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Working the black seam

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The land beneath the inhospitable South Wales Valleys had some of the most abundant and accessible natural seams of coal and iron ore to be found, and were readily milked in the boom years of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Wealthy, predominantly English capitalists came to Wales and ruthlessly stripped the land of its natural assets, while simultaneously exploiting those who risked life and limb underground. The mine owners were in a formidably strong position as thousands flocked to the Valleys in search of work and some sort of sustainable life. By the turn of the twentieth century, the Valleys became packed with pits, chapels and immigrant workers from Ireland, Scotland, Italy and all over Wales.

In 1920, there were 256,000 men working in the 620 mines of the South Wales coalfields, providing a third of the world’s coal. Vast Miners’ Institutes jostled for position with the Nonconformist chapels, whose muscular brand of Christianity was matched by the zeal of the region’s politics – trade-union-led and avowedly left-wing. Great socialist orators rose to national prominence, cementing the Valleys’ reputation as a world apart from the rest of Britain, let alone Wales. Even Britain’s pioneering National Health Service, founded by a radical Labour government in the years following World War II, was based on a Valleys’ community scheme devised by local politician Aneurin Bevan. More than half of the original pits closed in the harsh economic climate of the 1930s, as coal seams became exhausted and the political climate changed. In the 1980s, further closures threatened to bring the number of men employed in the South Wales coalfields down to four figures, and the miners went on strike from 1984–85. The last of the deep pits closed in 2008.

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