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.

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