(From SWWIAS Newsletter no.69, July 1997)
© Paul Reynolds 1997
BIRCHGROVE COLLIERIES: AN OUTLINE HISTORY - Paul Reynolds
Birchgrove Colliery worked a fairly small taking to the north of Llansamlet and to the west of the Main Colliery. It produced a steam coal, similar in character to the better known Graigola coal which adjoined it to the north. Early attempts at working the coal do not seem to have met with any great success and it was not until the Swansea Vale Railway was opened as far as Glais in about 1846 that large-scale development became economically feasible.
An attempt to lease the coal had been made in 1812, when " ... an extensive tract of coal, situate at Birchgrove ..." and extending over 500 acres, was advertised [Camb 28 Feb 12]. There is nothing to show that anything transpired as a result of this, although a level under Drumma Isaf had been opened by 1831 when another attempt was made to lease the coal [Camb 16 Apr 31, 9 Jun 32]. The coal lay at some distance from the Swansea Canal, and the market for which its product was suited, before the growth of steam navigation, was limited. There was not yet any incentive for anyone to develop this coal.
To view the map, which will take some time to download, click on the thumbnail
The story of the Birchgrove colliery really starts in about 1845. According to Herbert Gregory [South Wales Evening Post 3 Mar 1967], a pit was sunk in that year to a depth of 96ft by Joseph Martin of Glyncollen, Morriston. Gregory does not cite any source, but in general outline this seems to be plausible. Martin was clearly a bit of a speculator. He is known to have bought up land and mineral rights in areas which he reckoned would soon be ripe for development and to have sold them on a few years later. In 1838 he bought coal to the north-west of Swansea, an area which was on the point of being developed to maintain supplies to the copper smelting industry, and later sold it to the Swansea Coal Company (of which he was himself a director!). Much the same sort of thing seems to have happened at Birchgrove. Several attempts had been made from 1830 onwards to build a railway up the Swansea Valley, so it required no great business acumen or foresight on the part of Martin to realise that the coal in this area would soon become an attractive proposition. With this in mind, Martin acquired the mineral rights under the farms of Birchgrove, Drumma, and Glyn-y-gors. This may have been in 1840. He was certainly possessed of them by 1844 when he granted wayleaves across the estate to the Swansea Vale Railway for their extension to Glais. Martin had already joined Starling Benson and C.H. Smith in 1843 to promote the Swansea Vale Railway. Each man had his own reasons for wanting the scheme to materialise.
In 1846 it was expected that the Swansea Vale Railway would soon open to Glais. The time had come for Martin to look for a purchaser of his mineral rights. An advertisement for two seams of coal under an estate of about 200 acres, within five miles of the port of Swansea and contiguous to Graigola, appeared in The Cambrian [Camb 29 May 1846]. While the property is not stated to be Birchgrove, it is clearly so from the description. The advertisement stated that " ... the workings may be opened in an efficient manner at a small outlay ... " This implies that the coal was still unworked, which is not consistent with Gregory's statement that Martin sunk a pit in 1845, but Martin may well have opened a shallow pit at about the same time as he advertised the coal in order to encourage potential investors. According to another piece by Gregory [SWEP 27 Aug 1964], the original Birchgrove Pit possessed a steam winding engine with the date 1847 on its valve chest, and this may be the true date of sinking and commissioning of the pit.
Davey & Pegg/Wm Pegg & Co., 1848-1874
By 1848 Martin had found a purchaser in the form of Peter Davey & William Pegg, from London, who were in possession of Birchgrove, certainly by September 1848 and almost certainly before then. The earliest reference that I have found to them by name is in an advertisement in The Cambrian [22 Sep 1848] for the sale of coal under Tyrmynydd: "This property lies most advantageously between the collieries of the Neath Abbey, the Graigola Company, Messrs. Price and Parsons, and those of Messrs. Davey and Pegg and Mr C.H. Smith". For the first few years Davey and Pegg ran the property from a distance: the 1851 Census returns have Edward Plumley, colliery agent, living at Drumma Isaf, and he must have been the manager of Birchgrove colliery. In 1852 William Pegg took up residence locally and managed the colliery himself.
