Amgueddfa Blog: Industry & Transport

We invited some Big Pit Miner guides - Barry Stevenson, Richard Phillips and Len Howells - to share their memories of working underground.

These films include photos from the Cornwell Collection, and were originally made for the 'Bernd and Hilla Becher: Industrial Visions' exhibition, along with this guide to the workings of the headgear:

Work was carried out in September 2019 to repair, clean and paint the iconic headgear at Big Pit. Watch a timelapse film of the process!

The headgear required restoration to prevent damage and corrosion. The work ensures visitors can continue to explore an authentic and unique underground experience, and that Big Pit carries on telling the important story of how the coal industry shaped communities, society and the industrial world.

If you're wondering how it all works, we also made this film about the headgear for the exhibition 'Bernd and Hilla Becher: Industrial Visions'.

The project was supported by The National Lottery Heritage Fund and a restoration grant from The Association for Industrial Archaeology.

Saturday 6th October 2019 8.30am

I took my breakfast cereal into the living room and looked out at the sky for any hint of what the weather might do. It had been raining and very windy for days, the remnants of hurricane ‘Lorenzo’ had been battering Wales all week. The sky was cloudy, a hint of drizzle against the glass and the weeping willow in our front garden was doing a samba.

Today I had more than a passing interest in the forecast as I had a boat trip planned for later that morning, in a very special boat.

The Ferryside Lifeboat to be precise, a 6.4 metre long RIB, the ‘Freemason’ which cost about £90,000, £50,000 of which was donated by the Freemasons, hence the name.

The crew had bought all new safety suits and gear and had offered the museum one of their old suits for our maritime collection. We jumped at the chance to acquire this very important piece of our seagoing history. One of the crew members is Mark Lucas who happens to be Curator of Wool at the National Woollen Museum in Drefach Velindre, Carmarthenshire and it was at his suggestion that the suit be donated to us. The lifeboat crew were running sea trials that morning and had asked me to go along to experience the conditions for myself and collect the gear.

We have three lifeboats in the National Collection, two of these have wooden hulls and in 2011 we collected a RIB (rigid hull inflatable boat) from Atlantic College in St Donats, where the original RIB design was created and patented by the college. So the fact that the suit was from a RIB crew made it even more special.

Eleven o’clock found us at the Lifeboat Station on the Towy Estuary in Ferryside. The Ferryside Lifeboat is an independent station, as are many around our coastline, and not funded by the RNLI. Just like the RNLI they are run by volunteers and rely on donations and grants.

The crew were gathering and getting changed into their ‘new’ suits and they had one for me to wear too. Now, getting into a ‘dry suit’ is no easy task, especially for a novice like me. To say it was a struggle is an understatement, and after ten minutes of performing like a contortionist and the ensemble heckling me that

‘people are drowning come on!’

It was then they decided that I needed a bigger suit. Hmm…

The weather by this time wasn’t too bad, a slight wind and light rain and the estuary looked fairly calm, this was indicated by the fact that the new ferry was sailing between Llansteffan and Ferryside.

‘That looks OK, not too rough’ I thought to myself, and it was OK in the estuary…

The giant Talus tractor pushed the lifeboat the ‘Freemason’ down the slipway and into the water. I was already installed by this point having been pushed unceremoniously over the rubber tube by the crew as I struggled to climb aboard in an extra 20 kilos of suit and gear. The rest of the crew climbed aboard (easily) and we set off.

As I thought the estuary was fairly quiet, but the coxswain pointed out to sea where I could see large white breakers rolling in over a sandbar which runs roughly from Laugharne to St Ishmaels.

‘That’s where we are going, it’s a bit lively out there, all good fun though’.

It was very lively. The crew put the boat through its paces doing figure eights and three-sixty manoeuvres, all at high speed whilst I hung on tightly and braced myself against the G-force of the turns. The boat will do 30 knots flat out, about 26 miles an hour, which doesn’t seem fast in a car on the road but in a boat is a different matter.

I kept thinking how brave these guys are to come out in all weathers and try and rescue people. The sea we were in wasn’t that rough and it was broad daylight. I couldn’t imagine what it would be like in a gale and in the dark.

