Amgueddfa Blog

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!

Every river has its source, starting small then gathering pace. Our project on freshwater snails is doing just that as we tumble into 2019. “Codi i’r Wyneb – Brought to the Surface is a 2-year project to create a new guide to the freshwater snails of Britain and Ireland, supported by the National Lottery through the Heritage Lottery Fund. Where better to begin than with Amgueddfa Cymru’s world class Mollusca collections?

This month we are joined by three new faces: our Project Officer, Harry Powell, and volunteers Jelena Nefjodova and Mike Tynen. Harry studied biology and ecology at Plymouth University, and is a former volunteer here himself. Mike spent many years with the Cheshire Wildlife Trust and Jelena is a current student at Cardiff University. All four of us have gotten stuck in to the snail collections here, of which we’ll say more in a moment.

To date over 1000 other people, and several organisations, have already engaged with Brought to the Surface. Our travelling display was especially popular at Swansea Science Festival in November 2018, where many members of the public took the chance to get up close (up to 50X magnification!) with British and foreign freshwater snails on our stand. We also showcased specimens at two conferences at the Museum, Unknown Wales (Wildlife Trust of South and West Wales) and at the Wales Biodiversity Partnership.

These displays will evolve as the project does, but also on the way is a more permanent exhibit at the Museum, now in the design stages. This gives us an excuse to feature a photo by our partner Hannah Shaw, of the magnificent Llangloffan Fen near Fishguard, Pembrokeshire. We’ve been looking for a lush landscape, captured in summer, to make a good backdrop for the display. It’s also a reminder that, having passed the solstice, outdoor snail activities are not too far away.

Summer will also bring our series of “Snail Day” training and key testing events around Wales. Our partner Mike Dobson has been especially quick of the mark in helping draft a comprehensive key to try out with the public at these. We are fortunate in having such a range of snail specimens from the Museum to use in these activities, but it will also be fun for people to have a go at finding and identifying their own. After all, the ideal key is one that should allow a total beginner to identify the very first snail they find…

And so back to the collections, the foundation of this kind of biology and a unique asset of museums. Harry, Mike and Jelena have been helping review and curate what we already have, and others have kindly been sending specimens from England, Scotland and Northern Ireland for our project. Particular thanks to our partner Martin Willing from the Conchological Society, who is hot on the trail of Britain’s more obscure freshwater snail species. Our Twitter account @CardiffCurator will feature many of these over the next couple of years with the hashtag #FreshwaterSnailoftheFortnight. The photos, descriptions and DNA sequences from 150 years’ worth of snail study will all be the basis for our eventual Field Studies Council publication.

We’ll report again as more people, places and snails join us on our journey.

In the last post I wrote about some of the fascinating objects held in the display case in the Clore Discovery Centre at National Museum Cardiff. Today I’m going to focus on another object with a rich history.

One of the most popular objects in the display is the curious nineteenth-century Meissen figurine Monkey Orchestra Pianist, produced in paste porcelain and painted in enamels. A visual inspection of this monkey reveals he is costumed as a courtier. He is caught in the moment of looking over his shoulder at the viewer, sitting on another monkey while playing the harpsicord. Even as a nineteenth-century reproduction, Monkey Orchestra Pianist delightfully captures movement as if in suspended animation that can thrill the viewer.

Close scrutiny of Monkey Orchestra Pianist can help to get a sense of the period in which the original version of this ceramic was produced. It is a reproduction of the hard-paste Meissen porcelain Figure Group of Two Monkeys, produced in 1753 by the German Meissen modeller Johann Joachim Käendler (1706-1775).

During the eighteenth century, porcelain was one of the most prized materials in the world. Developed in China around 2,000 years ago, by the early years of the eighteenth century trade in porcelain wares to Europe was thriving. However, the method for making porcelain remained a secret to Europeans until the German alchemist Johann Friedrich Böttger (1682-1719) discovered its formula. As a result, the King of Poland, Augustus the Strong (1670-18), established the Meissen factory in 1710 to produce decorative wares. Meissen porcelain figures could be satirical, mythological or allegorical, and were designed to convey information about their owners – a level of intellect perhaps or even their sense of humour.

Observing the absurd facial expression, posture, actions and brilliantly coloured frills of Monkey Orchestra Pianist’s sitting monkey also conveys clues as to the more entertaining aspect of eighteenth-century life and its desire to consume visual spectacles of every sort. Indeed, the Figure Group of Two Monkeys (of which Monkey Orchestra Pianist is a replica) belongs to Käendler’s fantastical ‘Monkey Orchestra’ or ‘Affenkapelle des Grafen Brühl – The Monkey Orchestra’, created in 1753. This band consists of 21 monkey musicians, the male figures depicted as musicians, the female ones as singers, thus wittily holding up a mirror to courtly society.