Davey & Pegg were a long established firm of London coal merchants. The earliest reference I have been able to find to them is in a London directory of 1798, where Davey, Sawyer & Co are listed as coal merchants, Old Barge House, Upper Ground Street, Blackfriars. This Davey must have been the father, or possibly even the grandfather of the owner of Birchgrove colliery. The firm continues to appear in the Post Office London Directory up to 1827. In 1828 the title of the firm changed to Davey, Pigg, & Son. 'Pigg' is obviously a compiler's error and must really refer to our William Pegg, and the 'Son' is presumably our Peter Davey. There is no entry for the firm in 1829 or 1830, but from 1831 onwards Davey, Pegg & Son, still of Old Barge House, appear every year as coal and coke merchants. William Pegg appears to have had a further business on his own account as a wholesale stationer and rag merchant (not such an unusual combination really, when one thinks about the basic raw material of paper at this time) which he carried on from Old Barge House wharf and from Shoe Lane, off Fleet Street. The last entry I have been able to find to the company is in the 1849 Directory. Unfortunately I have not been able to locate subsequent issues.
The business was obviously a successful one. By the time he died in 1879 Peter Davey had moved out of London to Horton, Bucks. His son, Horace Davey (1833-1907) was a barrister, Liberal MP, Lord Justice of Appeal, and Life Peer (Baron Davey of Fernhurst, created 1894). Peter Davey married Caroline Pace, daughter of W. Pace of Rampesham, Dorset. Horace Davey married Louisa Hawes, daughter of John Donkin, civil engineer, London. His son was Lt. Col. the Hon. Horace Scott Davey (1865-1935). Is there any significance in the name 'Scott' - could it indicate a connection between the Davey family and John Scott of Scott's Pit?
William Pegg was born in London in 1801 or thereabouts and was still there in 1831 when his son, William Duncan Pegg, was born. His first wife must have died when William Duncan was still very young and he re-married. His second wife, a good deal younger than he was, was born on the island of St Helena in about 1820, which is a curiosity, although of no relevance whatsoever for present purposes. Perhaps her father was one of the garrison guarding the exiled Napoleon. By 1839, when his first daughter was born, he too had moved out of London and was living in Egham, Surrey, which suggests upward mobility and growing prosperity.
There is no indication as to how Davey and Pegg came to be interested in the property, but in the 1840s south Wales coal was starting to enter the London market. Also, the smokeless properties of the steam coals and semi-anthracite of the region made this type of coal particularly attractive for bunkering steamships at a time when there was a marked increase in their number. This is born out in the advertisement of May 1846 referred to above: "The consumption of this description of coal has greatly increased of late, its application to steam navigation having become extensively established. Large quantities of this description of coal are now exported to foreign parts from the ports of Swansea and Neath ... " [Camb 29 May 1846]. Graigola coal had already established a reputation for its suitability for steam ships, and Birchgrove lay adjacent to it. It was therefore an attractive proposition to a potential coal-owner.
The first pit on the estate was Birchgrove Pit, later sometimes known as Birchgrove Old Pit, or simply Old Pit. This was the pit sunk by Joseph Martin. It was located to the north-east of Heol Las and well to the north of the later village of Birchgrove (SS 703 988). It probably started to yield commercially in May 1848, judging by an announcement in The Cambrian [29 May 1848]: "BIRCH GROVE COLLIERY. The Inhabitants of Swansea may be supplied with good Manufactory and Household COAL, delivered daily by the Company's carts ..." Although it is not stated, the "company" must surely have been Davey & Pegg, since we know that they were in possession only a few months later in September 1848.
The reference to delivery by cart is interesting. It implies either that the Swansea Vale Railway was not yet open north of Scott's Pit, or that it was open, but that Birchgrove Pit had not yet been connected. This state of affairs did not last long, for by August 1849 coal was definitely being sent out by rail: "Everyone interested in the prosperity of our port will be glad to learn that this colliery, belonging to Messrs. Davey & Pegg, is now in operation, and that a considerable quantity of coal has already been transmitted along the Swansea Valley line to the Company's shipping wharf at Foxhole ..." [Camb 3.8.49]. Birchgrove Pit lay to the east of the Swansea Vale line and at a higher level. It was connected to the railway by an incline, nearly half a mile long, which was definitely in use by February 1850, when a fatality on it was recorded [Camb 15 Feb 50].