Eventually we headed in and back to the comparatively flat calm of the river Towy. My trip was over and what an experience!

We headed for the Lifeboat Station and the crew presented me with a dry suit, life jacket, radio and GPS locator which are now part of the National Collection and on display at the National Waterfront Museum in Swansea.

Continuing the international year of the periodic table of chemical elements, for September we have chosen carbon, the element which – in coal - has arguably had the most influence on the shaping of the built landscape and culture in Wales.

The Welsh Coalfields

For around 150 years the coal industry has dominated the industrial, political and social history of Wales. Between 1801 and 1911 the population of Wales quadrupled from 587,000 to 2,400,000. This was almost entirely due to the effects of coal mining: either directly through the creation of colliery jobs or through industries reliant on coal as a fuel (eg. steel-making).

There are two major coalfields in Wales, one in the north-east of the country and one in the south.  North Wales produced mostly high volatile, medium to strong caking coal, and the coalfield has a long history of production. By 1913, it was producing around 3,000,000 tons per annum but went into a slow decline afterwards. The last colliery in the area, Point of Ayr, closed in 1996.

The south Wales coalfield is more extensive than that of north Wales.  It forms an elongated syncline basin extending from Pontypool in the east to Ammanford in the west, with a detached portion in Pembrokeshire. The total area covers some 1,000 square miles.

The south Wales coalfield is famous for its variety of coal types, ranging from gas and coking bituminous coals, steam coals, dry steam coals and anthracite. They had a wide range of uses: domestic, steam raising, gas and coke production and the smelting of copper, iron and steel.

Loose jointed and friable roof conditions were more commonplace in south Wales than other UK coalfields which resulted in numerous accidents from falls of roof and sides. The deeper seams are also very ‘fiery’ leading to numerous disasters. Between 1850 and 1920, one third of all mining deaths in the UK occurred in Wales. Between 1890 and 1913 alone there were 27 major UK mining disasters, thirteen of which occurred in south Wales including the 1913 explosion at the Universal Colliery, Senghenydd where 439 men died – the largest loss of life in a UK mining disaster.  North Wales was largely free of major disasters but, in 1934, an explosion at Gresford Colliery killed two hundred and sixty-six men, the third worst disaster in Welsh mining history.

South Wales steam and anthracite coal differ from other coal seams due to the presence of numerous partings (‘slips’) which lie at an angle of about 45 degrees between floor and roof.  This made the coal relatively easy to work as the coal fell in large blocks.  However this large coal was coated with fine dust which was the prime cause of pneumoconiosis, a disease which was more prevalent in south Wales than all other UK coalfields. In 1962, 40.7% of all south Wales miners were suffering from the disease.

A close relationship grew up between coal mining and the local community.  Villages were virtually single occupation communities. In Glamorgan and Monmouthshire half of all adult male workers were directly involved in the coal industry, while in places such as the Rhondda and Maesteg, the proportion could be as high as 75%.

Because of the peculiar geology and geography, south Wales was slow to unionise. However, following the humiliating defeat after the 1898 coal strike, there arose a need for unity and in 1914 the South Wales Federation became the largest single trade union with almost 200,000 members.

From the early 1920s until WW2, the Welsh coalfields suffered a prolonged industrial recession due to the changeover to oil by shipping and the development of foreign coalfields. The numbers of miners fell from 270,000 to 130,000. The industry was nationalised following the war and experienced tremendous changes with the introduction of new techniques and equipment. There was now a greater emphasis on safety, but the coalfields were still dangerous places. In 1960, 45 men died in Six Bells Colliery, 31 died in Cambrian Colliery in 1965 and, perhaps most tragically of all, 144 people died when a tip collapsed on Aberfan, including 116 children.

By the 1980s the threat of mass pit closures arose. In March 1984 the last major strike began and continued for twelve months. Following the defeat of the National Union of Mineworkers, mines began to close on a regular basis. By the mid-1990s, there were more Welsh mining museums than working deep mines.  The last deep mine, Tower Colliery, closed in January 2008. One of the most important influences on Welsh social, industrial and political life has now vanished.

A few years ago the chemical works BP Baglan Bay called me and said they were clearing out the offices as the site was closing and would I like to see if the museum wanted any objects for our Modern Industry collection?

