A ticket to wealth and prosperity

The arrival of the railway brought unprecedented wealth to Cwmaman.

The arrival of the railway brought unprecedented wealth to Cwmaman.

The railway arrived in Cwmaman on April 10, 1840.

The Llanelly Railway and Dock Company line linking Pontarddulais to Cwmaman via Ammanford opened the valley to the world for the first time, and the world was happy to take advantage.

The railway provided the small-scale mining operations with a direct link to the tin-works of Llanelli and the docks of Swansea and beyond, and its arrival signalled the coming boom in industry, people and wealth.

Passengers and goods arrived while coal – valuable Cwmaman anthracite – began to leave in quantities far in excess of what had gone before, and the economics of industry began to feed a ravenous hunger for the rich minerals locked beneath the valley.

The line was extended south-east to Gwaun cae Gurwen just 13 months later and by the summer of 1842, the station at Cwmaman – initially little more than a platform in what was to become the village of Garnant – became a key junction, thanks to the opening of a secondary branch line north-east to Brynaman.

The growth of the valley economy required bigger and better service, and a new, improved station was soon required. In a short time, the station at Garnant was expanded, and a second station was built just a mile or so to the west.

The Cross Keys station, named after the public house nearby, was soon renamed Glanaman, and at a stroke, a disparate agrarian valley community gave birth to two thriving industrial villages.

The introduction of the railway presented the opportunity for the modernisation and industrialisation of the Amman Valley at a rate previously unimaginable. What were once only minor pits providing work to just a handful of men were, within the space of a few years, transformed through the advances mining technologies.

Where previously coal had been dug from exposed seams, now shafts were sunk and full-sized collieries opened – Garnant Colliery at the eastern end of the valley had been in operation to some degree since the middle of the 1830s, but transportation links made it far more productive – and more profitable – and with every extra pound earned the colliery expanded.

By the mid 1840s, other mines were being sunk, and, in 1854, Raven Colliery – taking its named from the family emblem of the Dynevor family, who owned the land of Cwmaman – was opened.

Raven was a massive undertaking which would, at its peak, go on to employ almost 500 men.

Mining – even with modern techniques – remained a dangerous, back-breaking toil, but men began to swell the valley population with the promise of work and wages.

The first dedicated passenger service was opened on May 1, 1850, and by 1869 the Llanelly Railway and Dock Company was running a twice-daily service into Garnant.

The company was taken over by The Great Western Railway on January 1, 1873, but the 30 years since its opening had seen the population of the valley double from 500 or 600 to 1,100.

Those residents who found themselves concerned by the sudden transformation of a rural community into industrial heartland had however seen nothing yet.

While coal provided the foundation of both Garnant and Glanaman, tinplate would see population and purchasing-power rocket even further.

Processed iron created steel, but this metal of the future proved vulnerable to the elements, exposure to the air caused it to corrode and rust, and so it required coating – or plating – with something less susceptible to moisture and atmospheric conditions.

The problem of protecting steel gave birth to an industry of its own – tinplating.

By the middle of the 19th century, Llanelli was already well on its way to becoming the tinplate capital of the world and the availability of the raw materials required to produce tinplate meant that Cwmaman was equally well-suited to the industry.

The Amman Tinworks was built at Garnant on the southern banks of the River Amman in 1882 following the laying of a foundation stone by the vicar of Christchurch in May of that year. Operations at the works began in earnest in 1883.

Another new colliery – Gelliceidrim – was opened between Garnant and Glanaman in 1891. It would – in time – become the largest, most productive mine in the valley.

The expansion of the operations and the opening of the tinworks catapulted Cwmaman into a thriving hub of industry and each passing decade saw only further expansion – of industry and people.

By 1901, the combined population of Garnant and Glanaman had risen to more than 2,400 as word spread that work was available in the rural west. Men flocked from London, the Midlands, the north of England, Scotland and beyond in search of a wage.

By 1910, Garnant Station was receiving seven passenger trains a day from Monday to Saturday, and two more on Sundays, as the population doubled to 4,777.

