A Coal mining tradition comes to an end in Wales

April 20, 1994|By Carl Schoettler | Carl Schoettler,London Bureau of The Sun

ABERDARE, Wales -- The seams of hard coal that run deep under the earth of South Wales have bound generations of miners as surely as the blood that flows in their veins.

But today the flow of the generations halts. The last 250 miners of the Tower Colliery, the last mine in the Cynon Valley, gave in to the pressure and voted to end their history yesterday. Traditional deep-pit coal mining in South Wales is over.

They "cut" the last coal at the Tower Colliery yesterday. Today the mine goes into "care and maintenance," to await privatization with the rest of the nationalized British Coal mines. No one expects the agony and the pride of Wales to be restored.

The deep-pit miners took enormous pride in their work. They're the men who ripped coal from the earth a quarter-mile down and three miles from the entrance to the pit. They reigned with -- and swagger as the black princes of labor. Mining was their life, their identity and one of the highest paid jobs in a valley riven with unemployment.

When coal was king, 270,000 men worked the mines of South Wales, father, son and grandfather, brother, uncle and cousin. Hundreds of mines pierced the hills that loom dark against the twilight sky, rounded hills like men bent at their work in the pits.

Welsh coal heated the homes of Britain, powered industry, fed the children of the miners, built communities, formed a rich popular culture, created a history and legends, drew forth heroes and claimed martyrs.

But gas, oil, nuclear power, even open-pit mining have pushed deep-pit miners into a smaller and smaller corner of the market -- which in Britain is essentially electric power stations.

British Coal, which runs the nationalized mines of Great Britain, said sales were dropping at Tower while stockpiles of unsold coal were rising.

British Coal has closed some 30 mines throughout Britain over the last 18 months in the forced march toward privatization by the end of the year.

The miners contended that Tower made a $22.5 million profit last year and would be profitable again this year if they were allowed to work.

They attempted to resist. They initially turned down an "enhance

ment" a week ago when they were asked to submit to closure without protest. They called it a bribe.

"We turned it down because we're desperate for work," said Tyrone O'Sullivan, veteran secretary of the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) at Tower.

The old jobs in coal and steel and heavy industry are going or gone from the Cynon Valley. The new light manufacturing, services and tourism have not taken up the slack. In Aberdare, in February, 3,165 people applied for 74 jobs.

Mr. O'Sullivan holds a union job that once went to the miner who could dig the most coal. He's a big man, 48, with an open, ruddy face and wavy blond hair. He's so caring and gentle, the miners call him "Teddy Bear." His office at the mine looks like the back room at an old-fashioned, very rundown garage. Union posters paper the walls.

"We've got 30 percent unemployment in the valley," he said. "And that's going to go up to 40 percent after we close. That's the unemployment we're looking at."

At the end of last week British Coal offered the miners of Tower Colliery a choice. They could work harder for less money and lose as much as $30,000 in benefits, or accept the closure of their mine unconditionally.

"Heads British Coal Wins, tails the National Union of Mineworkers loses," a Labor member said in Parliament.

The Tower miners hesitated over the weekend, then accepted closure at a meeting yesterday. The pressure had become too great, the price too high to hang on to a birthright and a place in history.

Modern British coal mining began here in the Cynon Valley 200 years ago. The coal is near the surface and easy to mine. At the rapacious end of the 19th century, the largest coal company in Britain ruled in the Cynon Valley: the Powell Dyffryn Co. "PD," the miners called it, Poverty and Death.

"As a boy in school," said Ron Donovan, a tough, hardy 78, and a miner off and on for nearly 60 years in the Cynon Valley pits, "the first thing you knew of mining was the sound of hundreds of feet walkin' up the road in navy boots goin' to work about half past five in the mornin'."

"I left school when I was 14," he said. "After a week's holiday, off I went to join other boys with their fathers in the pit.

"Fourteen," he repeated. "My father was 12 when he went down in the pit with his father."

Mr. Donovan's son worked in the mines. His two grandsons, the sixth generation of the Donovans in the Cynon Valley mines, did, too, until today.

The Tower miners were militant unionists in a valley and a land with a long tradition of working-class solidarity. They say Tower got its name in the last century when one of the owners built himself a tower on the low mountain that rises above the pit. He ringed it with armed guards to protect himself and his family from Chartists, the working-class rebels of the 19th century who flourished in the Welsh valleys.

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