I couldn’t wait to go and have a look, and as there was quite a lot to go through I took our museum van in the hope of a few accessions.

There were lots of photographs, some in frames, some big aerial photos too. There were overalls, hats and jackets with logos on them – just the sort of things that tell a great story when exhibited for displays.

There were tools specific to the industry and other bits and pieces like signs and gauges.

I loaded a few things in the van to take back to the museum so I could go through them to decide what we would like to keep and what should be returned.

But as I was about to leave they called me back and asked if I wanted the paintings? I hadn’t noticed these as they were covered in bubble wrap and stood against a wall.

One of the paintings was quite big, about 4’6”x 6’ (1.5 x 2.1m) and I couldn’t see the subject for the wrapping. The other was much smaller about 2’ x 2’6” (0.6 x 0.76m). I was told the bigger one was an oil painting of Baglan Bay at Night and the smaller one a watercolour of a power station. I put them in the van, got the paperwork signed and left for our stores in Nantgarw where I could spread things out and examine them properly.

About a week went by and I still hadn’t looked at the paintings as I had been going through all the other objects first.

When I did take the bubble wrap off I was really surprised by the quality of both paintings. The oil painting was really striking and the BP staff had told me that it had hung in the office since the 1960s.

I looked for a painter’s signature and then the real surprise hit me! In the bottom corner was ‘Vicari’.

Bells rang deep in my head, where did I know that name from? A quick internet search answered that. The richest living artist in the world. The official Gulf War artist. Artist to the Saudi Royal family. And born in Port Talbot. This fitted my collecting policy perfectly, being an industrial scene in Wales painted by a Welsh artist. The only snag from my point of view was that it could be quite valuable and BP might want to keep it.

I contacted them straight away and told them about the artist and its possible value. One of their directors, David, called me and told me that they were happy it would be going to the National Museum of Wales and he couldn’t think of a better place for it.  This generosity meant that we could save a national treasure for future generations.

So far we had treated the painting as if it were a genuine ‘Vicari’, but was it really?

I contacted the ‘Vicari’ website and sent them an image of our painting asking them if they could confirm if Andrew had painted it.

I checked my email every day. No replies. How else could we confirm this if they didn’t get back to us?

One sunny morning about three weeks later my phone rang. I could tell from the number it was someone in France calling. This was not unusual as we have many visits from French schools and as my schoolboy French is just about good enough to get by, my number was very often given to schools as a contact.

After answering with who I was, a deep, rich voice said:

‘Ah, Andrew here, I hear you’ve found the lost Vicari’

I couldn’t believe it! Andrew Vicari calling me from his home in France! To say I was flabbergasted is an understatement!

Andrew told me he had painted Baglan in the early 1960s and was really glad of the commission at the time (when he wasn’t so well known). We spoke for about half an hour about all sorts of things and he went on to tell me an incredible  story from 1966.

Andrew had painted a picture that was to be auctioned for the Aberfan Disaster Appeal and went along to the auction in Cardiff. Before it got underway, two burly men approached Andrew and said someone needed to talk to him in private. He was shown to a room and waiting there were two more men in sharp suits, looking a bit ‘dodgy’ (his words). These two told him they wanted to buy the painting, and asked how much did he want for it? He told them that it wasn’t his to sell as he’d given to the appeal and it was out of his hands. They kept on that they wanted it and he needed to get it for them. They were getting more and more insistent. After repeating that he couldn’t a number of times, they finally left, to Andrew’s relief.

It turned out that they were the Kray twins! He laughed ‘I’m one of the few people to have said ‘no’ to the Kray twins and lived to tell the tale!’

He told me that he was very happy his painting was going to be in the National collection and that he would do anything for Wales!

We never had the chance to speak again; sadly Andrew died in Swansea, in 2016 aged 84. It’s lovely that we have such incredible paintings to remember him by.

This story happened in 2009 and the painting has been in our stores in Nantgarw where is has been conserved and a new glazed frame made. We’ve been waiting for a chance to exhibit it and finally it will happen.

You can see the painting as part of an Andrew Vicari exhibition from 13th July to 3rd November 2019 at the National Waterfront Museum, Swansea.