COP26: the end of King Coal?

Penrhos Junction, 1920. Gwyn Briwnant Jones, Photo credit: Amgueddfa Cymru – National Museum Wales

It was a symbol of Welsh industrial might: a locomotive hauling a coal train that seemed to go on for ever. A century ago Welsh steam coal powered the world. Yet Wales has become one of the first countries to join a global coalition of nations aiming to phase out fossil fuels: the Beyond Oil and Gas Alliance. It’s comes as criticism grows of the weak response of the COP26 climate conference to the climate crisis.

I grew up in Cardiff on tales of King Coal. As I lay in bed I could hear the growl of locomotives hauling coal trains along the old Rhymney Railway line from Caerphilly. And I loved visiting the mock coal mine at the National Museum of Wales – appropriately located in the basement. The museum is in Cardiff’s magnificent civic centre, part of the impressive architectural legacy of the immense wealth created by the coal boom, along with elegant ship and coal owners’ mansions such as Insole Court, Llandaff.

Yet these architectural jewels hide the terrible price Wales and its people have paid over the centuries for black gold. Just a few weeks ago, we marked the 55th anniversary of the appalling Aberfan disaster, when the collapse of a coal waste tip engulfed the village school, killing 116 children and 28 adults.

The Aberfan tragedy, 21 October 1966

Like so many other mining-related tragedies, Aberfan was entirely avoidable. Stories of moving mountains abounded in the South Wales valleys – indeed, my father Bob Skinner reported on one in the 1950s at nearby Blaina:

“The black mountain of coal sludge towering over the small Monmouthshire mining town, made unstable by a torrent of rain, was on the move. Local residents in its path had been evacuated and I had to interview one of them on the lower slope of the black slurry. The camera was set up and I faced a worried looking housewife and began the interview. All was going well until I found myself gradually being sucked down into the black morass beneath. Bravely I carried on, only to see my interviewee rapidly growing taller before my eyes. I still carried on, my gaze slipping inexorably from her face to her formidable, damp bosom. Down and down I went, until, truncated, I had to stop and be hauled to the surface by the producer and cameraman, who, somehow, could still see and keep their feet. A clever man, that cameraman – when the interview was screened that night, no one could tell I was almost a dwarf.”

Tragedy was followed by scandal: Harold Wilson’s Labour government insisted that the millions needed to clear the killer tip had to be taken from the money donated to the disaster fund. Even though the inquiry blamed the state-owned National Coal Board for the catastrophe. No one at the NCB was punished for killing 144 people. Instead, it was the families who suffered again. Only in the 1990s did the Blair government repay the money stolen from the relief fund. (Martin Shipton tells the shocking story very well in Wales Online on the 50th anniversary of Aberfan.

When coal was king: Glyncorrwg 1962. Photo: Michael Hale, Steam in South Wales Vol 1: The Valleys, OPC 1980

Wales has known far too many mining disasters but Aberfan was different: previous valleys disasters were mining accidents, leaving the women waiting anxiously for news of their husbands. In 1966, men and women shared the vigil, and later the grief.

The most grievous colliery tragedy was at Universal Colliery in Senghenydd, north of Caerphilly, in 1913. An explosion killed 414 men, just 12 years after over 80 died at the colliery. In the 1990s I came across a cemetery on the valley hillside above Pontypridd with sad stones in Welsh and English commemorating men who left for the coalface that Tuesday morning and never saw daylight again.

Rails to prosperity

The coal and iron trade made the railways of South Wales hugely profitable in the days before the slump of the 1920s. The Taff Vale Railway, whose mainline ran from Merthyr Tydfil to Cardiff, was amongst the most profitable British railways. Later, the Barry Railway was built to divert coal traffic from the valleys to the new Barry docks. The viaduct in the print above carried the Barry across rival lines at Penrhos Junction near Caerphilly. By the time I took the photo on the right in the 1980s just one of the lines remained. Now even that has been consigned to history.

Over 40 years ago, over the 1979 Christmas holidays, we had a family walk along the old rail tracks near Creigiau west of Cardiff. As at Penrhos, the Barry crossed a rival line. Both are long gone, but there has been talk of reviving it as part of the South Wales Metro.

The long decline

At Cardiff High School in the late 1970s, we learned in O level history from Dr Davies about the awful plight of the miners after the first world war. The war was followed by a slump in the coal trade, and the ruthless coal-owners were determined to cut miners’ pay and make them work longer hours. “Not a minute on the day, not a penny off the pay” was the colliers’ cry. The result was the General Strike of May 1926, which collapsed after nine days. The miners held out until November, the month my father was born. The bitterness remained, and South Wales was hard hit by the Great Depression that began three years later, leading King Edward VIII to declare ‘something must be done’ – just days before he abdicated.

The ghosts of engines past

Most people went to Barry to laze on the beach or enjoy the funfair. But I went to explore old steam engines, rusting in the Welsh sea air. Dai Woodham bought hundreds of redundant steam locomotives from British Railways and amazingly anyone could clamber over them. It made a fine playground for a teenager.

The photo above shows me, aged 19, on a Great Western Railway heavy freight engine, 7229, in July 1983. It was built as a smaller tank loco in 1926, the year Dad was born, and was rebuilt as a longer engine in the 1930s after the slump in coal traffic. It was withdrawn in 1964.

The last photos in this blogpost show the penultimate steam locomotive built by British Railways, the mighty class 9F 2-10-0 92219. Its younger sister was immortalised as the very last of the line, Evening Star. 92219 won no such glory. When I was photographed on its footplate in the gloom of a November evening in 1983 it was just 23 years old – I was 20 at the time. It had spent its scandalously short working life in Cardiff, hauling heavy freight trains. Yet the class was superb at hauling express passenger trains: Evening Star itself was recorded at over 90mph on the Capitals United express between Cardiff and London.

BR management intervened and no longer would Cardiff drivers talk excitedly of achieving ’90 with a 9′ between the Welsh and English capitals. It was back to hauling king coal. All now a distant memory as pit-less Wales joins the coalition to end the use of fossil fuels. King Coal is dead. Long live the planet.

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