Ben ’Blow’ Whelan: An Irish Life in Wales

This is a transcript of a tape recording made in March, 1976.

It is divided into 4 parts.

Part 3

Q: Now why was Bargoed such a big town?

BBW: There was a bigger colliery in Bargoed, you know. And when we’re on the subject, when I come here it wasn’t called Bargoed.

Q: No? What was it called?

BBW: Charlestown. And not many here could tell you that now. Down where I was living you’d never hear the old people saying: “I’m going up to Bargoed.” but:“I’m going up to Charlestown!” But Charlestown, the biggest part of it, was down then near the viaduct – that was the oldest part of Bargoed.

Q: There’s a building supply merchant down there, opposite the station, on the way down there. Now that was used for something else, wasn’t it?

BBW: It was built for a skating rink and the boxing underneath. Then after the skating, you had the market there. And the building supply that’s there now, that started opposite side of the road. Now this man, Cyril Prosser that got it now, twas his father who started where tis now and he worked across the other side of the road as a boy – the Williams had it then.

Q: Now this side of the valley – the other side of the valley was owned by Lord Tredegar, wasn’t it – but this side was Powell Duffryn’s country, wasn’t it? I mean, they owned Groesfaen, didn’t they?

BBW: Oh, they did one time, but when it was first sunk it was the Rhymney Iron Company. Bargoed was the Powell Duffryn. Then, of course, they amalgamated them and it was ‘The Powell Duffryn Associated Collieries’.

Q: Somebody told me that in Bargoed there was a pumping station which pumped compressed air for the mining machinery?

BBW: Oh yes, the power house. That was the job I worked on in the 1921 strike, when they was putting down the air main for the valleys, the air main that would go up to Groesfaen and up the Rhymney Valley.

Q.: Did it go up to the Darren Colliery and the Ogilvie?

BBW: It went up to Ogilvie. The Darren wasn’t there then. The explosion in the Darren was October the 29th, 1909. I was working in Bargoed that time. It went up to Ogilvie but of course they’ve cut it all up now.

Q: Did the air main go up to Rhymney?

BBW: Oh yes, and across – it was supplying 47 collieries! And that was working oncoal dust. It even burned the dust collected off the walls in the washery and it was coming down that powerhouse in a glass – like a tube only it was square – it was like a sheet of velvet coming down! Of course they had them furnaces blowing it then. Years ago in the coalmines the miners wasn’t paid for the small coal – all that was tipped out. You see, they couldn’t use it in the powerhouses at that time, they hadn’t got them furnaces blowing it in. They’ve collected all that now and burned it in Aberthaw and them places.

That’s what Larry Ryan was doing I can remember when he startedwithin 200 yards of where I was living. He’s a man who’s worked hard with a hand machine. He started getting it out of the river. He washed all these tipsyou see, there’s thousands of tons of coal in these tips now – wasted coal!

When he first came to Newport he was working as a labourer, �14‑00 a week, my cousin’s daughter housekeeping for him. he was a man who worked hard himself – I seen him working. And I told him, that man, I’d like to see him rise again – and he said he will! Me and his chief agent in England before he had this smash were very pally – George Thomson. I heard a man telling him one day – up in the Groesfaen tip – he said “I’m up to my knees in muck.” He replied, “That’s how I make my money!”

Q: Did you have anything to do with trade unions?

BBW: No.

Q: Were you ever a member of a trade union?

BBW No, well, the Miners’ Federation, I was a member of the Miners’ Federation.

Q: but you were never an active union member?

BBW: No. My oldest son is now.

Q: But you took no part in what the union was doing?

BBW: O, yes!

Q: 1922?

BBW: I was lucky. I never had to go to a soup kitchen, but I knew hundreds and hundreds that did have to go there. They was having boxing tournaments and all that to make money for these soup kitchens. Patches’, they had permission to go up digging for coal in the coal tips.

Q: I thought it was illegal

BBW: O no it was not

Q: I heard it was very fly-by-night up in Abertysswg

BBW: There was very few tips – I can’t recall one – where it wasn’t allowed. But they had to keep away from where tipping was going on, where the crane wasI know they picked it from Abertysswg.

Q: In Abertysswg they made fuel for their own fires from coal dust mixed up with a kind of mud into bricks.

BBW: That would be what you call the slurry now, out of the river, what Larry Ryan started on first. I tried that. Now I was middling handy, thank God, I could turn my hand to anything. I tried that stuff out of the river. I mixed it with cement. I mixed it with clay. Right, you could make it into bricks. Put it on the fire. It would never get bright – it was black. Fetch it with the poker. Flop! All through the bottom of the grate – it didn’t work. But I made a stove, in the shed I had, and I put a conical top on it, and a small pipe. I’d go down the river, get a bucket of that, start the stove off. I had to use a bit of coal. But fill it up now with the stuff. Right. You didn’t want to open the door. It was the draught was doing it through the small pipe. It was like winter outside.

