The Road to Penallta Colliery 2: Mining and Religion

There was a Bible in the winding man’s cabin when the colliery closed (Ceri Thompson, Big Pit: National Coalmining Museum, (email correspondence: November 17, 2021)).

The cabin was situated at the centre of the north-facing wall of Penallta Colliery’s engine hall. The hall housed generators, air-compressors, ventilation fans, and two steam-powered engines (and, later, electrically-powered motors) that controlled the cable used to hoist a pair of cages, which carried the miners from the bottom of the pit shafts. Many of the building’s interior features — such as the plasterwork colonnade of arches framing the windows (either side of the cabin), and the enamel- and encaustic-tiled walls and floor — were identical to those found in Nonconformist chapels built in the classical style at the time. Thus, architecture cast upon the engine hall associations with the ‘House of God’, as Nonconformist places of worship were often affectionately called.

Engine hall, Penallta Colliery, Ystrad Mynach, Mid Glamorgan, Wales (1960s) (courtesy of Glamorgan County Records)

The cabin is reminiscent of the stable represented in Piero della Francesca’s (c.1415–1492) The Nativity (1740-45), where Christ — the word of God made flesh — lay (John 1.1-2, 14; Matthew 2.10). The word of God lay in the winding man’s cabin, too, for some period during the hall’s history. The Bible, which was found there after the colliery had closed, was without its front cover, in English, most likely the Authorised (King James) Version of the text, and about 26 x 16 cm in size. It has since disappeared, along with the cabin and almost everything else in the hall.

Piero della Francesca, The Nativity (1740-45) oil on board, 124.4 x 122.6 cm, National Gallery, London (courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)

The engine hall was also known as the colliery’s ‘powerhouse’, just as the Gospels were also referred to as the ‘power of God’ (Romans 1.16). Thus, their presence together (the one inside the other) and metaphorical resonance, was entirely apposite. Very likely, one of the winding men who occupied the cabin had been a Christian. That wouldn’t have been uncommon in Welsh pits during the 19th and early part of the 20th centuries. Many miners attended chapel and, at least nominally, assented to the fundamental doctrines of Scripture. In 1905, when the colliery was sunk, Wales was in the second year of a religious revival lead by a former coalminer, Evan Roberts (1978–1951). Some of those men who’d converted to Christianity in the Ystrad Mynach district would have taken-up positions at the new mine. The Bible may have served to inform the winder’s prayers for the safety of those who’d descended into the depths of earth (which was likened to hell in coalmining and chapel culture). Not all returned to the surface at the end of their shift. Coalmines could be dangerous places. Between 1864 and 1914, at least 23 miners were killed at Penallta Colliery as a result of either accident or negligence. Which, in comparison to the loss of 439 workers on just one day in 1913, as a result of an explosion at the Universal Colliery, Senghenydd, Glamorgan, was mercifully few.

That Bible had been at the heart of the heart of Penallta Colliery. Irresistibly, it has to be so in the context of my sound suite. My ambition, as I commence to develop the first of the compositions, is to present the entire of the Old and New Testaments, acoustically. This will require me to read aloud and record the them, page by page. Alexander Scourby had made the first ever sound recording of the complete Bible in July 1964. On my album entitled The Biblical Record (2019) — which is based upon his achievement — I superimposed each side of the sixty-seven resultant 16-rpm records to form a single aggregated sonic image of about forty-minutes duration. This image undergirded a number of tracks on the album.

For the purpose of a composition based upon my reading, each page of a Bible — of the same size, language, and translation as the one in the winder’s cabin — will be recorded one at a time. On completion, 1,147 files (one for each page) will be superimposed to create an analogue for the physical layering of the printed leaves of the book. The Bible comprises over three quarters of a million words. If I were to set aside one hour a day to read and record the scriptures, then, the project ought to take me about three months to complete. The composition will be as long as the most densely-worded page took to read. (This principle, together with the process of superimposing the recording of a read text, was first deployed to develop the composition entitled The Red Ledger (2014).) The recordings will be made on a Sony ICD-UX570 stereo Dictaphone set to LPCM 41.1kHz/16 bit (CD quality resolution), through a powered external lavalier microphone. For an undertaking that’ll take a long time to fulfil, a straightforward set-up is preferred.

In an ideal world I’d play the final composition loudly in what remains of the engine hall, and record its interaction with the interior’s acoustics. In so doing, the lost Bible would be returned its place of origin, enabling it to be both there and (due to its immateriality as sound) still absent, simultaneously. However, local health and safety protocols arising from the present state of the building may preclude the possibility. Some creative negotiation and strategic planning will be required.

Interior of the engine hall, Penallta Colliery, Ystrad Mynach, Mid Glamorgan, Wales (2005) (courtesy of Joe Collier, ‘Penallta Colliery’, Abandoned Britain website)

On the front cover of Gareth Salway’s booklet entitled Penallta Colliery: An Illustrated History 1905–1991 (1993) there’s a photograph of the exterior. Miners are gathering close to a building that housed the downcast shaft and what was called the ‘contraband area’. Above the entrance is painted a commanding sign that reads: ‘Search Yourselves’. The instruction served to remind the men that they shouldn’t descend the shaft carrying smoking materials (cigarettes, lighters, and matches). They were expected to ‘auto-frisk’, as it were, before proceeding. However, the Banksman (who attended to affairs at the top of the pit), too, would search them, just to make sure. One strike of a match underground in a gaseous areas of the workings could send the smoker and their workmates into oblivion in an instant.

Entrance to the downcast shaft, Penallta Colliery, Ystrad Mynach, Mid Glamorgan, Wales (late 1950s) (courtesy of Big Pit: National Museum Wales)

The text recalls those painted above the pulpit in the classical-styled chapels during the 19th century that enjoined congregations to make ready for worship and order their lives. Biblical texts such as ‘Prepare to meet thy God’ (Amos 4.12), ‘Trust in the Lord’ (Proverbs 3.5), and ‘Be ye holy as I am holy’ (Leviticus 19.2) were among the most common. (I dealt with this architectural feature in my book entitled The Art of Piety: The Visual Culture of Welsh Nonconformity (1995).) For miners who’d been immersed in chapel culture, ‘search yourselves’ would’ve summoned that spirit of habitual self-examination before God, which the Bible commended believers to practise (Psalm 119.59; 2 Corinthians 13.5). Thus even before the miners entered the colliery, mining and religion were inextricably and inevitably intertwined. (This theme is explored extensively in my book entitled Image of the Invisible: The Visualization of Religion in the Welsh Nonconformist Tradition (1999).)

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