POLITICAL AND COMMERCIAL AFFAIRS

The Romance of Welsh Coal

CHAMBERS’S JOURNAL October 1 1906
POLITICAL AND COMMERCIAL AFFAIRS

The Romance of Welsh Coal

CHAMBERS’S JOURNAL October 1 1906

The Romance of Welsh Coal

CHAMBERS’S JOURNAL

All the important navies of the world have huge quantities of Welsh coal stored away for use in case of emergency, for it has been demonstrated over and over again that a fleet using Welsh coal would have a big advantage over another fleet using another kind of fuel, because of its smokeless qualities. The output of Welsh coal increases year by year, and has now reached enormous proportions.

THE most remarkable thing about Welsh coal is that its value should not have been discovered until comparatively a recent day. The frugal Welsh farmers of a century or so ago never dreamt that beneath the mountains on which they reared a hardy race of sheep there lay wealth surpassing Aladdin’s. Nor did they imagine that the 1 black stuff’ in the ravines would make a better fire than peat. The wise old monks, however, had discovered as early as the thirteenth century that with this black stuff they could make a glowing fire, but the knowledge they possessed did not become a common possession for centuries afterwards. Wales was then, even more so than when George Borrow wrote of it, a wild country, with lonely wildernesses in which men were seldom seen. The monks lived a self-contained existence in secluded spots, and for long the secret of the coal was known only to them. Even as recently as a century ago peat fires were common in Wales; for, speaking generally, the inhabitants did not at that time suspect the existence of the rich store of precious coal that lay beneath their mountains; while to the average Englishman of that day Wales was an unknown country, ‘a mountainous wilderness peopled with a strange folk who spoke a foreign language. ’ ’

And so the Welshman remained in undisturbed possession of his coal until was passed what is known as the London Smoke Act. Then it was that there arose a cry for smokeless coal.

That cry for some time went up in vain ; but at length it was whispered on the London Exchange that somewhere down in Wales there was a coal that gave off practically no smoke. From this point the development of the Welsh coal-trade reads like a romance. London merchants talked of an expedition to Wales to discover the smokeless coal much as we to-day might talk of an expedition to some unknown part of Africa or Greenland. It was not a matter of a simple railway journey of

a couple of hundred miles.

It meant the fitting up of

a ship and a voyage to a practically unknown land, with a grave doubt as to how the explorers would be received by the “barbaric” inhabitants.

Among those who talked of this expedition was, however, at least one resolute man who had set his heart on the undertaking, and who was not deterred by the thought of possible dangers. This was Mr. Lockett, manager for a firm of coal-sellers. But Lockett was not himself rich enough to fit out a ship, and he met with much ridicule and many rebuffs from the merchants to whom he appealed for financial assistance. Lockett Avas mot, however, the man to be easily turned from an object upon which he had set his heart, and ultimately he secured the co-operation of a merchant named Duke, a farseeing, enterprising man, comparing in this respect with the smartest men in the city to-day, who subsequently became Lord Mayor. Lockett and

Duke, after due deliberation, sailed in a sloop from London to Cardiff, not then, as it is to-day, one of the largest exporting ports in the world, but a tiny village with a few oldworld creeks suggestive of smugglers and pirates. There is no record of the duration of the voyage or of any adventures that may have been associated with it.

The next we hear of. the two adventurers narrates their arrival at a little inn in Cardiff. In the room into which they were shown a fire was burning brightly, and this at once attracted their attention. Lockett immediately became enthusiastic, and going to the coal bucket, placon the fire more coal. As he observed the resultant bright glow his eyes sparkled, and he exclaimed to his companion, “We need go no farther.77 He was, however, a little out of the reckoning. “Where do you get this coal from?77 he asked the landlady. “From Merthyr, sir,77 was the reply The landlady explained that Merthyr was more than 20 miles away, and that the only way to get there was to walk or drive. “But how is the coal brought down to you?77 demanded Lockett. “Oh,77 was the reply, “it comes down on the backs of mules.77

Next day the Londoners were in Merthyr. Merthyr then was a collection of a few houses encircling a pit. To-day it is the centre of a teeming population, and recently was granted a charter of incorporation. The explorers were highly amused at the picture which presented itself to them at Merthyr Pit. Outside a tiny hut near the mouth of the .pit sat a trim little Welsh widow. Fastened onto her head was a small wicker basket, into which she placed the money as she received it from the purchasers of her coal. This was Mrs Lucy

Thomas, the owner of the pit and the “mother of the Welsh coal trade.77 With difficulty the Londoners kept their countenances, for the quaint spectacle of the little widow with a wicker basket fixed to her head, and her pit in the background, was highly comical. With becoming commercial gravity, however, they entered into negotiations with Mrs. Thomas for the purchase of all the coal she could raise. The widow was a little suspicious of her visitors, and gave them to understand that not a single piece of coal should they have that had not first been paid for on the spot. That was her way of doing business she explained. The Londoners were at length able to surmount this difficulty, and to place down enough solid gold to purchase a sloop-load of coal. This coal had to be shipped at Cardiff, to which place it was taken on the backs of mules. In this year (1830) there sailed from Cardiff the first cargo of Welsh coal. The price of the coal, bought at four shillings a ton at the pithead, was in London eighteen shillings a ton. The cost of conveyance from Merthyr to Cardiff and thence by water to London was a large item; nevertheless, when these charges had been met, Lockett and his companion were handsomely rewarded for their enterprise. Thus ended the first notable episode in the development of the Welsh coal industry.