Well, after that first bit of coal that I used I didn’t want to use any more. When that slurry come out it’d be like coke. Now you could start the fire off with that in the morning again. I opened it one day. There was something in there that exploded, burnt all my eyelashes off, my moustache and everything!

Q: It was like opening a coke oven!

BBW: That’s it! Well now, you see what I’m telling you, that’s how they can burn this duff and slurry and that’s as they call it today. It’s the draught and the force of that furnace. You see, the big machines they’re putting in Aberthaw now would burn it. But I was never successful in burning that stuff. But the patches’ now, that you’ve got here, over that side, even over here. Now, if you went down here – I’d give you twenty feet – you’d see the coal there.

Q: Here, where we are sitting now in Tŷ Clyd?

BBW: Yes, where we’re sitting now. And they was opening them over that side, especially Aberbargoed side, they’d open them there and wind it up for the bucket!

Q: And that was a ‘patch’?

BBW: That’s what they called a ‘patch’.

Q: But it was an actual seam of coal, not rubbish?

BBW: Oh, an actual seam of coal – it was a yard thick, what they called the Mynydd Islwyn vein. As you go up the valley, up towards Dowlais Top, all the veins of coal are outcropping there.

Q. On the road to Deri, is it?

BBW: That’s it, up to Fochriw. Well you see, they’re working the coal opencast up there now.

Q: There are some tunnels going in, off the road.

BBW: Before that railway finished, the Brecon and Merthyr Railway we used to call it, you’d go up through the cuttings, this side of Dowlais Top, and you could see the different seams of coal, they cut through like, the side of the mountain, you could see all the different seams of coal there, you know

Q: In the cutting?

BBW: You see, you had about ten veins of coal and that’s here now, and they’re closing collieries – Ogilvie and Groesfaen – and plenty coal there: spending millions of pounds in other places looking for it! Over in Llantrisant they’re spending two and a half million looking for what they call ‘The Meadow Vein’. They never tested Groesfaen – nor Ogilvie. They wanted half a million, no, a quarter of a million, to put Ogilvie right before they closed it. No, they wouldn’t give it.

My son, now, is still there, he was a pitman there for about forty years, they’re dismantling it now. They’re putting two pumps in the one shaft to keep the water down – a million each! They’re spending two million pounds on the top of the tip now to level it out, whereas for a quarter of a million they could have put the pit working for 15 years coal.

Q: It’s very hard for an outsider to understand these things

BBW: You couldn’t understand it, no. I know for a fact now, with my own son in Ogilvie, there’s less of it working in Ogilvie, I know for a fact that there’s plenty of coal left in Groesfaen, seams of coal never touched! Q: Well, that’s amazing because they’re talking about an energy crisis

BBW: Oh aye! Well, you look now what I’m telling you: a quarter of a million would have put Ogilvie right. They wouldn’t give it. They’re buying two pumps now to go down in one shaft –�they’ve got to keep the water down in Ogilvie, or else the other pits would be flooded. A million pounds! And they’re spending two million to draw the pit back down to level again! It don’t make sense. Hundreds of thousands of pounds of machinery buried down there. They can’t get it out from down there. They had a job to get them in, you see, because they’re not keeping the places open now like they used to years ago. They’re travelling too fast. Q: The roads aren’t too good, you mean – the underground roads aren’t as good as they used to be?

BBW: You see, they’re travelling too fast now and it’s closing in behind them. Now years ago that was the main thing, to keep the mains under the tunnels in perfect condition. Now, what I’d call them now, what they’re opening now, are rat holes compared with what I worked under in them days.

Q: Well, they used to call them ‘roads’

BBW: ‘Roads’? Well, ‘roads’ they call them now but, as I’m saying, they got a job to get machinery in, leave alone work it and get it back out. The place have all closed in, they got to leave them there. I know where there’s hundreds of thousands of pounds of stuff left in Groesfaen.

You see, that’s my main contention is why the collieries don’t pay today is mechanisation. I was asked the day I finished work – you see, all the bosses were in the office that day because I was well known there, I was passing, and I was called in the office and, what did I think was the biggest improvement in mining since I started work. I said, “Your lighting.” “What about the machinery?” “Well, to my mind,” I said, “the biggest improvement in mining is lighting.” “I don’t think you’re far out.”, he said.

Q: The other things are not improvements at all?