In addition to the original 200 acres which Davey & Pegg took from Martin in about 1848, they extended their taking with a lease of the minerals under the rest of the Glanbrane estate, giving a total of 783 acres held under two leases of 3 April 1852 (45 years, 630 acres) and 29 September 1856 (21 years, 153 acres) [Camb 20.9.72, 16.7.75]. Pegg also purchased the Glanbrane estate itself in 1852 and took up residence on his property. Captain William Jones, an elderly half pay captain continued to live at Glanbrane House, so initially Pegg lived at Birchgrove House. He was still there in 1859, but by 1861 he had built Drumma House and had moved there with his family. He was obviously intent on adopting the life style of a landed gentleman, for as well as his mining interests, he became an enthusiastic agricultural improver: " ... under the enlightened and praiseworthy treatment of Mr. William Pegge ... a considerable quantity of land has been drained and cleared of brushwood and alders within the past twelve years. The greater part of the side of the Drumma Mountain which was a wilderness a dozen summers since, is now in a bright state of cultivation" [Camb 30 Jan 63]. William Pegg died in 1869 and he was succeeded as manager of the Birchgrove collieries by his son, William Duncan Pegg.
Both William Pegg and his son belonged to the paternalistic mould of coal-owner. It was said in 1872 that " ... such has been the amicable relationship which has exited between the masters and men in these extensive works, that never since their opening has there been anything approaching an open rupture or strike, and in the recent struggle in other parts no difficulties existed at Birchgrove ... the kind interest they have ever manifested in the welfare of those in their employ will cause them to be ever respected and esteemed. Mrs. Pegg has, by her many private acts of kindness and benevolence, endeared herself to the wives and families of the workpeople ... " [Camb 26 Jun 1874]. Possibly it is significant that the 1871 Census returns show that William and Julia Pegg, then aged 41 and 34 respectively, had no children.
By the mid-19th century it was becoming increasingly common for industrial proprietors to live well away from the works which supplied their income and to have little immediate contact with the workers in their undertakings. However, those industrialists who still resided locally frequently showed an active concern for the well-being of their work-force and the Peggs clearly belonged to this category. An obvious local parallel are the Grenfells, owners of the Upper Bank and Middle Bank copperworks, who also lived close to their works at Maesteg House, St Thomas and who were particularly known for a deep commitment to their workers' well-being. Charles Henry Smith, on the other hand, who lived at Derwen Fawr, on the other side of Swansea from his Llansamlet colliery, never seems to have taken a regular interest in the day-to-day life of his workforce.
Throughout the history the Birchgrove collieries the main pit was the original pit of c1847 (sometimes known as Birchgrove Old Pit). It reached a depth of 60 fathoms (360ft) to work the Graigola Seam. By 1862 a second pit, Sisters Pit, had been sunk to work the northern part of the lease. It lay to the south of Glais, directly alongside the Swansea Vale Railway (SS 702 999). The first definite mention of it is in the report of an accident in August 1863 [Camb 7 Aug 63]. However, a reference early in 1863 to "... the new pit beside the Swansea Vale line ..." [Camb 30 Jan 63] must be to Sisters Pit and suggests that it was probably opened in 1862. Sisters Pit was 75 fathoms (450ft) deep by 1872, also to the Graigola seam.
Coal was also worked through a level, known as the Drymma Level, which was located to the west of the main road from Birchgrove to Glais, opposite the entrance to Drumau Isaf farm (SS 703 996). This may have been the level which was already open in 1831. The 1876 Ordnance Survey map shows the level (but without naming it). It also shows an abandoned incline running down the hillside in the direction of the Swansea Vale Railway. This section of the railway was opened in December 1852, so the incline was presumably built and abandoned within the period 1852-1876. Later maps show the incline in exactly the same state as in 1876, so it cannot be that the incline was in the course of construction in 1876. Probably the intention was to develop the level as a means of working the coal in the northern part of the estate, but for some reason this proved impracticable. Sisters Pit was opened instead for this purpose. Drymma Level continued to be worked, but on a small scale. The 1914 Ordnance Survey map shows it still in existence, apparently with a tramway leading down to Sisters Pit. It is never named in the List of Mines or other documents, so it was probably seen as part of Sisters Pit. It has been said that it was wound up in 1919, but references to it, still apparently active, can be found in the 1920s. A Glyn-y-gorse Level is shown on a map of 1848, but nothing further is known about it and there is no trace of it on the 1876 Ordnance Survey or later maps.
