Big Pit National Coal Museum

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Big Pit National Coal Museum
Welsh: Pwll Mawr Amgueddfa Lofaol Cymru


Big Pit, Blaenavon.jpg
Type: Industry museum
Grid reference: SO23850877
Location: 51°46’21"N, 3°6’18"W
Village: Blaenavon
Industry museum
Website: Museum Wales: /bigpit/

Big Pit National Coal Museum is an industrial heritage museum in Blaenavon, Monmouthshire. A working coal mine from 1880 to 1980, it was opened to the public in 1983 under the auspices of the National Museum of Wales.

The site is dedicated to operational preservation of the Welsh heritage of coal mining, which took place during the Industrial Revolution.

The site is located adjacent to the preserved Pontypool and Blaenavon Railway, and forms part of the Blaenavon Industrial Landscape, a World Heritage Site, and an Anchor Point of the 'European Route of Industrial Heritage'.

History of the working pit

Big Pit was originally an iron mine, driven into the side of the mountain not far from the surface due to the shallow iron deposits, the level is called Engine Pit Level and can still be seen on the bridge connecting Blaenavon and Garn Road at 51°46’21"N, 3°6’18"W. The Iron Workings are above the Big Pit coal workings, for some time Engine Pit Level was used as an emergency exit for Big Pit whilst it was working, now the River Arch Level is the escape route. Engine Pit Level was driven around 1810; dug by hand as this was half a century before the invention of dynamite. There are now no known records of the iron mine. There are a few pictures online showing the interior of the Engine Level from the 1960s when miners from Big Pit explored the level, finding an old flange-less wheeled dram inside, now at a museum. There was also a known Iron Workings shaft, Engine Pit Shaft which existed.

The Big Pit is part of a network of coal workings established in Blaenavon in the first half of the nineteenth century by the Blanaevon Iron and Coal Company as part of the development of the Blaenavon Ironworks,[1] which means it has some of the oldest large scale industrial coal mining developments in the South Wales Coalfield.[1] The mine was the most important of all the collieries located in Blaenavon.[2]

The nearby Coity pit is shown in reports in the 1850s,[1] consisting of two shafts 9 feet in diameter which were difficult to pump out.[1] Historians disagree about when the Big Pit was first in consistent operation, but it may have been a development of a former pit called Kearsley's Pit mentioned in the company records from the 1860s, which lay at the other end of a geological fault from the Coity pits.[1][2]

A mines inspector report of 1881 is the first to describe a mine called the Big Pit[1] due to its elliptical shape with dimensions of 18 feet by 13 feet, the first shaft in Wales large enough to allow two tramways.[3] On completion it became the coal-winding shaft, while the older Coity shaft was used for upcast air ventilation.[4]

In 1878, the main shaft was deepened to reach the Old Coal seam at 293 feet. By 1908, Big Pit provided employment for 1,122 people, and by 1923 at peak, there were 1,399 men employed, producing: House Coal, Steam Coal, Ironstone and Fireclay; from the Horn, No. 2 Yard, Old Coal and Elled seams. The peak of production was more than 250,000 tons of coal per year.[5] During the height of production, coal from Big Pit was shipped as far as South America, and also to other points worldwide.[2][3] Until 1908, when a conveyor became part of the mine equipment, everything at Big Pit was done by man power-including cutting the coal.[3] The mine was one of the first to install electricity and by 1910, fans, hauling systems and pumps were electric powered.[3]

In 1939, pithead baths were installed at the mine; it meant miners no longer needed to walk home dirty and wet, risking illness. The baths were also beneficial to miners' families; women no longer needed to carry hot jugs of water to fill tin baths and children were no longer accidentally scalded during this process.[2]

During the Second World War, surface extraction of coal began at Blaenavon in November 1941 using equipment and skilled men from the Canadian Army.[6]

On nationalisation in 1947, the National Coal Board took over the mine from the Blaenavon Co. Ltd,[7] which employed 789 men.

