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Last Updated: Friday, 25 January 2008, 07:30 GMT
People power that empowered Wales
Tower Colliery
Workable coal reserves at Tower Colliery are exhausted
For a perfect example of 'people power', look no further than Tower Colliery.

When 239 workers at the coal mine in Hirwaun, south Wales, bought their pit in 1995, a year after it was closed down, experts warned it would not work.

With sacked staff pooling their 8,000 redundancy money to raise 2m, it was a gamble many feared would not reap rewards.

But 13 years on, as the pit closes for the last time because of dwindling coal reserves, the worker-owners can hang up their hard hats knowing they proved the doubters wrong.

Tower miners
1805 The site of the colliery was first worked
1864 The first drift, named Tower, was started on Hirwaun common
March 1984 Thousands of miners went on strike after it was announced 20 pits were to close with the loss of 20,000 jobs
1985 After a year of striking, miners agreed to go back to work - but pits closed rapidly over the next few years
1994 The industry was privatised and British Coal closed Tower Colliery on April 22, saying it would be uneconomical to continue production
Local MP, Ann Clwyd, staged a sit-in in the mine to protest against its closure, 2m was raised by 239 miners, led by Tyrone O'Sullivan to buy Tower
1995 After being told their bid was successful, the miners marched back to the pit as its owners on January 2
1999 An opera tells the story of the Tower rescue
2001 A contract to supply Aberthaw power station secures jobs at the pit
2004: Celebrating 10 years of the buy-out, Tyrone O'Sullivan said: "We've competed with the world. It's not that we've been lucky."
2006: Dwindling coal seams are blamed for the decision to close Tower within three years
Source: BBC archives

Tower Colliery provided jobs for men who had feared for their futures as mines closed across the country, in the years following the 1984-85 miners' strike.

These men refused to accept the fate forced upon them when the pit closed in 1994 - they knew better than anyone that the pit's seams were thick with quality anthracite coal.

And after returning to work as mine-owners, they turned the pit's fortunes around.

Soon, Tower was turning in a profit, year after year, and secured major contracts at home and abroad, despite setbacks including an earthquake which caused a methane gas leak.

It shared its success with the residents of Hirwaun, keeping a strong sense of community spirit in an area where unemployment brought bleak times for many other valley towns and villages.

And it helped Wales progress into a stronger nation - First Minister Rhodri Morgan said himself last month that the buy-out of Tower was a pivotal moment in national self-confidence and paved the way for devolution.

As Tyrone O'Sullivan, the man who led his colleagues in Britain's only miners' buy-out, said: "Many people said to me when we went back, 'Oh, we will be lucky if we have three years Ty' or 'it all makes a difference even if it's only two years'.

"And lo and behold, here we are 13 years on. So I think it's been a great success but mostly it's shown that ordinary working people can control their own life."

For both the workers and members of the local community, the closure of the pit is devastating - but provides a moment to reflect and be proud.

Ryan Tamlin
Coal is on its way back so I think this will be a good trade in the future to have
Ryan Tamlin

Jenny Williams, 61, who worked in the pit's kitchen and was among those who gave money to Tower, said "It was a gamble at the beginning and a lot of people said not to do it.

"But it did succeed and it brought a lot of work."

Even children, who attended the final Tower Colliery Christmas children's party, were aware of the significance of the pit's closure.

Michael O'Sullivan said: "It's really sad. I wanted to work there but I can't. I don't know what I will do now."

And what of the miners for whom life has revolved around Tower?

For many, they are laying their hope of work at the newly-opened Aberpergwm drift mine in the Neath Valley.

They believe coal is making a comeback in Wales, providing them with more security than they could have anticipated in the dark days of the 1980s.

Ryan Tamlin, 19, who has already transferred from Tower to Aberpergwm, said he followed his father into mining after college because it is a "recognised trade".

"It's a good place to be because they're expanding," he said.

"Coal is on its way back so I think this will be a good trade in the future to have."

With these words, you suspect Tower Colliery's closure may not represent the final chapter in the story of mining in south Wales.

Can Britain go back to coal?
19 Oct 04 |  Magazine
Can the UK coal industry survive?
04 Mar 04 |  Business


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