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.