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Industrial Wales - Monmouthshire's Western Valley
Risca Blackvein Colliery and Waun-fawr
very old coal, clay and lead workings and Archdeacon Coxe's incline of 1797
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The industrial archaeology and history of Risca Blackvein Colliery and Waun-fawr

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Blackvein in the 1930s

Blackvein and Waun-fawr seen from Coed Mamgu above the canal. Blackvein Colliery is in the centre with the scattered households of Waun-fawr village up the mountain to the right. In the front foreground is the site of the current Coleg Gwent, previously the bus garage. Blackvein Road curves up from the left behind Risca House. The postcard appears to have been from the 1930s.

Blackvein panorama

Risca Blackvein Colliery

The Rough History

There are records of small-scale coal-mining in Waun Fawr going back to the 1670s. A timeline of serious mining is :-

1796 Edward Jones, 4 shafts inc whimsey, 3 levels
1836 Owned by John Russell
1846 Explosion, 35 fatalities
1847 Risca Coal and Iron Co, in liquidation 1862 (Russell)
1849 Red and Big Vein shaft made 16' x 10' and extended to 170 yds to Black Vein
1853 Explosion, 10 fatalities
1858 70 yds Upcast closed, 16x10 made upcast with Struves air pumps
1860 Explosion, 146 fatalities
1861 Fans removed, Furnace ventilation back, 16x10 now downcast, nearby circular smoke shaft
1863 Purchased by Thomas William Rhodes
1872 London and South Wales Colliery Co (Watts, Ward and Co)
1878 North Risca Colliery sinking begins
1880 North Risca Colliery explosion
1892 United National Collieries Ltd
1921 Coal winding ceased but kept for pumping ventilaton 1947 National Coal Board 1968 Closed and shafts filled

Waun Fawr Colliery was opened in circa 1796 as a whimsey shaft near the later brickworks, when Edward Jones built the double incline tramroad across the valley from the canal, seen by Archdeacon Coxe in 1799. Later, in 1841, with the expansion of Black Vein Colliery, it became known as the Old Ventilator shaft.

In 1840 David Mushett reported the following coal seams in use at Blackvein :- Risca Black Vein Colliery opened in around 1841 when Waun Fawr was acquired by John Russell. The 'Monmouthshire Merlin' for 27th Nov 1847 reports 'At a meeting of the Monmouthshire Canal Co, Ironmasters & Coal owners, plus other freighters. Mr John Russell stated that he had just opened a new colliery and would now cost him £10,000 or £12,000 to bring the coal to the port.'. The colliery was also known as 'Risca Vale Colliery' in its early years.

It was a notorious pit, known as the death pit, due to the serious gas problems and frequent fatal accidents. The most serious occurred in 1860, under the Risca Colliery Co, resulting in 146 deaths, commemorated by the memorial on the opposite side of the valley. In all, around 200 lives were lost in the early 1800s. The explosion was a major factor in the bankrupting of the company and in 1872 it became the London and South Wales Coal Co. They decided to sink new shafts further north, the New Pits or North Risca Blackvein Colliery, and in 1878 Black Vein became the ventilation shaft for the new colliery. The Black Vein Colliery complex closed as a working colliery in 1921, being kept for ventlaton and access, the shafts were filled in 1968 and the whole area has been landscaped beside the Risca bypass.

Read Sam and Dave's memories of the area from the 1950s to the 1980s here :- memories and history

Early Period, c1900

Original headgear, tall chimney and curved roof to the screens.

Later Period

Later headgear, short chimney and double pitched roof to the screens.

Risca Blackvein Colliery in 1983

The Risca by-pass was built in the 1980s and the majority of the early workings were destroyed. Luckily a few photos were taken at that time.

Risca Blackvein Colliery today - ST 2242 9120

There is virtually nothing to see now of Risca Blackvein Colliery, quite different to what it used to look like. In 1836 John Russell and Co bought Waun-fawr Colliery with a site covering 1000 acres and in 1841 John Russell had a new shaft of 559 ft sunk at Coed Waun-fawr (Blackvein). The capped shafts are behind a strong steel fence to the South of Blackvein Road shortly after the underpass.

Workings to the East of Blackvein Colliery

The 'orange' level - ST 2287 9102

In contrast to their destruction elsewhere Natural Resources Wales tree clearance has had some useful side-effects by clearing the undergrowth round these levels and tips at the bottom level. The prominent 'orange' level appears to have been the main one, running down to the larger Eastern tip with a shaft or collapse just above it. It's amazing that NRW were so careful here, why couldn't they be like this everywhere else?