In 1903, the station had issued 32,735 passenger tickets. In 1913 the figure has risen to 76,491 – almost 1,500 each week as the valley residents took advantage of the money in their pocket and the opportunities to spread their wings, on day trips to Carmarthen, Swansea, Llanelli and beyond.

Meanwhile, the train’s role of delivering mail to the swelling numbers of incomers rocketed from 4,257 parcels handled in 1903 to more than 9,000 a decade later.

And while the railway provided the oxygen in which Garnant thrived, it was coal that continued to be the fuel that fed the economy.

In 1903, 5,867 tonnes of coal passed through Garnant. Ten years later, the figure has risen to 13,470.

When Nicholls and Canning stepped onto Garnant station platform on February 15, 1921, the population of Cwmaman was at an all-time high of 5,302.

The five-mile valley as a whole – from Ammanford to Gwaun cae Gurwen – was home to almost 21,000 souls, and at its heart, the twin villages of Garnant and Glanaman were heaving, throbbing centres of industry and commerce which men like Morgan Jeffreys were able to exploit.

With thousands of working men boasting wages in their pockets, a host of opportunities sprang out of the soil to help relieve them of the weight of the burden in their pockets.

By 1920, there were at least 70 separate businesses registered in Garnant. Glanaman offered another 54.

From confectioners to cabinet-makers, shoe shops to sheet-music sellers, Garnant and Glanaman were alive with trade, services and the exchange of money.

Garnant was host to six greengrocers and four fruiterers; there were seven drapers, three tailors and four bootmakers.

The village was home to a hairdresser, six general stores, four ironmongers, a chemist and a dedicated china-ware shop.

There were two butchers, a miller, a saddler and a blacksmith.

There was also a Post Office, two stationary outlets and two newsagents.

The village had its own architects, lawyers and a doctor.

Garnant had branches of four of the major British banks, a Co-operative store and six public houses.

Within a 15-minute walk, Glanaman boasted an equally diverse and vibrant economy.

When the two Scotland Yard policemen arrived in west Wales, they stepped off the train into a bustling, heaving community as active and vibrant as any of the London boroughs they had left behind.

Men and women from across the nation worked, earned, lived, loved and fought in numbers beyond the imaginings of those who had been born in Cwmaman just a generation or two previously.

The Amman Valley would never see such life – or such wealth – again.

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The glow of the firebox

Coal had been mined in Cwmaman since at least 1757.

Coal had been mined in Cwmaman since at least 1757.

When Nicholls and Canning disembarked from the coal train in the darkness of that sharp Tuesday morning they were most likely unaware that they had arrived in a community little older than the senior officer.

Certainly when Nicholls’ father had bawled his first in the London parish of St Luke’s, the village of Garnant 200 miles to the west on the banks of the River Amman in the rich green foothills of the Black Mountain and the Brecon Beacons had not yet come into existence.

Garnant – possibly a mutation of cae-nant or caer-nant, meaning brook-field or brook-fort after the small stream that danced its way down the southern slopes to join the winding trout-filled Amman at its floor – was a shooting star of a community, bursting forth from speck into a blaze of light.

That speck around which the lives of thousands now revolved, glistened with a pitch-pure blackness; forged under the relentless pressure of geological millennia; a speck as perfect as the diamonds on the crown of King George. Garnant had burst forth from the earth on the back of a glittering, glistening mote.

Unbeknownst to the two London detectives however – and in fact to the residents of the coal-dust-coated valley – the village was already at its zenith.

Within just a few years of the two policeman returning east to the bosom of their families and the crimes, the paperwork and the promotions they would experience, Garnant would splutter and falter as its wealth and population began to ebb.

When the men from Scotland Yard stepped onto the railway platform on that cold February morning, Garnant – and the Amman Valley – was at the pinnacle of its hustling, bustling, existence, but the act which had brought them there would serve as a high-water mark for this village so deeply grounded in the earth.