Accidents recorded in Mineral Statistics or the Inspector's Reports: ??.?.54, 29.3.56, 19.2.60, 20.4.60, 5.2.61, 28.7.63, 7.11.66. Owners given as Wm. Pegg & Co.
In 1866 an attempt was made to sell or lease the undertaking [Camb 16 Nov 66]. The advertisement referred to "two walled shafts", i.e. Birchgrove and Sisters. This is the first indication that William Pegg was in financial difficulties. In 1872 things were no better and a further attempt was made to sell the entire estate, minerals and surface [Camb 20 Sep 72]. This proved unsuccessful [Camb 21 Feb 73], but in 1873 a private sale to George Bower (of St Neots) and a few friends was arranged [Camb 10 Apr 74]. Bower and his friends took possession in April 1874. W.D. Pegg and his family left Birchgrove and moved to London after a lavish farewell celebration at Drumma House [Camb 26 Jun 74]. The estate was offered for sale in 1875 [Camb 16 Jul 1875]. By the end of the century Drumma House had been converted to flats to house workmen.
Birchgrove Graigola Collieries Ltd, 1874-1877
The Birchgrove Graigola Colliery Co (known equally by a variety of other names, all including 'Graigola', 'Birchgrove' 'Coal' or 'Collieries' in varying permutations) was the property of a partnership consisting of George Bower, of St Neots, Huntingdonshire, S.E. Illingworth and others. Illingworth was the local manager. Evan Daniel, the mining engineer, became Vice-Chairman of the company and continued as the consulting engineer, a position which he was said to have occupied " ... since the starting of the collieries, now 34 years since" [Camb 26 Jun 1874]. This would put Daniel's involvement with the colliery back to 1840, which is the reason for suggesting above that Martin may have acquired the rights in that year. Bower also had an interest in the Bishwell Colliery near Gowerton, which he had acquired in April 1872 [Camb 26 Apr 72].
Bower's company does not seem to have been very successful and after a few years it was in Chancery. The main development to take place during their ownership was the establishment of a patent fuel works at Sisters Pit in 1875. It was claimed to have the capability of producing 200 tons of fuel in 20lb blocks every 12 hours [Camb 27 Apr 1877].
The 1870s were a period of recession in the coal industry, and small operators like Bower were unable to survive. In 1877 the Birchgrove Graigola Steam Coal Collieries and the patent fuel works were offered for sale [Camb 13 Apr 77] and the company was wound up [Camb 18 May 77]. Bishwell Colliery was sold at the same time
Birchgrove Coal Co. 1877-1883
Following the collapse of Bower's company, the position of the Birchgrove collieries is rather confused for a number of years. The Annual Reports of the Inspector of Mines for 1878 to 1880 give the owners of Birchgrove Pit as the Birchgrove Coal Co. In 1881 this becomes Ch. Hopkinson & Sons and in 1882 and 1883 the owners are "Owners of Birchgrove Colliery", implying that the Inspector himself was not altogether clear as to the actual owners of the property. Sisters Pit is not in the lists after 1879 until it re-appears in 1886. Whether or not the pits were producing during this period is simply not known.
Birchgrove Colliery Co., 1883-1901
In the 1884 Mineral Statistics the Birchgrove Colliery Co appears for the first time. The controlling partner was A.D. Nicholl. The company remained in possession until 1901. In 1888 they employed a total of 266 at Birchgrove Old Pit, Sisters Pit and the newly opened Brothers Pit (see below). In the late 1890s the number of workers at Birchgrove Pit alone varied from 97 to 140 (underground) and 24 to 38 (surface). It continued to work the Graigola Seam at a depth of 360ft.
During this period a new pit, known as Brothers Pit, was opened. It was to the west of Birchgrove Pit, towards the foot of the incline that ran down to the Swansea Vale Railway (SS 698 989). It first appears in the List of Mines in 1887. The numbers employed ranged between 65 and 141 (underground) and 13 and 37 (surface). However, despite these fairly high figures, the pit does not appear to have been successful and is not given in the List of Mines after 1900. Probably it was found to be more economical to work the coal through Birchgrove Pit, for the abandonment plans for Brothers Pit were not deposited until 1932, the year that Birchgrove Pit itself was abandoned
Sisters Pit continued to be worked until 1891 when work in the Graigola Seam was abandoned. The 1893 List of Mines lists it as a pumping shaft only. In about 1899 Sisters Pit was sold to the owners of the adjacent taking, the Lewis Graigola Colliery Co who set about re-opening it. Pumping out was completed by the beginning of 1901 [Iron & Coal Trades Review 18 Jan 1901], and by 1902 the pit was said to be partially working [ICTR 21 Feb, 7 Mar 1902]. It then appears to have worked until 1904, but there is no evidence that it raised any coal after that. However, it may have been retained as a pumping and access shaft, and as a potential coal shaft, for the Midland Railway Distance Diagrams (sheet 59a) of 1911 show it as apparently still active and abandonment plans were only deposited in 1911.
