merchant Navy (as the coal industry was a protected industry and men were not allowed to join up and fight the war)
    Sunk and able to get to Sweden a neutral country he was interned , but wanting to get back to fight the war a few men escaped only to be captured by the Germans and sent to a prisoner of war camp in germany for the rest of the war,after the war he returned to the Ocean pit for the rest of his working life.
    In his 50s he wrote an article that was published in the Glamorgan Gazette predicting that all the pits would close and a new form of energy would take over from King Coal, and the Valley would return to its former state with lakes and leisure parks taking their place, very prophetic for an ordinary working man, well done dad.

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