Sixteen Tons

Miner’s Day may well be an American day of remembrance but is the perfect excuse for me to share the man in black singing Merle Travis’ classic Sixteen Tons.

Putting aside my desire to write a blog which included Johnny Cash there is a very strong connection between Mary Gillham and mining . Mary was active at a time where mining dominated the landscapes of South Wales. Within the archive there are many occasions where Mary and her colleagues at the Cardiff Naturalists’ Society and Glamorgan Naturalists’ Trust were asked their opinions about proposed expansion of different mines and quarries. More often than not a strong argument to restrict expansion based on the presence of sensitive wildlife or the importance of preserving common land for public use was successfully put forward.

As time progressed, the interaction with extractive industries changed. Now the mines and quarries were closing and the environmentalists’ challenge was how to take the scarred, and often unsafe, landscape and turn it into something safe, attractive, wildlife friendly and publicly accessible. Sites like the limestone quarry at Cosmeston and the numerous spoil tips dotted throughout the valleys were to be re-vegetated and made public spaces. This was, presumably, an exciting time for the environmentalists as they got to plot how best to regenerate these sites and return them into something resembling ‘natural’ (however you define that).

You can, of course, visit these sites today and see how they have developed and refer back to Mary’s photos to see what they previously looked like. Spoil tips in particular are being increasingly recognised as important habitats for wildlife as the combination of minerals, geology and ecology have resulted in quite unique habitats sustaining a huge diversity of life, not commonly found elsewhere in the local vicinity. In the past few years the invertebrate biodiversity of spoil tips has been increasingly recognised and the Colliery Spoil Biodiversity Initiative is doing a great job at identifying some of the incredible species found within the coal fields of South Wales. One highlight includes finding 85 (yes, eighty-five) different bee species on just 5 different spoil tips!

Before starting work on the Mary Gillham Archive Project I have to admit that I knew very little about mining and mining communities and despite Mary not being with us she remains an excellent teacher. Her archive is an excellent resource to find out more about the cultural and historical significance of industry within Wales and has improved my understanding of how it has shaped Welsh life.

Having had my interest piqued, however, I have since come across a number of other sources of information which have further helped my understanding of this industry.

Amazingly enough, soon after the National Coal Board took over British mines, they created a major film unit and, between 1952 and 1984, documented almost all aspects of a miner’s life. Many of these films have recently been digitised and you can look at a huge selection of them on the British Film Institute’s website. A truly interesting and illuminating collection indeed.

Also, just recently shown on BBC1 and on iPlayer until the end of December is an excellent two-part documentary about the closing of the last deep coal mine in Britain (Kellingley Colliery in North Yorkshire) called The Last Miners. This programme did a wonderful job at showcasing the hard work of the miners and the camaraderie which develops when you send hundreds of people 800 metres into the subterranean blackness. Regardless what you think about the industry, I think that you can’t help but be moved by the stories of those that risked their lives to help power the nation.

So, whether Miner’s Day is a thing or not, it is certainly worth remembering the souls that put their life on the line at work and, for better or worse, shaped the landscape of South Wales so dramatically.


The Mary Gillham Archive Project is funded by HLF and managed by SEWBReC
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