BBW Well, as I’m saying, I reckon it’s the mechanisation has spoilt the coalmining. You look at the cost of these big machines. I get the Coal News every month, I’m very interested in it. You look at the cost of these big machines going in, all these roof supports, none of it recovered.The job as I was on, I was what they called a Steel Arch Reformer’ for the last 32 years.

You’d get the bent arches coming up out of the pit. I would straighten them cold and send them back down. When I finished the job it was finished – and I was working on piece work on it.

Q: Nobody else did it after you finished?

BBW: No, it was too hard. I was doing it by myself. They put three on the job after I was finished. But you look at that now. They was cutting them distorted arches up – scrap. When I was doing it they went back down. – and steel at the time I finished was �80 a ton. I was straightening rails and everything– pit props – there’s none of that done now.

Q: How did you straighten them?

BBW: O, with a machine.

Q: You had a machine that did it – it was cold straightening, no heat involved?

BBW: No, no, all straightened cold. You see, it wasn’t taking temper out of them. They did start, when they first started to straighten the steel arches, they started them in the fire. But temper was taken out of them.

Well, then there was a machine come, but I was the first one to have one of the electric machines and they’ve never been the difference with the electric machine

Q: Better or worse?

BBW: Oh, they had them but they was worked by hand – they put a compressed air attachment to it. But the noise– oh, no wonder I’m deaf! When I had the electric machine I didn’t think I was doing any work! You couldn’t hear it working.

Q: But it did the job perfectly. That means that some of the mechanisation was an improvement?

BBW. Oh yes! Now that was a big improvement, but what’s going down the mines that I’m telling you, well, I expect they are three or four times the price now as when I was in them. I’ve seen jobs going down forty five or fifty thousand pounds, never to come back up, you know.

The steel arches were a wonderful improvement.

Q: They were reliable?

BBW: At the rate they’re talking today they would never keep the places open with timber, but the steel arches was a wonderful improvement. Oh, that was a marvellous thing, that machine. My name must be stinking in the coal magazine and my photo.

Q: For that machine?

BBW: For that machine. The firm is in Newport, the Finlay Conveyor Company, the Finlay Engineering Company now.

They fetched somebody rang up a letter from the Managing Director one morning to be fetching a visitor, 11 o’clock the next morning.

I partly guessed what he was fetching him for, he fetched him there before, but this man come this morning, a man about six foot four, beard, big fur coat on, started talking, saying what he wanted, so I run a few half rings through to show him. Very pleased.

“Can you read a book, Bill?” he said to me. I said, “yes”, and he said: “This is how we support the roof in the gold mines in India. Would this machine straighten them?” he says. “I’ll put three at a time in for you.” I says. “I see you’re able to manage.” he 0says, “I’ll take you back to India with me.” he says, telling me he was very pleased and that.

So anyhow, “Have a drink with me tonight.” he says. Five pound note in an envelope and he sent me a letter next morning to say how pleased he was.

Q: You sold the machine for him, you helped him to sell a machine?

BBW: Oh yes, yes, but it was the customer who give me the five pound note!

The Managing Director asked me numerous times if I’d go down in the factory.

I said to my wife one morning, “Would you like a day out today? We’re going down to see Mr. Andyside in Newport.” I said.

First thing I seen as I got into the works was my photograph on the wall! He said, “Wherever the machines travel – they travel all over the world – that goes with them.” he says.

Q: Another question: Have you seen many changes in your life?

BBW. Many things have changed in my life – and for the better. You don’t see them fighting outside the public house now in their working clothes at 11 o’clock on the Saturday night.

You don’t see the women running to the pawn shop every Monday morning to pawn even their wedding rings to get money to live. Fetch it out Friday, back in the following Monday morning. That’s a nice thing as you don’t see today.

I can’t say has there been any changes that I’m sorry to see. For me it’s for the better. Of course, we weren’t getting so much money in them days but stuff was cheaper.

Today now, I got to pay twelve and thruppence for an ounce of twist where in them days I could get it for thruppence. I remember cigarettes five for a penny. You had ‘Tabs’, you had five cigarettes, five little holders and a picture card for a penny.

But, as I was telling you, that penny was taking some finding then.

Q: In your own family did you ever run out of money – did your parents ever run out of money?

BBW: Oh yes, but thank God, as I’m saying, in my life, after I started work, I got well on and I was never left without a shilling in my pocket. That’s more than a good many can say.

Q. Were you ever out of work?

BBW: No, I was never out of work. I never drew a penny dole, no, nor National Health. That’s another thing as a good many can’t say. So I reckon somebody owes me something!

But in this place here now – we’re recording this and I don’t trouble who hears it, out of the Old Age pension which is �12-30, we’re getting �3-01 back. Out of the Miners’ Pension, there’s a lot here not getting the Miners’ Pension – there are only about seven of us here are getting it – out of the Miners’ Pension we’re getting a pound a week back, the County is getting �2-60.

