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About the Valleys

Rhondda Borough Council could hardly have adopted a more appropriate motto for its crest than the words "Hwy Clod Na Golud" (Fame Outlasts Wealth) for those words encapture all that Rhondda stands for. Long after the heyday of the coal industry, the Rhondda will be remembered; the miner may now have gone but the unique community spirit and cultural heritage lives on.

The name "Rhondda" is a compound word that derives from rhawdd and the old Eelsh adjective gnou. It is thought that "rhawdd" is comparable to ad-rawdd which means to recite or relate; thus the river by its sound is speaking aloud. The second syllable, gnou, becomes gnau or gno (as in Gwynddneu or Gwyddno) and so in this way, Rhoddneu becomes Rhoddna. It is not unusual in the Gwentian dialect to have 'dn' or 'ddn' metathesised into "ndd" which gives a local plural and, thus, Rhonddna became RHONDDA.

The industrial history of the Rhondda, which has covered the last 150 years, has, to a great extent, overshadowed the earlier periods in the development of the valley communities. The story, in fact, began some 6,000 years ago when the valley was inhabited by immigrants during the Mesolithic period, these first residents building sites for themselves on the mountain tops. Later in the Bronze Age (some 2.000 years ago), dense forest of oak, elm and alder filled the valleys, and pine and birch woods extended up the mountain slopes. Then, nomadic tribes built cairns on the hilltops and they built standing stones and stone circles of which Hen Dre'r Gelli is an excellent example.

During the Iron Age - which extended from 6th century BC through to the 1st century AD - the local inhabitants still lived on the mountain tops and not in the densely wooded valleys. It was during this period that great hillforts - like Maendy Camp -were built, later to be used in the defence of the area against the invading Romans. Excavations in the district have revealed the existence of early settlements at Maendy, Ton Pentre and Gelli - most of these date back to 1700BC.

Excavations in 1909 to form a reservoir out of Llyn Fawr, revealed a long sword and cauldron which are now to be seen in the National Museum of Wales. The sword, believed to be the only one of its kind over found in British Isles, is similar to those forged in the Cap d'Or district of Burgundy; the cauldron is probably of Irish origin.
Up until the mid-19th century, the Rhondda was almost unknown to the rest of the country. The whole area was sparsely populated, scattered farmsteads dotted the mountain-sides and, in a few places, there were clusters of labourers' cottages but hardly worthy of the name of villages. Forestry and the rearing of sheep and cattle were the principal occupations although corn and other cereals were grown in areas where the former forests had been cleared away. These cereals were ground at local watermills whilst the wool from the local sheep was spun and woven into cloth or flannel which was bleached at the Tonypandy mill.

In those days the rivers were crossed by rather frail wooden bridges. The water was crystal clear and abounded with trout and salmon, the excellent fishing attracting anglers from as far afield as Aberdare and Merthyr. On all sides were thick hillside woods, mostly of mature oaks much used as timber for naval ships. The Rhondda scenery was, indeed, much praised by travellers. In 1578, Rhys Meyrick told us that "in this valley may be seen some of the finest touches of untouched nature" whilst B H Malkin in 1803 described the Rhondda as the most beautiful of all the mountain districts in Wales, with upper peaks as the "Alps of Glamorgan". Travelling in the valley in 1847 - by which time, industrialisation was near - Charles Cliffe referred to the upper Rhondda Fawr as the "gem of South Wales and hardly surpassed through the Alpine North".

However, with the start of commercial coal-mining at Dinas at the turn of the 19th Centuary, changes were on the way. The subsequent feverish development and expansion of this new-found wealth altered Rhondda's face almost over night with the valleys disfigured by savage scars and with the very name Rhondda becoming synonymous with industrialism.

In the course of a single century, the Rhondda became the most intensely mined area in Britain, probably in the world. The Dinas mine, near the eastern end of the valley, began work in 1809 and the railway company, aiming to expand as the coal was found, offered £500 to any man who could find coal in the Rhondda. In 1851, William Clark, Chief Agent to the Bute Mineral Estates, proved the existence of seams of steam coal near Treherbert, and mining began in 1855. Seven years later more rich seams were found at Ferndale where production commenced in 1862.

These were only the beginnings. Output from the Rhondda collieries passed the million tons in 1869 and by 1890 it was seven million tons which was nearly half of all the South Wales output. At its peak, the valleys had 66 mines in production with a yearly output of nine-and-half million tonnes. Of the great mining achievement of these times, little now remains, but the often terrible disasters of the pits will always remain etched in the valley's history.

The disastrous effect of the First World War on the coal export trade (for until that time a vast tonnage of Rhondda coal was sent by the many rail routes down to the docks at Cardiff and Barry) was only the first of a series of blows which crippled the production of coal. The free trade of the early days was replaced by the economic nationalism. Oil emerged as a competitor and the collieries themselves showed signs of age with transport cost increasing as the workings extended. Wages fell and labour troubles culminated in the long-drawn-out strike of 1926. The Rhondda suffered a period of intense depression and, although the outbreak of World War Two saw an upturn, it saw, too, the virtual extinction of exports of coal.

The decline in coal-mining continued through the 1960s and 1970s with the country's ever-increasing dependence on oil. December 1990 saw the final closure of Maerdy Colliery, the last pit in Rhondda. This occasion, signifying the end of the valleys 150-year era of coal mining, was marked with typical Rhondda characteristics of pride and determination. Maerdy miners, the community and civic leaders took part in a service at the pit head followed by a dignified march from the colliery for the last time.

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