Banwen, Then and Now

By Ted Harrison

A class of students from Appalachian State University traveled to Wales for a summer study abroad program in June of 2013.  The Wales study abroad program has been coordinated by the Center for Appalachian Studies at Appalachian State University since 2001.  This summer, students started a project to map historic sites in former mining communities in South Wales.   This is the second in a series of three blog posts written by the students about their experience.

The Banwen Colliery, also known as Onllwyn No. 3 or the Maesmarchog Colliery, was once the heart of this small town and can be considered responsible for the development of the community via the coal mining industry boom that occurred in the 19th and 20th centuries.  Mining in this area can be traced back as early as the mid-18th century, but the colliery that is known today opened in 1845. This area was very isolated before the Neath and Brecon Railway opened in 1863.  Until then the only means of conveying the coal and iron out of the valley from Onllwyn and Banwen was by a horse-drawn tram road westwards to the Swansea Canal near Ystradgynlais.  Tram roads and railways carried the coal and other products down to Neath and Swansea from where they were exported around the world.

Banwen, South Wales in May 2012.
Banwen, South Wales in May 2012.

By 1914, the Banwen Colliery took up five acres which included the Banwen cottages and colliery houses, two roads (one being the Roman road that is still a main street), all the necessary mining buildings such as the lamp room and blacksmith shop, and the Tavern-y-Banwen which legend has it that St. Patrick once lived.  The colliery eventually closed in 1962 and many of the miners switched to open cast mining that would continue for years to come.  In 1987 the colliery offices in the area were transformed into the community learning center known as the D.O.V.E. Workshop that still stands strong today.

The town that was created along with the demand for coal has also changed drastically since the days of the miners.  What was once dirt roads lined with a thriving coal community now stands paved streets lined with a community that is still trying to find its niche in the new Welsh world where coal mining is almost extinct.  No doubt the grass is now greener and lusher than in the mining days and the air more crisp and clear, but many people would gladly trade that up to gain back their sense of community worth and self-sufficiency that many feel was lost along with the mining.

DOVE Founder Mair Francis visits a reclaimed mine site near the center in Banwen.
DOVE Founder Mair Francis visits the reclaimed site of Onllwyn No. 3 in Banwen.

Coal is still in demand in Wales and around the world, but instead of mining it, the government is importing it from places like Poland.  This does not sit well with ex-miners that know how much coal is still available under these Welsh Valley’s, and communities that once thrived because of this industry are still reeling from the loss.