Big Pit

20 09 2012

Looking down on Big Pit and the surrounding area.

(Disclaimer: Our tour guide gave some extremely interesting, but rather brutally intense details about the mines that I relate in paragraphs below. The more gruesome paragraphs are headed with a *. Consider yourself warned.)

The Big Pit

About an hour north of Cardiff, the capital city of Wales, lies a small town of about 6,000 people called Blaenavon (Blye-nahv-on). Its rolling hills and lonely landscape houses one of the last working mines of the 19th and 20thcenturies: The Big Pit. At its height of employment in 1913, this iron ore and later coal mine had once provided jobs for over 1,300 men. The mine began in 1789, ran until its closure in the 1980s, and is now a national museum open to the public.

Looking up at Big Pit.

How Big?

The mention of the name “Big Pit” might bring to mind an extraordinarily deep shaft, closer to the core of the earth than the open air. However, its classification as “big” came not from the depth (it is only 90 meters, or 300ft, deep), but from the diameter of the drums used to transport the coal up and down. The elliptical shaft measured 5.5 meters (18 ft) and could carry two drums rather than just one, significantly increasing the efficiency compared to other mines in Wales.


Big Pit may have employed many families over the years, but mining was not a top-of-the line profession when it came to working conditions. Before electricity, one of the only ways to get light underground was the use of an open flame, which was extremely dangerous when methane gas (pronounce MEE-thain in Wales) was potentially present in the air. Mining explosions were not uncommon. The worst mining accident in Wales occurred in 1966, when a slag heap was dislodged and overran a school, killing 116 children and 144 people total.

Davy Lamps made in Wales.

In 1815, the Davy lamp was invented by Sir Humphry Davy, which was dual-chamber safety lamp that reduced the possibility of explosions. In addition, it could warn a worker of methane gas (the flame would turn blue) or carbon dioxide (the flame would be extinguished).


*Mine workers spent many hours underground every day, making minimal wages, suffering extreme exhaustion, and commonly living in severe poverty. Many men were sent to their graves early from the dust and fumes combined with the lack of proper sunlight. Sadly enough, boys as young as six frequently worked in the mines to help feed their families.

A young boy working in the mines.

Image Source


*These boys were led by candlelight to their post each day and remained there alone for up to twelve hours in complete darkness. Their only job—using a rope to determine their way—was to open and close the doors for the men and horses who were carrying the drums of coal (The doors existed to regulate the airflow in the mines). Occasionally, the horses would get spooked in the dark and trample the boy guarding the door. Nine times out of ten, the father of the child also worked in the mines, and because the mine owner did not want to lose two workers for the day, the father would usually be the last person to know about his son’s death. In 1842, Lord Engels passed the Mines Act, which prohibited boys under the age of 10 to work in the mines. Because there was only one inspector in all of Wales, this law was not enforced for another twenty years.

Despite the harsh conditions and dangers of the mines, the workers typically enjoyed a certain amount of prestige that came with the trade; indeed, mining was a job only for strong, skilled workers. This was especially true before machines were brought underground to do more of the physical labor. Richard Burton, whose father was a miner from Wales, went as far as to say that everyone wanted to be a miner because they were thought of as the “kings of the underworld” with their “gorgeous displays of black shining coal.” One might argue that the miners paid dearly for this prominence, as it nearly always shortened their life span and presented them with countless health problems.


Before engines were used to draw out the coal, horses were kept underground to cart the drums back and forth. Fifty weeks out of the year, the horses lived underground in terrible conditions with only a two-week reprieve above ground. When brought to the surface, the horses were blindfolded so that the sunlight would not blind them; it would gradually be released when above ground.

   As a mine gets deeper, it becomes increasingly dangerous for the workers. This is not due to collapsing tunnels or hitting underground water springs, but because of air quality. Big Pit mined for coal and splitting it open produced carbon dioxide, carbon monoxide, and methane gas, which was highly flammable.
   Fresh air needs a way to get in, and unsafe air needs an escape route out. Think about trying to breathe underwater using a straw. Before electric fans were used to pump oxygen, fires were lit above ground to draw out the bad air.


*The horses’ food attracted rats, and the rats would live in the water troughs, bringing diseases to the horses. In addition, the underground proved to be a damp place to live, and unable to get dry, the horses feet would rot and the rats would bite into their legs. Although a horse usually lived 9-15 years underground, when they died, the miner that worked with the horse would be forced to cut off the horses’ legs and put the parts in drums. Then it was carried away to be “buried” in an older part of the mine.

National Museum

When Big Pit closed, many miners lost their jobs and their livihood. For many, life in the mines was the only trade that they had, and unemployment was already a major issue in Britain at this time. By the 1980s, only 250 workers remained at Big Pit. It was closed in the 1980s to be a National Museum with tours open to the public.