capital and labour

Yaki da from Wales,
Is there for honest poverty? . . . Gie fools their silks, and knaves their wine; A Man’s a Man for a’ that; For a’ that, and a’ that, Their tinsel show, an’ a’ that; The honest man, tho’ e’er sae poor, Is king o’ men for a’ that.

In the south of Wales the coal mines are almost all closed. The pit at Blaenavon has been converted into a national museum, known as The Big Pit. The ex-miners who escort visitors through the underground pit are proud of their former vocation and just a little wistful about its demise.

The Big Pit, Wales
children working the pit

    For a long time, children as young as six years worked in the mine. Today, former miner, Russell explained that some six-year old children had the job of opening and closing the big ventilation doors. They were seated on one side of the door in total darkness, tied by the wrist to the door handle so they could feel their way to it when necessary. They worked shifts of 12 hours per day for payments barely sufficient to feed themselves, let alone their hungry families.

After the 1842 parliamentary inquiry into working conditions in the mines, women and children no longer worked in such conditions. (Children had to be at least ten years old after that.)

horses down the mine

Horses were also sent down the mines to pull the coal tubs along the rails. Once they were down, they never came up. Russell informed us that horses were still being used in British mines as recently as 1984. (This was the part of the tour which upset Linda the most.)

preparing to go down the mine

       The miners and their families lived in cramped houses built cheek by jowl on the hillside not far from the adit. They worked six days a week and during the winter, didn’t see the light of day until Sundays. They were also paid a pittance for their toil, yet were very proud of their work. (A Man’s a Man for a’ that)

Cardiff Castle

      By chance, we visited the Cardiff Castle the very next day. This is the main landmark in the city of 350 000. It isn’t in fact a medieval castle. The castle has a very high wall (completely intact), a motte and bailey design inside with large keep on a man-made mound (intact) and extensive grounds. The buildings include a banquet room, smoking room, bedrooms and bathrooms the like of which I’ve never seen before (and never want to see again).

The obscene opulence was the home of the third Marquess of Bute, who made his immense fortune by owning the mineral rights and ports of South Wales. The contrast in the lives of the coal miners and the coal owner was stark.

busiest coal-exporting port

     The third Marquess of Bute was six months old when he inherited the family fortune. He didn’t have to do much except decide how to spend the money as it continued to roll in unchecked over his long lifetime. Mines in South Wales fuelled the industrial revolution so business was brisk. Cardiff was the busiest coal-exporting port in the world and was also the venue for the first ever million pound cheque ever written.

     The Marquess of Bute – whose antecedents were from Scotland – built his extensions in the 1800s. They represent decadence on an obscene scale. Having seen the working and living conditions of the men who won the coal, it’s easy to use the word ‘obscene’. The juxtaposition of the share of the wealth going to labour vis-à-vis capital can excite some fury as well as wonder.

     Today, much of South Wales is economically depressed. The people remember Margaret Thatcher with vivid clarity.  “There are no conservatives around here,” said Bethan from Merthyr Tydfil. The mines were nationalised in 1947 and the Fifth Marquess of Bute relinquished the castle soon afterwards. It’s now in public hands. The share of wealth was being shared a whole lot more equitably after the war, but the closure of the mines in the 1980s posed completely new conundrums. The people are still proud.

A prince can mak a belted knight, A marquis, duke, an’ that; But an honest man’s abon his might, Gude faith, he maunna fa’ that.

Robbie Burns


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