Mining in Wales provided a significant source of income to the Economy of Wales throughout the nineteenth century and early twentieth century.
Wales was famous for its coal mining in the Rhondda Valley and by 1913 the capital of Cardiff had become the largest coal exporting port in the world, as coal was transported down by rail. Tower Colliery is regarded by many as the oldest open coal mine and one of the largest in the world.
There is evidence of mining in the Blaenafon area going back to the 14th century, but it is believed to have been practised even as early as Roman times. The coal mining industry burgeoned in the 19th century, when shafts were sunk to complement the open-cast and drift mining already exploiting the ample and obvious coal resources. Incorporating existing the Coity colliery and Kearsley's pit (sunk in 1860), the Big Pit ('Pwll Mawr' in the Welsh language) opened in 1880, so called because it was the first shaft in Wales large enough to allow two tramways.
At the height of coal production, there were over 160 drift mines and over 30 shafts working the nine seams in the Blaenafon locality. Big Pit alone employed some 1300 men digging a quarter of a million tons of coal a year. Large amounts of coal were needed to supply the local ironworks, as it took 3 tons of coal to produce a ton of iron. Blaenafon 'steam' coal was of high quality and it was exported globally. Burning hotly while leaving minimum ash, it was ideal to power the steam engines now driving ships and railways across the world.
Economics and politics took their toll and all the smaller pits were either abandoned or swallowed into Big Pit's encroaching search for new seams. Finally in February 1980 the coal ran out and even Big Pit, then the oldest mine in Wales, had to close.
Today the National Mining Museum of Wales is located at Blaenafon, and in 2005 it won the prestigious Gulbenkian Prize for Museum of the year. It is one of only two remaining mines where it is possible for visitors to journey to the underground workings some 300ft (90m) below using the same cages as transported the miners. Although the Mines Act of 1842 was meant to prevent women and boys under 10 from working underground, it is believed to have been widely ignored. Much later, in the middle of the 20th century, mining was still a hazardous enterprise and many of Blaenavon's older citizens still suffer from silicosis and other mining related diseases.
The only deep mine still working in Wales, the Tower Colliery, Hirwaun run by a miner's co-operative since 1984, is itself facing the prospect of running out of coal in the near future if new seams are not developed. It is interesting to see how conditions have changed underground these days - A Journey into the Mine.
Several other small mines still exist, including the Blaenant drift mine next to the Cefn Coed Colliery Museum. There are still nine headstocks remaining in Wales, including Big Pit (the metal frame erected in 1921 during the Miners' Strike of that year, to replace a wooden structure).