Amgueddfa Blog: Industry & Transport

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.

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.

Continuing the international year of the periodic table of chemical elements for February we have selected manganese. For some, this would not be an element which automatically springs to mind when one thinks of Wales, but, its importance to Wales, and indeed the British Isles, should be highlighted.

Manganese (chemical symbol – Mn), atomic number 25, is a metallic element which in nature is always combined with other elements in what scientists call compounds.

Long before the year 1774, when pure manganese metal was first isolated and identified as a new element by the Swedish chemist Johan Gottlieb Gahn, compounds containing manganese had been identified as being very useful in industrial processes. Indeed, ancient civilizations such as the Egyptians and Romans are known to have used manganese dioxide in the decolourizing (bleaching) of glass.

In Wales, manganese oxides occur in a number of different geological settings but they were not sought until the early years of the nineteenth century when the more convenient deposits in England ran out. Due to the limited supply of manganese oxides the glass-making industry searched further afield and into more remote parts of British Isles including parts of north Wales.

By the 1840s black manganese oxides had been identified, and mined, from Barmouth and Arenig in Merionethshire, and Rhiw and Clynnog Fawr in Caernarvonshire. In all cases the deposits were small and relatively unproductive, but for vastly different reasons.

In the cases of Barmouth and Rhiw the rich soft black manganese oxides found at the surface changed rapidly into a hard, flinty, rock within just a few tens of metres below the surface. In both situations the hard underlying rock had no known use and the mines were abandoned, but this was not the end of the story.

The earliest record of manganese mining in the Arenig area dates to 1823 when royalties were paid for manganese from the “Llanecil mines” – Llanycil being the parish within which Arenig is situated. Mining continued intermittently at a number of mines and trials in the area until the early twentieth century. The black manganese oxides occur within steeply dipping narrow fractures known as veins that cut through ancient, Ordovician-age, volcanic rocks – known as ash-flow tuffs. Mining of steep narrow veins necessitates the driving of tunnels and the sinking of shafts which makes for high costs. Considerable investment was made at some of the mines, but the overriding problem was the distance that this material had to be transported to get it to its marketplace at glassworks in St. Helens, near Liverpool and elsewhere in England.

In all only a few hundred tons of ore was sold, but it was always regarded as high quality – containing over 70 % manganese oxide. Mineralogically, the ore was described as ‘psilomelane’ – a term applied to any uncharacterised hard botryoidal manganese oxide. Modern analytical studies have shown that it consists primarily of repeated layers of cryptomelane and hollandite (potassium manganese oxide and barium manganese oxide respectively).

At Rhiw manganese was first discovered in 1827. It was tested and found suitable for the manufacturing of bleaching salt. Samples were sent to companies in England, Scotland, Ireland, Germany and Russia and in the 1850s shipments were being made to Liverpool and Runcorn.

During the 1930s manganese oxides from Barmouth were reputedly shipped to Glasgow for the bleaching of glass, but the deposits were very limited and within a decade were exhausted.

As is so often the case scientific advancements create new opportunities and find uses for previously worthless materials. This was exactly the case with the hard, flinty, rocks found beneath the superficial layer of black manganese oxides near Barmouth and at Rhiw. At Barmouth, it was discovered that the hard rock is a layered sedimentary rock formed at the bottom of a deep sea during Cambrian times approximately 520 Million years ago. It contains 28 % manganese but in the form of silicates and carbonates which are of no use for glass making. However, during the early 1880s it was realised that this hard manganese-bearing rock was a perfect additive for blast furnaces in order to produce a high-strength manganese-steel.

One of the stages of this process involved creating alloys of iron and manganese of known proportions. The museum has examples of the different ‘grades’ of ferromanganese from a small collection assembled by William Terrill (1845-1901) who was a chemical assayer in Swansea.

