'Lifeline' helping those living in shadow of pit closures

Penallta Colliery Image copyright National Museum Wales
Image caption Workers at Penallta Colliery (that closed in 1991), which was one of the last in south Wales to shut

It is about 30 years since many of south Wales' collieries closed but for some older people, their demise has left a void that has never been filled.

About 600 people attend 23 social and support groups run by the Coal Industry Social Welfare Organisation (CISWO).

But with 24,601 people receiving miners' pensions in Wales, CISWO hopes more could benefit from joining.

At a group in Pontlottyn, Caerphilly county, the organisation's Phil Williams described it as a "lifeline".

"A lot of people don't come out of their house and don't see people from week to week," he said.

"The groups are a lifeline both socially and mentally."

Mr Williams, now 57, was the third generation of his family to work underground, spending 18 years at Bargoed and Taff Merthyr collieries as an electrician.

"I was frightened [when pits began closing]. I had been there since school and knew nothing else," he said.

"This was a mining village. We need to preserve it. We don't want to live in the past but a lot of sacrifices were made and these valleys were built on coal mines.

"We would be sitting in a field now if it wasn't for the collieries."

CISWO, set up to help former coal industry workers and their families, also offers advice on things like benefits, accessing hardship grants, disability issues and mining-related disease.

But for many, the biggest opportunity it provides is bringing people together, as Mr Williams added: "Many just like the chance to sit down and reminisce.

"What people forget is it wasn't just the pits closing.

"There were shops, the newsagents where miners picked up their papers and snuff every morning.

"The pit was just the hub, the biggest employer. Places like Pontypridd, Blaina, Tredegar have turned into ghost towns - a lot of the community spirit has gone.

"Organisations like Communities First have tried to revive it but there is so much apathy in many areas."

Image copyright National Museum Wales
Image caption Pits around Caerphilly county dominated the lives of Linda Evans, Henry Hodges and Gaynor Denner

Henry Hodges, now 86, left his home in Witney, Oxfordshire, on his 17th birthday and travelled to Aberbargoed, working in Ogilvie and Pengam collieries.

"I remember writing home and describing this huge place, with shops everywhere, on both sides of the road," he said.

"But now there's just a few shops, there's not much left."

Mr Hodges worked as a collier's helper and, despite the dangers enjoyed it as he was working with horses which helped to bring the coal up.

"I can remember thinking that there were two holes, one to go down, one to go up. What if something happened to them and you got trapped?" he said.

"But I didn't find it scary. I saw a lot come from towns and cities, stand at the top of the hole and say 'I'm not going down there'. But I stuck it for 12 years."

Mr Hodges is one of just four men in a group of 31 at Pontlottyn, with the mostly female contingent widows of miners.

"A few of the groups are women only and when men come, they can become intimidated," said Mr Williams.

"I can remember going to a group at the top end of Bridgend and a father and son came in and said 'we are looking for the miners group'. They were hoping to talk about old times with other old pit workers."

Image copyright National Museum Wales
Image caption CISWO runs 23 social groups in former mining communities like Pontlottyn, but wants to increase that number to more than 30

While wives and widows may not have worked underground, their memories of the hardships and tragedies are still very strong.

Gaynor Denner's grandfather, John Jones, fell in love with India when serving there and planned to take his family to live there permanently - but died in the Senghenydd mining disaster in 1913.

"My grandmother was one of the youngest widows - with four children, the youngest born nine months after the explosion," she said.

"She also lost a son on the railway line. They were playing, but a little girl fell and was scared. He went to help and was knocked over."

Mrs Denner also remembered washing her dad's back "black with coal" from Ogilvie Colliery and when her husband Donald started there.

Lost times

"The pit head baths were open then, so he never had to wash at home. But there were accidents - broken arms, legs," she said.

"On the week we were supposed to be getting married, he had the bottom of his spine knocked out and spent months in Caerphilly Miners' Hospital.

"He was bending down and something fell off the roof on to him, knocking him to the edge. If he had been a bit further over, he would have been hit off and had it."

While she was glad when the mines closed, with the air cleaner, she said "nothing was put in their place", with her grandchildren now struggling to find work in the area.

Employment is not the only thing that has gone - Linda Evans, 67, remembers people taking food and coal to poorer families and giving bread and jam to youngsters playing outside.

"You don't see children on the streets playing any more. There were always little girls pushing dolls in prams," she said.

"Pontlottyn was packed with kids at night but now they're not allowed out. There were dances but nothing now, the cinema's gone."

While the pits are now long-closed, they continue to cast a long shadow over many communities in the south Wales valleys.

Image caption Phil Williams and Gaynor Denner prepare for a game of bingo at the CISWO group in Pontlottyn

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