Page last updated at 14:30 GMT, Tuesday, 20 October 2009 15:30 UK
Ceredigion's rich mining heritage

A restored wheel at Llywernog silver lead mine
A restored wheel at Llywernog silver lead mine

Metal mines which once employed hundreds of people in the old county of Cardiganshire closed in the 1920s. According to Peter Claughton of the Welsh Mines Society and Michael Freeman of Ceredigion Museums, the county's industrial heritage now provides a boost for today's tourist industry.

Metal mining in what is now Ceredigion, the former county of Cardiganshire, is an industry dating back some 4000 years, to the early Bronze Age.

Initially, copper bearing ores were exploited; relatively small deposits worked in open cuts, close to the surface over an extended period.

The best example so far excavated is on Copa Hill, at Cwmystwyth (Copa: not named after the metal, copper, but as in the Welsh word for top, crest or summit), which has been dated to 2,100BC.

Precious metal

Other early sites across the northern part of Ceredigion still await detailed examination.

Recent archaeological investigations at Cwmystwyth and on Borth bog are beginning to indicate that there was substantial mining and smelting during the Roman occupation.

Evidence exists for mining during the medieval period although the documentation suggests the activity was quite small in scale and it was the lead-bearing ores, rather than copper, which were being exploited.

Whether it was the silver content of the ores which were of interest is, as yet, uncertain.

An opening to one of Ceredigion's old mine shafts
By the early 19th century, the demand for lead increased

Silver was, however, clearly the incentive for the expansion in mining in the 16th and 17th centuries and mines in mid Wales produced significant amounts of the precious metal.

In the late 1630s, a mint was established at Aberystwyth to coin locally mined silver and was active throughout the 1640s, during the first English Civil War.

By the latter part of the 17th century the right of the English Crown to silver-bearing ores was challenged, leading to the 'Mines Royal' Acts of 1688 and 1693 which restored mineral rights to the land owner.

Serious pollution

As mines in the area were worked deeper, below the oxidised zone close to the surface, the amount of silver in the ores diminished, but, by the early 19th century, the demand for lead increased and it was worth more than the silver which might be extracted from its ores.

Transport of ore (by pony) was made easier when the main roads were improved after the Cardiganshire Turnpike Trust was established in 1770, and the first half of the century saw numerous mines opened up across the uplands.

However, by the late 1870s lead prices were falling.

Some mines turned to the extraction of zinc ores, left as worthless by earlier miners, to maintain production, and, hopefully, profits.

By the opening of the 20th century there were few mines still working and the dramatic fall in zinc prices in the 1920s marked the end of mining.

During their working life, the mines caused serious pollution, killing many fish in the Rheidol and Ystwyth, much to the annoyance of the gentry.

old mine building in Ceredigion
The dramatic fall in zinc prices in the 1920s marked the end of mining

The environmental legacy is still with us today but can be dealt with in a manner sympathetic to their landscape and archaeological value.

Mining activity has left a unique landscape where the remains of industry are fused with the rugged upland terrain.

The spoil heaps and dressing floors, with their associated tailings, which nature will slowly re-vegetate over time, mark out some of the later mining site. Others are lost to the casual observer amongst the undergrowth. There are, however, surviving features which provide a link to former mining activity.

Immigration

Foremost amongst those are the extensive leat systems with their associated reservoirs.

Water provided the motive power for most mines throughout their life and, even in an area of high rainfall, conservation and effective reuse were essential to the maintenance of pumping, winding and ore preparation.

The pattern of settlement in the area was largely determined by the demand of the mines for manpower.

As the mines developed so did the settlements; mostly in an ad hoc fashion sometimes linked to dual occupation in agriculture which provided a buffer against periods of unemployment in mining.

Few mines provided dedicated housing for their workers beyond a barracks at the more remote sites to accommodate miners who remained there through the week, returning home on Saturday and Sunday.

Non-conformism thrived amongst the mining communities. In these large rural parishes the established church was frequently some distance away.

With a significant immigration of miners, especially from Cornwall, they brought their own religion such as Wesleyan Methodism, whereas Calvinistic Methodism was popular in the rest of rural Ceredigion.

The miners built their own chapels which provided a cultural focus for the settlements and many survive despite the depopulation which attended the demise of mining in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

All these features; shafts, levels, the heaps of waste rock and tailings, structures such as waterwheel pits and the associated leat systems, the settlements and chapels, are all essential parts of a unique mining landscape.

Their value has been recognised in the designation of the area as one of outstanding historic interest.




SEE ALSO
Cash boost for lead mining museum
24 Dec 07 |  South of Scotland
Project revitalises old mines
12 Dec 04 |  Mid Wales
Polluted lead mine made safe
16 Oct 02 |  England


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