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Stepping through history: anniversary of coal miners’ library

World Coal,

The South Wales Miners’ Library has celebrated its 40th anniversary, inviting speakers and lecturers to give their thoughts on what represents a vast collection of books, pamphlets, colliery files, personal records, trade union banners and recorded oral memories from what was once a heartland of British coal mining.

40 years ago, Hywel Francis, MP for Aberavon and a visiting professor at Swansea, headed a research group that used a seed-corn grant of £23,000 from the old Social Science Research Council to save the literary treasures of the libraries built up by the miners’ lodges and institutes across the South Wales coalfield, which were at the time being sold off to book dealers at knock-down prices amid an assumption that the era of miners’ libraries was coming to an end. For example, they managed – just in time – to save all 4000 volumes from the Bargoed and District Workmen’s Institute Library near Caerphilly.

The collection of work is available online – with many research students using the digital database as a means to access the wealth of historical artefacts from the heyday of Welsh coal mining.

In an article for the Times Higher Education publication, Peter Hennessy – one of the inaugural speakers at the opening of what was originally called Swansea University’s Coalfield History project – stresses the importance of the library for those generations past, present, and future. “Today’s generation does not carry in its mind’s eye the stark image of the pitwheel against the sky, or bear the memories of the disasters and deaths that regularly occurred in the tunnels below. That makes it all the more important to preserve the memory of this extraordinary industry, which saw thousands of men – viewed as the aristocrats of the labour movement – braving those dangers every day to tear the cold, black, frozen energy from the earth so that others, as well as themselves, might live broader, richer lives,” Hennessy opines.

Returning to speak at the anniversary, Hywel Francis said that during the 1984 Miner’s strike, the resources available from the library educated miner’s wives: “There was a gender revolution that occurred in 1984/85, thanks to this collection.”

Swansea University vice chancellor, Richard Davies, said “We all in Wales have coal mining in our roots. We all draw some strength and nourishment from these roots.”

He described the library - a partnership between the university and the mining union - as a place where records have been preserved and scholarship got done. “I want to re-pledge the university’s commitment to building on that fantastic work,” Davies concluded.


Hennessy, P., The Times Higher Education A rich seam of history”, 5 June 2014.

Written by Sam Dodson

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