The smaller Western tip - ST 2284 9120
The larger Eastern tip - ST 2293 9110

It's not clear where the smaller tip came from but it could be a leftover of the landscaped main colliery tips. The larger tip appears to be the tip from the 'orange' level.

Buck Farm level - ST 2312 9088

The Eastern-most level of the Blackvein area runs up from the tip directly behind Buck Farm.





Waun-fawr Brickworks

Waun-fawr Brickworks - ST 2305 9105

Originally Russells Brickworks as part of the colliery complex, it became part of the Star Brick Co empire by the 1930s. I've not come across a 'Star Risca' brick at all though 'National Star' bricks exist with the letters 'RC' for Risca.





Glenside Collieries

Glenside level - ST 2222 9100

This small level and tip appears to be connected by a tramroad to the main tramroad as it descends from the Waun-fawr Level. I must stress I've called it Glenside level purely from its geographical location above the house called 'Glenside'. I don't know whether it had an official name.

Glenside Level Magazine - ST 2222 9108

This small stone-built and windowless building has all the characteristics of a magazine, tucked away under the protection of the spoil tip.

Incline from ST 2244 9106

The incline ran down from the Glenside Level tramway to or through the Blackvein Colliery site. It might well be the Southern incline of Archdeacon Coxe. Like all the Glenside and Waun-fawr tramways it doesn't show up on the first OS map so could be part of Edward Jones original venture.

Well, Spring or drainage level - ST 226910

To the East of the incline is a water source of some sort here with a cast-iron pipe running along the path to the East. It's difficult to tell whether it was originally natural or man-made.





Tramroad to the Waun-fawr Levels

The tramroad wound its way up the gradient from the top of the incline from Blackvein Colliery, through a junction with the tramroad to Glenside Level, around a hairpin bend past other small levels on the way to Waun-fawr Level. Natural Resources Wales have found it absolutely vital to bulldoze the top end from the hairpin to the level and cover it with hardcore.

From the junction up to Waun-fawr Level

From Waun-fawr Level down to the junction

Stone sleepers

Despite Natural Resources Wales best efforts a few stone tramroad sleepers started re-emerging in 2016. Before they destroyed so much, a number of stone sleepers survived and two of them were good enough to measure 3'6" between the spike holes. Unfortunately now NRW have bulldozed the tramroad the surviving sleepers are under a layer of hardcore.





Waun-fawr Levels

The Hairpin Bend - ST 2230 9095

The tramroad did an almost 180° turn as it zig-zagged up to Waun-fawr Level. Just above the hairpin on the left of the lane is a small level with its tips across the lane on the right. further up the lane the forest road leads off to the left. On the left are some tips with two possible sites of levels on the right. Above the forest road is another small tip.

Waun-fawr Level - ST 2267 9083

Waun-fawr Level is at the end of the tramroad at the top of the Blackvein complex and again I must stress I've called it Waun-fawr level purely from its geographical location, this time on the same contour as Waun-fawr Cottage. I don't know whether it had an official name. This may well be the oldest level at Blackvein and even possibly part of Edward Jones venture from 1797

The interior of the Waun-fawr level

These photos have kindly been provided by others who have explored it over the years.

The winding wheel - ST 2265 9078

This winding wheel was a few yards to the Northeast of the level. It appeared to be too modern to be connected to the level so it's purpose is unknown. It may have been installed by the Forestry Commission when the woodland was planted or it may have been part of the colliery in some way. Having been there for years it disappeared when Natural Resources Wales started butchering the site. The stub axle can still be found in the undergrowth.





Waun-fawr Lead Mine

Waun-fawr Lead Mine

Above Waun-fawr Level, buried in the trees and brambles, is a small level and tip. It appears to have been a lead seam or possibly iron, almost a natural cave, and goes back about 15 metres before narrowing down. There is a similar level at the top of Coed-y-Darren on the other side of the valley.





Archdeacon Coxe, just where was his incline?

What the Archdeacon saw.....

Archdeacon Coxe passed through Risca on one of his tours in 1797 and he described the scene in his book 'A Historical Tour of Monmouthshire', published in 1801 :-

"On my way to Risca, I crossed a bridge over a rail road, lately formed by Mr. Edward Jones, who rents under Mr. Morgan of Ruperra some mines of lead, calamine, and coal, in Machen Hill, on the opposite side of the Ebbw. The expedition and security with which the cars are conveyed up and down the steep side of the precipice, appear singular to a spectator on the bridge. Two parallel rail roads are carried from the canal to the opposite side of the Ebbw, along which two cars are drawn up and let down at the same time, by means of an engine; they appear to pass each other alternately, like buckets in a well; a boy descends with the empty car, nearly midway, and after adjusting the machinery is again drawn up with the loaded car, which empties the coals into the boats of the canal."