Mines opened rapidly right across the Rhinog mountain range, inland from Barmouth and Harlech, exploiting a 12-inch thick bed of manganese-rich rock. By autumn 1886 four mines were producing a total of 400 tons of ore weekly, and by 1891 a peak of 21 mines were operating. The importance of this industry led to an extensive network of tracks being constructed across some of the roughest terrain in Wales. The mines themselves developed unusual techniques for extracting the often shallow dipping ore-bed underground, in large ‘rooms’ with pillars of ore left in place to support the roof. Waste rock was stacked neatly on hillsides outside the mine workings in a manner not seen anywhere else in British mining.

However, the low grade of the ore could not compete with foreign supplies. Consequently the mines started to close with the last one ending in 1928. In all, 101,000 tons of ore was produced from these mines. The black manganese oxides first worked at Barmouth represented a thin oxidation crust formed during the 11,000 years since the end of the last ice age by the alteration of the manganese carbonates in contact with rainwater and air.

On the Lleyn Peninsula the mines at Rhiw grew to be even more important. Here similarly, the black manganese oxides merely represented a surface alteration of a much more significant source of manganese underneath. Geologically different, the Rhiw mines are hosted within Ordovician-age marine sediments associated with episodes of volcanic activity. Intense faulting and fracturing of the rocks during Lower Palaeozoic times split the sedimentary ore-bearing horizon into blocks, and deep burial in the Earth’s crust resulted in metamorphism converting the constituent minerals into many exotic compounds. The ore blocks are now far removed from each other making this one of the most geologically, and mineralogically, complex mining areas in the British lsles.

Combined, the Benallt, Rhiw and Nant mines produced over 160,000 tons of manganese ore during the first half of the 20th century - far exceeding that of any other region in the British Isles. However, it should be remembered that much of the cost of mining during that period was subsidised because of the strategic importance of manganese during war time.

The manganese occurred mostly in the form of silicate and oxide minerals many of which are quite unusual mineral species. One of them – a manganese-rich chlorite group mineral – was first discovered at Benallt mine in 1946 and is named pennantite in honour of the famous Welsh naturalist, Thomas Pennant (1726-1798).

Another unusual mineral found in the orebodies at Benallt mine is jacobsite – a manganese iron oxide. Jacobsite is one of the few manganese minerals that is magnetic. Knowing this the Ministry of Supply, who operated the mine during the Second World War, trialled magnetometry surveys as a method of identifying ore deposits hidden underground. This technique had never before been used in Britain for looking for manganese, but proved very successful. The silica-rich ore from the Rhiw mines was shipped from a pier at Porth Ysgo to Ellesmere Port where it was taken by rail to the blast furnaces at Brymbo Steel Works, Wrexham.

After the war, financial support for the mine ceased and it closed. In 1960 aeromagnetic traverses were flown across the southern Lleyn Peninsula. Further ground-based magnetic surveys were conducted during the 1970s and 1980s which identified small, uneconomic, areas of manganese mineralization.

Charles designed, and built a monoplane around 1906, taught himself to fly and flew the plane between 1907 and 1910. Although no photographic evidence of this exists, the Charles Horace Watkins Monoplane Special, now better known as the ‘Robin Goch’ or ‘Red Robin’ has a strong claim to be the first aeroplane to fly in Wales.

Charles lived in Cardiff and his workshop can still be found a stone’s throw from Cardiff University. It was here he built the plane making use of everyday parts that he converted for his needs. For instance, a kitchen chair for the pilot’s seat; a brass domestic light switch on the dashboard; an egg timer as a navigation aid; a ball bearing in a cradle to tell if the plane was flying level and two weights dangling on string under the aircraft, one 20 feet long and one 10 feet long so he knew how far off the ground he was when landing!     

In 2010 I interviewed two brothers, Michael and Sean Gomez, whose family lived next door to Mr Watkins. The brothers, who were in their 70s, remembered Charles fondly and told me many tales of what it was like in the 1950s for two young boys growing up next door to the ‘great inventor’. Here is an extract of my conversation with them.

He always had time for us and he was always trying to do something new (he would have been in his late 60s at this time). We were fascinated going there, the projects he was working on seemed totally out of this world, and quite possibly one was! He showed us a mock-up of a flying saucer he’d built. When we asked him how it would fly he replied “It’s top secret!” We couldn’t tell if he meant it or whether he was working on a secret project as the saucer seemed to work on the same principle as a hovercraft with fans providing downward thrust and other fans along the sides for direction.