Apparently, Augustus the Strong commissioned these decorative caricatures after a guest at one his banquets said that his orchestra played like performing monkeys! Monkey Orchestra Pianist’s dressy green trousers, purple jacket and long wig is suggestive of the fact Käendler took inspiration from the drawings made by the French artist Christophe Huet (1700-1759). In the 1700s, a taste in France for depictions of monkeys mimicking human activities led to the development of a genre known as ‘singerie’ – from the French word ‘singe’ (monkey). Huet published the Livre de Singeries (Book of Monkeys) and was responsible for the mural decoration of the Singerie Rooms at the Château de Chantilly in the 1730s. In his paintings for the Singerie Rooms, Huet’s costumed monkeys act as ‘surrogates’ for the chateau’s residents, shown singing, dancing and even sledding.

Again, these objects are just a small fraction of National Museum Cardiff’s wonderful collection of ceramics to look out for, so please come and explore!

In recognition of this Amgueddfa Cymru – National Museum Wales will be running a series of monthly blogs, each one covering a different chemical element and its significance to Wales. Look out for these throughout the year on our website.

To start off our series of blogs, for January we have silver.

Silver (chemical symbol – Ag), atomic number 47, is one of the original seven metals of alchemy and was represented by the symbol of a crescent moon. Silver is a precious metal, but it has never been as valuable as gold.

In Wales, silver has played an important role in the history of Wales, but this is often forgotten. In the northernmost part of Ceredigion (the old county of Cardiganshire) near to the village of Goginan lie a number of disused mines which were some of the richest silver producers in the history of the British Isles. The Romans almost certainly had a part to play in the discovery of the metal-rich mineral veins, but it was Queen Elizabeth I who oversaw their development as silver mines.

It is reported that the first rich discovery of silver was made at Cwmsymlog (sometimes written as Cum sum luck in historical records) mine in 1583 by Thomas Smythe, Chief Customs Officer for the Port of London. It is much more likely that it was discovered by Ulrich Frosse, a German mining engineer experienced in silver mining who visited the mine at about the same time and advised Smythe. During the reign of Elizabeth I it is estimated that 4 tons of silver was produced from the Cardiganshire mines.

King James I and King Charles I both made handsome profits from the mines (producing 7 and 100 tons of silver respectively), so much so that in 1638 Charles I decided to establish a mint nearby at Aberystwyth Castle. Its success ultimately led to its destruction by Oliver Cromwell and the Parliamentarians during the English Civil War in 1646.

Amgueddfa Cymru holds examples of the many silver coins minted at Aberystwyth. Their characteristic feature is the three feathers on both sides of the coin. The addition of a small open book at the top signifies that the silver was produced by Thomas Bushell from the Cardiganshire mines on behalf of the Company of Mines Royal.

Maps and mine plans produced to market the silver mines to investors are some of the earliest to have been made in Britain. The Library at AC-NMW holds several versions of William Waller’s maps produced for the Company of Mine Adventurers in 1693 and 1704 as well as Sir John Pettus’ Fodinae Regales published in 1670.

One of the mines, Bwlch-yr-eskir-hir [Esgair Hir], was much hyped as the Welsh Potosi and from the silver was produced a silver ewer inscribed ‘The Mines of Bwlch-yr-Eskir-hir’, c.1692. The mine was, however, a failure. The quantity of silver produced never lived up to expectations, but this was more to do with the geology than mining methods. It is perhaps better known as the site involved in a legal case against the Crown’s control over precious metals. The case, brought by the landowner Sir Carbery Pryse in 1693, ended the tyranny of the Mines Royal.

Productive silver mining continued in north Cardiganshire, firstly, under the Company of Mine Adventurers and then through the Industrial Revolution by a number of private companies. Total silver production within this part of Wales exceeded 150 tons of silver metal.

Remarkably, it took until the 1980s for geologists to identify the mineral responsible for the high concentrations of silver in the small area of Wales. It is tetrahedrite – a copper, zinc, iron, antimony sulphide mineral - within which silver can replace some of the copper, zinc and iron. At Esgair Hir mine tetrahedrite has been recorded as containing up to 18 wt. % silver. Important ore specimens used during the identification of this mineral are preserved in our geological collections at the Museum.

Naturally occurring silver metal – known as native silver – does not occur in visible concentrations in any of the Welsh mines, but the Museum holds some of the world’s finest examples in its mineral collection. The specimens, from the Kongsberg mine in Norway, are exceptional in their quality and were acquired during the 1980s as part of the R. J. King collection.