The trouble is, no-one knows where the Archdeacon, his incline or Mr Jones' coal mines really were. Maps from 1813 and c1820, some years after the visit, and various letters and leases relating to Mr Jones exist and things on the ground have changed just a little since then.....

One mystery on the 1813 map is the naming of a 'Risca Colliery' next to the end of either route, there are no other maps showing a colliery here, nor any clear evidence on the ground. The c1820 map does show Darran Colliery so perhaps the 1813 map just has a mis-naming of that colliery. Both maps show the Sirhowy Tramroad which would have taken the coal traffic anyway.



Archdeacon Coxe's incline - The likely route - ST 2315 9165

The likely route of the incline matches up geographically with what is now a steep footpath down from the canal, across the main road and over the river on a now-demolished bridge by the present-day fire station to the older Blackvein workings. This is a straight line from the workings to the canal and matches up well with Coxe's account. It is shown on the 1813 map with branches to the colieries and is the generally accepted route by most historians. Gordon Rattenbury's article in the RCHS journal is the primary published account.

Archdeacon Coxe's incline - A possible route - ST 2302 9168 to ST 2255 9133

The lie of the land suggests that a possible route could have been a more gentle incline from the canal down to the railway, past Medart Street, across Medart Place and along Blackvein Road over the river to the coal workings. Neither the railway nor Medart Street existed then but Medart Place was already the main road up the valley. However, it is hard to reconcile Coxes' account with this route which is not shown on the 1813 map. Bryan Morgan has done a lot of research into this area, particularly regarding the ownership of the adjoining land.





Risca Blackvein Coalworks - Memories of times gone by

Sam Munn lived here in the 1950s and says "I was born in Risca in Garn cottage (by the side of Risca cemetery) 1950 and moved to Buck Farm Danygraig in 1956 (mistakenly identified as Rock Farm in Dave's narrative about the lead mine). I remember many of the old redundant workings, they were haven for us to play in. One lad broke his leg in the Blackvein Drift mine winding gear and my mother and uncle took the front door off our house to use as a stretcher to get him to the farm where he was put into the back of our van and mam took him to hospital (no Air Ambulance back then).

Also my Dad used drive the tractor to pull the Danygraig Brickwork trucks out from the yard to to railway sidings for collection. I spent many a Saturday morning in the weighbridge house and I knew Mrs Campbell next door (called Campbell's corner)

There was no mention of the mystery embankment ring sited at the top of our farm. This was some kind of settlement that had a perfect view to see Newport and and danger coming from down the valley. Many observers came to see it but my father levelled the site in early 60's. As for your question, the (horizontal not vertical) winding wheel headgear was definitely for the Drift mine as we were able to walk into it for about 50 metres. Also the forward area was a slag heap and had remnants of a small railway dram lines. All around the Blackvein and even up on the top part of our farm the area was littered with Bell Pits i.e. small excavations about 3 metres deep. Once they had extracted the coal they just moved over and dug another one. I remember my Father organising stone picking gangs (mainly my friends) to pick up stones from the fields and fill in the pits which he later covered with soil.

Below the farm was a quarry (not working in my memory) and in the quarry floor was a brick works called the Star Brick & Tile. I think it closed in about 1967.

I forgot to mention also that my Grandfather who moved out of Buck Farm when we moved in went to live in the Darren cottages at the canal bridge and i remember much of that area too. "

Dave Bryant adds "A chap I knew who drove one of the big Euclid dump trucks, getting the old Blackvein site ready for the by-pass, said when they were blasting just up past the brick works, they discovered some tunnel workings and tools. These got destroyed, so the project didn't get held up. If that was true, I know not. I remember when the earth scrapers were in the Blackvein, they broke into one of the old coal workings, I remember peering down inside the hole, didn't have a camera though."




Acknowledgments, sources and further reading.

Thanks to Jim Coomer for showing me many things I'd missed and providing some fascinating historical photos.
John Venn, Bryan Morgan, Malcolm Johnson and other members of Oxford House Industrial History Society who have contributed their records, thoughts and ideas.
Gordon Rattenbury - 'Jones Tramroad, Risca' - RCHS journal, Nov 1985
'Archive' magazine No 73
John Etor - private article - April 2004
David Mushett - Papers on Iron and Steel - 1840
Bryan Morgan - 'The Location of Edward Jones' 1799 Tramroad - A personal assessment based on contemporary correspondence' - OHIHS, available on the 'publications' page of the website
Ray Lawrence - 'The Coal Mines of Risca'





All rights reserved - Phil Jenkins