By 1970 the workforce numbered only 494, as operations had focused solely on the Garw seam, with a maximum thickness of only 30 inches. The NCB agreed the development of a drift mine, which by 1973 meant that windings at Big Pit had ceased, with coal extracted close to the refurbished Black Lion coal washery.[8] The Coity shaft was abandoned, with the Big Pit shaft used for upcast air ventilation and emergency extraction.[8]

The pit finally closed on 2 February 1980 with a loss of more than 250 jobs; it was one of the last working coal mines in Blaenavon, leaving only Blaentillery No.2 Drift Mine, closing in 2010 and the Johnson Mine, closing in 2013.[2][9]


Big Pit Halt railway station with the museum in the background

In 1866, the Brynmawr and Blaenavon Railway opened, with access sidings to the mine workings. The line was immediately leased to the London and North Western Railway, allowing coal to be transported directly to the Midlands via the Merthyr, Tredegar and Abergavenny Railway.[10] By 1880, the line had extended south to meet the Great Western Railway at Abersychan & Talywain. Here the line carried on down the valley through Pontypool Crane Street Railway Station to the coast at Newport, and hence to overseas markets via Newport Docks. In 1922 the LNWR was grouped into the London, Midland and Scottish Railway.[11] From the Second World War onwards, the line saw a variety of GWR locomotives operating from pit to port, with the line losing its passenger operations from 1941. After other pits in the area had closed, the line connection north was closed as a result of the Beeching cuts from 1964 onwards. The NCB paid for the line to be re-extended to Waunavon in the early 1970s, where the drift mine developments accessed the refurbished former Black Lion coal washery.

Big Pit Halt which is on the heritage Pontypool and Blaenavon Railway line, adjacent to the museum, officially opened on 6 April 2012,[12] however the line to Big Pit actually opened on Friday 16 September 2011.[13] The line and station opened specifically for tourists visiting the museum.[13]


Between 1857 and 1880, more than 60 deaths were recorded by mine inspectors in the Blaenavon coal and ironworks, although these may not have been in the Big Pit itself.[1]

From 1880, there are regular reports of accidents at the Big Pit, often resulting in loss of life. In 1891 a boy called Thomas Oliver Jones was crushed to death in a roof fall.[14] In 1894[15] and 1896[16] two further miners lost their lives in fatal accidents.

On 11 December 1908 three men were killed in an explosion.[17] A coroner's court found that the explosion had been caused by a naked light held by one of the miners.[18] On 7 April 1913, another three men lost their lives in a localised fire[19] that included a fireman, the face manager, and the under manager.[20]

The National Coal Museum

Preserved Barclay locomotive Nora No.5 at Big Pit

For some years before closure, the mine had been identified as being a possible heritage attraction and a working group was set up made up of the National Coal Board, local government, the National Museum, the Welsh Development Agency and the Welsh Office.[9] Soon after the pit closed, the local council bought the site for £1 and it was given to a charitable trust called the Big Pit (Blaenavon) Trust to manage the conversion to a heritage museum. The initial development cost £1.5 million with funding from the Welsh Tourist Board, the European Regional Development Fund, the borough council and Gwent County Council.[9] The mine reopened for visitors in 1983 and created 71 jobs.[9]

A number of buildings were subsequently given protected status at the site. The Powder House,[21] Saw mill[22] Office[23] Electrical Workshop,[24] Pit Head Building, Headframe and Tram Circuit,[25] and Miners' Bathhouse[26] were each given Grade II Listed Building status on 2 September 1995.

The Powder House building was used to store explosives needed for mine work during the time Big Pit was an active mine.[21]

Big Pit

The museum features a range of above ground attractions including a winding house, saw mill, pithead, baths. Visitors are also taken below ground to the pit bottom where they tour the mine workings.[27] In 2000, the Blaenavon industrial area, including Big Pit National Coal Museum, was named a World Heritage Site by UNESCO. This was in recognition of the town's importance to the Industrial Revolution.[28] Museum staff walked out in disputes over pay in 2014,[29] 2015[30] and 2016.[31]

The Blaenavon Cheddar Company, a local cheese company, ages its Pwll Mawr (Big Pit) cheddar at the base of the Big Pit mine shaft.[3][32][33]


The mine is covered by HM Inspectorate of Mines regulations, because it is still classed as a working pit.[3] Visitors wear a plastic hard hat, safety lamp, and a battery on a waist belt which weighs 5 kg. Visitors must also carry on their belt a rebreather, which in case of emergency will filter foul air for approximately one hour, giving a chance for survival and escape.[34]

Before taking the 50 minute underground tour 300 feet below ground, contraband must be surrendered, such as anything containing a dry cell battery from watches to mobile phones.[3] The dangers of the mine are real, the safety posters on the stages of Carbon Monoxide poisoning serve as museum pieces and as real reminders of the dangers underground. Automatic gas monitoring systems are discreetly positioned around the tunnels, as are emergency telephone systems. Some safety beams were monitored around the area.[34]

Big Pit winding tower

Outside links

("Wikimedia Commons" has material
about Big Pit National Coal Museum)


