21 May 2013 The Miner's Lamp - Ben Curtis

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The lamp was an important feature of the miners’ working environment, from the perspective of both illumination and safety. Underground work is impossible without lighting; however, one of the biggest dangers in coal mining is the accidental ignition of methane and other flammable gases – known collectively as ‘firedamp’ – that tend to accumulate in subterranean mine workings. In the early days of the industry, miners’ use of candles to light their workplaces meant this happened all too frequently. In 1815, Sir Humphry Davy invented what was to become the iconic miner’s lamp: the Davy lamp. The Davy lamp is a wick lamp made of metal, with the flame enclosed inside a mesh screen. The mesh enables sufficient air to pass through to support combustion (thus keeping the lamp lit) but the holes are too fine to allow a flame to propagate out and ignite any firedamp outside the mesh. However, the lamp’s design was not perfect: the bare gauze was easily damaged and once just a single wire broke or rusted away, the lamp became unsafe. Even when new and clean, illumination from the safety lamps was very poor – about one quarter that of an ordinary candle. Despite various improvements, the problem was not fully resolved until electric lamps became available in the early twentieth century. In February 1914, a South Wales Miners’ Federation (SWMF) conference resolved “That we press for the general use of Electric Lamps in mines, provided that a gas testing lamp is available for use in every working place.” This was not a rapid process; in 1928 the SWMF annual conference was still demanding “every effort be made to compel the Employers to install the best type of Electric Lamps for the use of workmen, with the provision of one Safety Lamp for every six working places”. By the 1930s, almost all flame safety lamps had been replaced by electric lamps. Nevertheless, safety lamps still continued to be used for detecting and measuring gas long after their use for lighting was obsolete. A modern version of the Davy lamp is still used for firedamp testing in UK coal mines.

The miner’s lamp was a central symbol of the SWMF and its successor, the South Wales Area of the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM), featuring on the union’s coat of arms, alongside a leek and a colliery winding tower. As a symbol of illumination, the miner’s lamp represents the strong tradition of self-education of the south Wales miners. This manifested itself in several ways. One of the most apparent was the miners’ institute libraries, which provided opportunities for learning and reading which would otherwise not have existed in the mining communities of south Wales. These libraries typically featured a well-stocked collection of left-wing political theory and social sciences literature. Will Paynter, the famous miners’ leader who went on to become NUM national general secretary between 1959 and 1968, is just one example of the countless numbers of south Wales miners whose political ideas were sharpened and whose intellectual horizons were broadened through self-directed study in the miners’ libraries.

This blog is an abridged version of an article that originally appeared in the Western Mail on 9 May 2013, as part of the paper’s ‘Welsh History Month’ series. To see the full text of the article, click here.