Far more important, however, as subsequent events proved, was the arrival in South Wales of a young north-country engineer named John Nixon. Nixon, as he worked in the neighborhood of Newcastle-on-Tyne, heard a rumor that down in South Wales a valuable coal had been discovered, and that there were likely to be in that neighborhood very great developments. Adventurous and en-

terprising, the young north country man set off for South Wales, bent upon making his fortune. He had no capital, but he had engineering skill and knowledge, and, above all, boundless energy and perseverance. As it happened he needed all these qualities, particularly that last named, for it was only after many struggles, disappointments, and privations, and the passing of many years, that the fortune he sought came to him.

Soon after his arrival in South Wales he stood one day near the engine at Pennydarren Pit, and watched the stoker throw coal on the fire. The bright glow and the intensity of the heat amazed him. “Look,” he cried enthusiastically to a companion, “what great heat, and no smoke from it, either! We have no coal like that in the north of England.” This incident powerfully influenced the young man’s future career. Work he had obtained with ease, but his advancement was not commensurate with his ambition. So disappointed did he become with his rate of progress that he finally forsook South Wales and tried his luck in France. But there also he met disappointment; and one day, as he thought moodily over his progress and prospects, that picture of the glowing fire at Pennydarren Pit flashed suddenly upon him, and simultaneously there came to him an idea. “I will open a market for Welsh coal in France,” he said.

(NAon wTas pre-eminently a man of action, and for him to resolve was to do. Soon he was back in South Wales endeavoring to secure the cooperation of the colliery-owners there in the launching of his scheme. He addressed himself first to Mrs. Lucy Thomas, but she was quite satisfied with her output of one hunr dred and fifty tons a day, then re-

garded as a phenomenal amount, for which she had a ready sale at remunerative prices, and she would have none of Nixon’s project. Nor did he meet with better encouragement from the other pit-owners to whom he unfolded his plans. Disgusted and disheartened, he at length turned his back on Wales, resolved never again to set foot in it.

But that picture of the glowing fire at Pennydarren Pit haunted him, •and the idea of opening in Franjee a market for Welsh coal had taken such complete possession of him that he could not banish it from his thoughts. Hearing eventually that a Mr. Powell had opened a pit in Aberdare Valley, and was anxious to secure a market for his wares, Mr. Nixon visited him, and spoke so enthusiastically and eloquently on opening a market in France that Mr. Powell consented, though somewThat reluctantly, to join in the undertaking. The agreement they came to was that Mr. Powell was to supply the coal at the price Nixon was able to obtain for it from French customers, and that Nixon was to be paid sixpence on every ton exported to Havre, and ninepence to every ton sent to the west of France.

Newcastle coal was at that time used exclusively on the lower reaches of the Loire, and was considered to be of excellent quality. Welch coal which was now commanding in England a higher price than any other, was still unknown to the French.

Nixon began with great ardour to canvass for orders for Welsh coal; but the reception he met with was very disheartening, and such as would have deterred from further efforts a less determined map. French people refused point blank to have anything to do with the new coal. Nixon, however, amid the disappointments,

preserved a genial exterior and gradually made friends. Among these was a gentleman in the Government service, who, after being much importuned by the irrespressible Nixon laughingly consented to allow the north countryman an opportunity of 11 demonstrating the superiority of Welsh coal.” The experiment took place in a Government factory, and was watched with amused interest by a select party. Perspiring, and stripped to the waist, Nixon himself acted as stoker, for to obtain the best results from Welsh coal it is necessary that it should be stoked by some one who understands its peculiarities. The result of the trial was a complete triumph for Nixon. He forthwith obtained an order for Welsh coal, and by-and-by it altogether superseded Newcastle coal in the Government factories.

Nixon was not, however, the man to rest on his oars. On the contrary, this victory spurred him on to capture other fields. By his persistence he eventually induced the French naval authorities to give a trial to Welsh coal. Again Nixon assumed the role of stoker, showing the French naval firemen how Welsh coal should fie stoked. The result was another victory for the Englishman. Not only was Welsh coal found to be more economical, but it was observed that by reason of the almost entire absence of smoke, warships were able,

without being seen, to get into closer touch with an enemy than was formerly possible. From that time forth the French naval authorities would have no coal other than that from Wales, and our own and the other leading navies of the world have since followed suit. A naval battle means increased work and wages for the Welsh collier. In the past, during such a war, Welsh engineers have slept on their engines, and stokers worked day and night for big wages.

Since Mr. Nixon opened a market for Welsh coal in France, the export to foreign countries of this valuable coal, a prime necessity, as Mr. Balfour once stated, to our navy, has increased in a phenomenal manner. How serious is this ever-increasing output of a coal admittedly of vital importance to our most powerful arm either of defence or offence will be realized from the following figures, which show strikingly hoAV great the increase has been: in 1854, 8,500,000 tons; in 1864, 10,970,000 tens;' in 1874, 16,490,532 tons; in 1884, 25,553,166 tons; in 1894, 33,418,344 tons; in 1904, 43,730,415 tons. The output, it will be seen, is five times greater than half a century ago. The figures of 1905 show a slight falling off as compared with 1904, which was an exceptional year owing to the special requirements of the navies of Japan and Russia.

Every time. you crowd into the memory what you do not expect it to retain, you weaken its powers, and'you lose your authority to command its services.