Now we’ve had a pound rise in the Miners’ Pension. I had a Giro come here, they didn’t know they was getting this rise, for �34‑40, that was �16-00 back money, the County have kept the lot, we’re getting none of it.

It’s not a charitable institution this, mind, – I think there’s some ought to hear this.

Q: But how can they keep all your money, then, just like that?

BBW: The biggest part of them here are only getting Old Age or Public Assistance. Now, as I’m telling you, they’re keeping as it is now, �3‑60 a week out of our Miners’ Pension, we’re getting �3‑01 back out of the Old Age Pension and if you’ve got a couple of bob put by in the bank they’re taking out of that as well, whereas others here, I’m telling you, are only living on Old Age Pension or Public Assistance – some as I know here never done a day’s work in their life or contributed a penny to anything.

Q: And they’re just as well off as you?

BBW: They’re better off than me – they’re taking it out of a couple of bob saving I’ve got.

Q: That’s what it amounts to, yes.

BBW: And that’s what I’m telling you. I never drew a penny dole and I never drew on the National Health. They’ll provide them, them people I’m telling you, Old Age Pension or a Social C, they’ll provide them with clothes and anything.

Q: You buy your own?

BBW: You buy your own!

Q: When you were talking about the ‘Three Monarchs’ here, before the First World War, they were all Liberals.

BBW: Except Gus Jones when he came here.

Q: What party was he?

BBW: Oh, Conservative. That’s what started the ball rolling here!

Q: When did Labour come in?

BBW: Oh, before the First World War, ILP, Independent Labour Party. Kedward was a big noise in it. Course I know Kedward, he was brought up alongside of me

Q: Councillor Kedward? But these fellows started the Independent Labour Party, they started with this Labour Party’ here?

BBW: Ah well, he was in that when it first started, and then we had a Member of Parliament here, Morgan Jones, he was a big noise in it, conscientious objector during the First World War. And then you come on to the Labour Party

Q: But do you think that the Labour Party, with their social programmes, have done any good?

BBW: No. I don’t think you’ll see a Labour constituency here next time either, mind. There’s very few know Fred Evans better than I do!

Q: But what is wrong with them?

BBW: Ah well, Plaid Cymru gave them a good run last time, mind, but he’ll have less votes this time for what he done about the collieries.

Q: Where are the votes going to go?

BBW: Oh, Plaid Cymru.

Q: Are they coming in, behind the Labour Party?

BBW: Oh yes. They gave Fred Evans a run for it last time, mind, Phil Williams

Q: And you think Plaid Cymru are having a lot of support – why are the people supporting Plaid Cymru?

BBW: Because they’re fed up of Fred Evans.

Q: Because they’re fed up with Fred Evans! I see, they’re not voting because they’re nationalists?

BBW: He done a lot of harm in Ogilvie.

I wrote a letter to the County about this place. I sent two sheets of foolscap. I said to the payclerk: “Have you got that letter? “Oh” he said, “why not write us a letter?” I said I did. “What have you done with it?” I said, “I expect you read it, rolled it up like this, and threw it in the wastepaper basket. That should be in your file.” I said. “Your Chairman couldn’t write or explain a letter like that”, I said, “That should be in your file. If you’ve got it, fetch it back to me.” “I haven’t had it yet.” he said.

Q: Well, if you think the Labour Party hasn’t done much good here, do you think the Liberals would have done better if they had held on? The Liberals brought in a lot of changes in the budget before the First World War, with Lloyd George’s budget and his Old Age Pension

BBW: No, I don’t think they would have done as good as Labour have done!

Q: What was wrong with the Liberals thenwere they even less useful?

BBW: Heh heh! They was a self-winding lot!

Q: Even more than the Labour men, they were more selfish than the Labour Party?

BBW: Oh, yes, yes!

Q: So Labour was an improvement?

BBW: Yes. Oh yesthere was more life in them for one thing

Q: And the Conservatives?

BBW: Conservatives? They conserve everything for their self!

Q: The Conservatives have never had any sort of support here?

BBW: Very little here. It have always been Labour since the First War. Heh! Heh! Awful boy Fred Evans, mind!

Q: In what way?

BBW: Lively way, you know. Sort of homely bloke

Q. A friendly man?

BBW: Aye. He and his father were great friends!

Q: I should ask you about the life of the Irish here

BBW. Here? Half of Bargoed was Irish one time!

End of first tape.

End of Part 3

Part 4

Part 1

Part 2

The Green Dragon No 8, Spring 1999.

Links St. Patrick’s Day / Gorgysylltiadau Gŵyl Padrig 2004