This was definitely the end of the productive life of Sisters Pit, although it seems to have been used as a pumping shaft until the final closure of the Birchgrove collieries in 1932. It is claimed that the last Cornish pumping engine in south Wales was in service here until 1932 when, sadly, it was broken upon site for scrap. According to Herbert Gregory, " ... in its day it was the largest piece of colliery machinery in the Swansea area and people came to see it out of curiosity, for it had an enormous 40-ton beam, poised 28ft above the ground level, which worked a ram pump at the bottom of the pit shaft" [SWEP 27 Aug 1964].
Birchgrove Collieries Ltd, 1901-1920
In 1901 the Birchgrove colliery undertaking was offered for sale. Two attempts to sell were made, in March and again in May, but on neither occasion were there any bids, so the Birchgrove Colliery Co announced that the collieries would be dismantled and the equipment sold [ICTR 22 Feb, 17 May, 7 Jun 1901]. However, at the last minute a new company, Birchgrove Collieries Ltd, was formed on 25 July with a capital of £10,000 [ICTR 16 Aug 1901]. A.D. Nicholl, the principal proprietor of the earlier company was also involved in this company, so it would appear that he had managed to find new financial backers. Birchgrove Old Pit resumed work after a month's standstill in September 1901, although at the time this was seen only as a temporary step until new pits could be developed higher up the valley. This never appears to have taken place, and the company continued to work its taking, reduced in extent by the sale of the northern part around Sisters Pit, through the original pit at Birchgrove.
The number of employees held up well: in 1905 there were 105 underground and 30 on the surface. These figures were up to 138 and 38 (1911); 128 and 49 (1914); 160 and 79 (1918).
Birchgrove Collieries Ltd, 1920-1932
A new company, but with the same name as the old one, was formed in 1920 [ICTR 2 Jul 1920]. It continued to work the taking, employing, if the Collieries Year Book is to be believed, 194 men underground and 117 on the surface throughout the 1920s. Other sources give an even higher figure of 350 employees in 1925. In addition to Birchgrove there is evidence that Drymma Level was worked during the 1920s. It is quite likely that this level had been worked on and off throughout the history of the Birchgrove Collieries: the 1914 6in Ordnance Survey map appears to show a tramway from the level down to Sisters Pit.
This company ceased to operate in 1932 and the same year abandonment plans were deposited. This marked the final end of mining in Birchgrove.
Even after more than 60 years some relics of the Birchgrove collieries can still be seen. The site of the original pit at Birchgrove is now totally unrecognisable and has recently been developed for housing (Haulfryn). However, the upper section of the incline down to the Swansea Vale line is still a very obvious feature, consisting of a waterlogged cutting leading onto an overgrown embankment. The lower part of the incline has been completely ploughed out and now appears to be undisturbed farmland. The same goes for the site of Brothers Pit which was located beside this part of the incline. Some of the pithead buildings at Sisters Pit remain in use as a farm, although the Alsatians which guard them discouraged detailed investigation. The site of Drymma Level can be seen on the western side of the road from Birchgrove to Glais, now occupied by a rather bedraggled collection of agricultural buildings. The incline down to the Swansea Vale Railway appears to be still in situ, although very overgrown.
The Cambrian, Iron & Coal Trades Review as indicated
D.M. Bayliffe & J.N. Harding, Starling Benson of Swansea (Cowbridge: Brown, 1996), pp. 180-211
G. Gabb, Coal Mining in the Swansea Area: 2. East of the Tawe (Swansea History Project, c1990. pp.44-47)
Herbert Gregory, Miscellaneous articles published in the South Wales Evening Post between 1962 and 1968 and collected in a volume entitled 'Swansea Cuttings' in Swansea Central Reference Library (S942.982)
Personal communication, Mr Bob Randig