  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 1.3 1.4 1.5 1.6 Evans, JAH (2000). "Big Pit Blanaevon - a new chronology?". Gwent Local History 88: 54. 
  2. 2.0 2.1 2.2 2.3 2.4 "Big Pit:A Brief History". Visit Retrieved 13 April 2016. 
  3. 3.0 3.1 3.2 3.3 3.4 3.5 3.6 McCrum, Kirstie (7 September 2013). "Going Underground; Big Pit: National Coal Museum Is Celebrating Its 30th Anniversary as a Tourist Attraction and Museum". Western Mail. Retrieved 14 June 2016. 
  4. Thomas, W. Gerwyn (1976). Welsh coal mines. National Museum of Wales. p. 45. Retrieved 13 April 2016. 
  5. Wanhill, S. (2000). "Mines--A Tourist Attraction: Coal Mining in Industrial South Wales". Journal of Travel Research 39 (1): 60–69. doi:10.1177/004728750003900108. SSN 0047-2875. 
  6. Michael Stratton; Barrie Trinder (4 April 2014). Twentieth Century Industrial Archaeology. Taylor & Francis. pp. 21–. ISBN 978-1-136-74801-1. 
  7. Site details&#003a; Pit Head Building, Headframe And Tram Circuit, Big Pit Coal Mine, Blaenavon (RCAHMW)
  8. 8.0 8.1 "Gwent Archives Colliery photographs collection context". National Library of Wales. Retrieved 13 April 2016. 
  9. 9.0 9.1 9.2 9.3 Coupland, B (December 2012). "Heritage and Memory: Oral History and Mining Heritage in Wales and Cornwall - Doctoral Thesis". Exeter University. 
  10. "Brynmawr and Blaenavon Railway". Railscot. 
  11. "History". London and North Western Society. Retrieved 15 June 2015. 
  12. "Pontypool and Blaenavon Railway > PBR Easter Opening 2012". SmugMug, Inc.!i=1784509775&k=gJWwvQb. Retrieved 1 July 2012. 
  13. 13.0 13.1 "Blaenavon railway opens line to Big Pit". South Wales Argus. Retrieved 1 July 2012. 
  14. "BLAENAVON". David Duncan and Sons. 16 August 1891. p. 3. Retrieved 13 April 2016. 
  15. "BLAENAVON". David Duncan and Sons. 2 April 1894. p. 6. Retrieved 13 April 2016. 
  16. "BLAENLAVON". David Duncan and Sons. 25 July 1896. p. 6. Retrieved 13 April 2016. 
  17. "Pit Explosion". Evening Express. Walter Alfred Pearce. 11 December 1908. p. 3. Retrieved 15 April 2016. 
  18. "Blaenavon Pit Explosion". Walter Alfred Pearce. 18 December 1918. p. 3. Retrieved 12 April 2016. 
  19. "SUFFOCATED". Frederick Wicks. 8 April 1913. p. 3. Retrieved 13 April 2016. 
  20. Alexander, Dick (9 June 1985). "Mining Wales` Big Pit For A Lode Of Memories". Chicago Tribune. Retrieved 13 April 2016. 
  21. 21.0 21.1 Powder House, Big Pit Mining Museum - British Listed Buildings
  22. Saw Mill, Big Pit Mining Museum - British Listed Buildings
  23. Office, Big Pit Mining Museum - British Listed Buildings
  24. Template:Britlsit
  25. Pit Head Building, Headframe and Tram Circuit, Big Pit Mining Museum - British Listed Buildings
  26. Miners' Bath and Canteen, Big Pit Mining Museum - British Listed Buildings
  27. Michael V. Conlin; Lee Jolliffe (4 October 2010). Mining Heritage and Tourism: A Global Synthesis. Routledge. pp. 1–. ISBN 978-1-135-22906-1. 
  28. "World Heritage Site Status". Blaenavon World Heritage Site. Retrieved 14 April 2016. 
  29. "Three Welsh museums set to close over weekend as staff to walk out over pay row". 5 August 2014. Retrieved 12 April 2016. 
  30. "Big Pit remains closed on day two of museum strikes". BBC. 30 August 2015. Retrieved 12 April 2016. 
  31. "Four-day museum strike begins at Big Pit in Blaenavon". BBC. 25 March 2016. Retrieved 12 April 2016. 
  32. "Blaenavon Cheddar Company". Retrieved 14 June 2016. 
  33. "Products-Pwll Mawr-Blaenavon Cheddar Company". Retrieved 14 June 2016. 
  34. 34.0 34.1 Maconie, Stuart (2015). The Pie At Night: In Search of the North at Play. Random House. p. 25. ISBN 978-1-4090-3324-0. 

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