There's gold in them there hills

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Say "Gold Rush" and your mind probably turns to the stampedes for wealth that took place in California and Australia in the 1840s. But Wales also had its gold rush in the 19th century – even though, it has to be admitted, it was nowhere near the scale of the American or Australian affairs.

Gold had been mined in Wales since Roman times, possibly even before. Welsh princesses from before the conquest certainly wore jewellery, torcs and the like, made from gold and other precious metals. Whether this was Welsh gold is another matter.

There were close links between the Welsh rulers of the time and their Irish equivalents across the sea. As Ireland was renowned as a region that produced gold, it was quite possible that the metal was simply shipped across the Irish Sea as part of trade or military agreements between the two areas.

Nugget of welsh gold (photo: National Museum Wales)

The Romans came to the hills and valleys of north and west Wales shortly after their conquest of Britain in the first century AD. There is no proof but it may well be that they were attracted to these remote parts of their new kingdom by the rumours of precious metals to be found there. They were, after all, an acquisitive and demanding people.

The Romans opened gold mines at Dalaucothi near Pumsaint in about the year AD 74 and continued to mine for the metal until somewhere around AD 300. The enterprise consisted of both opencast and deep mining and as all mining was under military control they built a fort in the area. The remains of this now lie under the present day village of Pumsaint.

When the Romans left Britain in the fifth century the demand for Welsh gold – and the techniques to mine it - declined. It was not until the 19th century that renewed interest was sparked by the discoveries of vast gold fields in America and Australia.

Gold was found and developed in two distinct parts of Wales. Firstly there were the old Roman mines and workings around the valley of the Dulaucothi, legends and stories about the workings being well known in Wales. And, secondly, came new mines in the Dolgellau area.

This second band of gold stretched from Barmouth, through Dolgellau, up to the Snowdon mountain range. The largest mines in this region were Gwynfynydd and Clogau near Bontddu.

The quality of Welsh gold was excellent but there was not a huge amount to be found. Therefore it was always a parlous industry and many miners quickly decided that there was more money to be made in Australia or California.

The mine at Gwynfynydd opened in 1860 and the gold found there was used – and is still used – in the wedding rings of the English royal family. The Queen, Princess Diana and most of the other royal brides have, since the 19th century, all worn rings of Welsh gold. Queen Elizabeth was also presented with a gold ingot from Gwynfynydd on her 60th birthday.

The Gwynfynydd mine was opened and developed by William Pritchard Morgan who was, for two years between 1888 and 1890, MP for the iron town of Merthyr Tydfil. Interestingly, considering the later royal connections, he was later prosecuted for mining without obtaining a royal warrant.

Copper and lead had been produced for many years at the Clogau mine but engineers and prospectors felt that there were more valuable finds were to be made and that there were greater things in store. Consequently, gold production began in 1862 and searching for it quickly became a major operation.

Perhaps "gold rush" is the wrong description to give to the enterprise but the opening of the mines was sufficiently significant to attract miners from all over the country. The Clogau mines continued to operate until the autumn of 1911, producing over 165,000 tons of gold ore.

There were several other, smaller workings in the two gold mining areas of Wales but none of them were particularly significant or productive. What they did do, however, was to provide considerable local employment, particularly in the closing years of the 19th century, right up to the 1920s.

The gold mine at Gwynfynydd closed in January 1999 while the mines in the Dolaucothi area closed in 1938 and now operate mainly as a tourist attraction.

Welsh gold remains popular, with manufacturers using gold that was previously extracted from the rock. Much of what is purportedly Welsh gold, however, is not pure. It has been mixed with other golds and the true description should be "mainly Welsh gold."

Gold mining in Wales remains a fascinating element of the country's history, something a little different from the traditional coal and iron production that we know so well. For a brief period in the 19th century people really did believe that there was "gold in them thar hills!"

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