He was very interested in project ‘ZETA’ – obtaining energy from water (Zero Energy Thermonuclear Reactor). He had diagrams all over his walls and said he was being consulted on this and also the Concorde project.

He was always inventing something every time we met him. During the war he came up with an idea to deflect headlights of cars down to just in front of the vehicle. This was tested by South Wales Police on behalf of the MoD.

One thing that stands out about his workshop is that he had about thirty cuckoo clocks and Westminster chiming clocks. He would faithfully wind them up every day and when it came to the hour they all went off at slightly different times! You had this cacophony of sound!

He lived with his sister who was profoundly deaf so he came up with an idea whereby if the doorbell was pushed a beam of light went all the way to the end of the hall where it reflected off various mirrors until it reached the kitchen so his sister could see it!

He invented a machine from which he made most of his money. In those days spectacle frames were made of tortoiseshell and being relatively brittle, typically they would snap just behind the hinge. So, I remember in his middle room he had hundreds of cardboard boxes containing the arms of these glasses.

He’d invented some sort of ultra-sound machine. He’d put the two arms of the specs into this tiny machine and he’d bring the nozzle down on it. The machine had lots of coils of wires and all sorts of strange things and it hummed and buzzed. And ‘hey presto’ when it came out you couldn’t see where the join was – it was seamless. Of course ultrasonic welding is quite common now for welding plastics.

He had spectacles from opticians from all over the country and he made a tremendous amount of money from it. I remember seeing a pile of white five pound notes on his table just tied up with string. It seemed to me as a boy quite a lot, but in reality was probably only a couple of thousand (pounds) still a lot of money then though. He didn’t believe in banks! I don’t think he had a bank account, he kept all his money at home.

He also had a radio, that he built himself, which could receive American radio stations. This was quite something at that time. He took it apart one day and let me have a look at it and it had about fifteen valves!

He didn’t show the monoplane to anyone, although we nagged constantly to see it. Then one day he told us if we came round on Saturday we could see it. The amazing thing was that this man had a plane in his garage when most people didn’t have cars!

He had the prop hanging up on the wall and we asked him where he got it from because at that time you couldn’t just get one from anywhere? He told us he’d carved it himself out of a piece of sapele. When we asked how he knew the shape to make it he replied “Well one just knows these things you see”

We questioned him about how he learned to fly and he said “I just taught myself. I wasn’t worried about getting it up, but I was worried about getting it back down!”

From the conversations that I had with him, I developed the opinion that the plane really did fly. If it had not I think Mr Watkins would have been more evasive with his answers and he certainly wasn’t evasive in any way.

When we asked him what he was going to do with it he said that he’d like to leave it to the nation.

“I had an American sniffing around, said he wanted to buy it. Offered me several hundred pounds for it. I told him to bugger off!”

For me Charles represents a generation filled with explorers, scientists and inventors who were making new discoveries on a daily basis. They were at the birth of an age, of which we are still a part, when people have seen massive technological changes in their lives. I do wonder sometimes where we would be without people like Charles Horace Watkins, the great inventor!

The Robyn Goch is on permanent display at the National Waterfront Museum in Swansea. Visitors can crane their necks up at the undercarriage from the floor of the ‘Large Object’ Gallery. The monoplane is suspended from the ceiling giving the impression that it is flying. A more personal view can be seen from the balcony alongside the plane.

Having the plane fixed so high up presents the museum with a number of problems. It is impossible to clean properly for one and a layer of dust can soon build up. Also, for safety reasons, the steel cables and mountings must be checked for wear and tear to ensure that the Red Robin does not come crashing down.

The cablework must be checked every five years and this gives us the chance to thoroughly clean the wings and cockpit and generally spruce things up.

To do this a framework of scaffolding is built from the floor up to the ceiling to get easy access to all of the plane. The scaffolding itself is a complex work of art put together by a very skilled team.

Once the scaffolding is in place our conservation team can get to work.