The days, weeks and years which were to follow the murder of Thomas Thomas would witness – imperceptibly at first, but relentlessly, inevitably – the beginning of the slow decline of a community and the demise of the industry which nourished it.

By the time of the detectives’ departure, the River Amman ran thick and black with the detritus of a landscape’s exploitation and the trout were all long gone.

Garnant’s growth had been anything but slow. It exploded into life with all the combustive immediacy of the deadly gases which lurked among the workings underground.

The bounty of the South Wales coalfield had powered an empire on which the sun had never set. The reach of British influence had stretched from the Americas in the west to India and the Orient, and it had done so thanks to the energy stored within the fossilised carbon layers found beneath the ground, from the Amman and Gwendraeth valleys in the west to Ebbw Vale in the east. From Jamaica to Bombay, the empire had fuelled its growth with coal. The most productive, most powerful, most sought after and subsequently, most valuable of which, was anthracite, a hard, compact variety mined around the villages of Garnant, Glanaman, Betws and Llandybie.

Anthracite contains the highest carbon content of any coal – between 92 and 98 per cent, the highest calorific content and the fewest impurities. It produces the least tarry residue and gives off the fewest noxious vapours. It is denser, harder and more compact than any other coal. It has the highest lustre – a lump dug straight from the seam, glistens like polished black glass. So dense and compact is the anthracite of Cwmaman that a lump can be drawn down a freshly laundered white cotton shirt without leaving so much as a smudge. Amman Valley anthracite is valued in the top one per cent of the world’s coal deposits. It is the finest coal on earth.

By the middle years of Victoria’s reign, anthracite hewn with pick and shovel from within Cwmaman was the most valuable power source known to man. It heated homes, powered engines, and fuelled the British dominance of the globe. The Amman Valley grew fat and rich as the unceasing demand for the black gold beneath its rolling slopes expanded exponentially throughout the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

Though the anthracite itself was clean and hard, the job of extracting it from the ground was filthy, back-breaking work, but the promise it offered saw men flock from near and far to harvest the rich bounty of this land.

When Victoria had come to the throne in 1838, there had been no Garnant or Glanaman. There was simply Cwmaman – the Amman Valley. Between Ammanford in the west and Gwaun cae Gurwen to the east, the five-mile valley course had boasted fewer than 100 homes and considerably less than 1,000 residents, mainly farm workers and their families.

There was no road east or west and the only access came down from the mountain road which linked the droving town of Llandeilo to the north with Brynaman in the east. That road followed the summit of the hills that marked the northern limit of the valley, and from a point above what would one day become the twin villages of Garnant and Glanaman, a track descended down to the River Amman and offered residents their main means of transport, communication and escape.

There was also a small population of coal-miners, who toiled and sweated at those points where geology and geography had combined to see the rich harvest which lay beneath the ground burst forth at isolated spots along the valley sides, exposing a glimpse of the rich black seams which had remained untouched for 300 million years.

In the early days of industry, men had dug what they could from the climbing slopes on either side of the valley, loaded their haul into buckets to heat their homes or onto the backs of ponies to walk their treasure along the muddy banks of the fish-filled river to Ammanford – still then just a village known only by the name of its pub, Cross Inn – or east to the head of the Swansea Valley and on to the small towns which ran south down towards the sea. Mining, in one primitive form or another, had taken place in the valley since the Middle Ages and the first record of a mine appears in 1757, but for the first 50, 60, 80 years, the energy and effort expended in the harvest were of greater value than the resource produced.

The population of the valley remained steadily in the high hundreds throughout the early 1800s as each generation succeeded the last. Numbers rose to slightly more than 1,000 for the first time by the middle of the century, but then the universe that was Cwmaman exploded into life as if the God Almighty, worshipped every Sunday at Hen Bethel, had intoned the incantation, Let There be Light.

And there was light – the light of steel and steam; the light of modernity. The light that sparked the birth of Garnant and Glanaman was found in the orange glow of the steam train’s firebox.