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Geography of South Wales

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The South Wales coalfield is the largest continuous coalfield in Great Britain. It has an area of approximately 1000 square miles covering much of the old counties of Glamorgan, Monmouth and Carmarthenshire with a small incursion into South Pembrokeshire. At its broadest north-south extent, the coalfield is eighteen miles in width and the area is criss-crossed with numerous deep valleys running North- South and East-West where coal has been primarily mined and communities established. These narrow valleys are separated by upland moors and hills that, both in the past and present, make direct communication between them very difficult.

The coalfield is bowl-shaped which dictated that mining began at the rim of the bowl, or edges of the coal field, where coal is nearest to the surface. In the centre of the coalfield, or the bottom of the bowl, the coal is much deeper and more difficult to mine. An additional problem is that in an area of mountains and valleys, the coal seams are fractured and uneven, making mining both expensive and labour intensive.

South Wales coal is of three varieties. Anthracite, the deepest in the ground, is of the highest carbon content and is used for central heating, thus making it the last to be exploited from around 1880 onwards. Bituminous is nearest to the surface and is particularly appropriate for the smelting of metals. Steam coal is found in the heart of the coal field and was invaluable for use in the boilers of railway engines and shipping. As demand for these various types of coal arose at different periods, the respective regions of the coalfield developed separately.



Bowen, E.G. Wales, A study in Geography and History. (Cardiff, 1952)

Cynon Valley History Society. Cynon Coal. History of a  Mining Valley. (Gomer Press, 2001.)

Jones, Philip N. Colliery Settlement in the South Wales Coalfield 1850 to 1926. (University of Hull publications, 1969).

Morris, J.H. and Williams, L.J. The South Wales Coal Industry. 1841-1875. (Cardiff, 1958)

Rider, S.W. South Wales: a physical and economic geography. (London, 1926)

All items listed in the further reading are available for consultation in either the South Wales Miners’ Library or the Library and Information Centre, University of Wales Swansea. Click here to link to the library catalogue. 


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