By the mid 19th century, South Wales was synonymous with mining. Within decades, immigrants had created something similar on the other side of the world
Wherever travellers set up home, they always bring something of their past with them. Take Australia for example. The country is littered with English place names – Darlington, Exeter, Croydon, Scarborough, Brighton, Harrogate, Sheffield to name a few. Some, like Richmond, are repeated several times. From South Wales, the name of the Rhymney Valley is echoed half a world away in Rhymney Reef, Victoria. At first glance they could not be more different but look closer and there are certain similarities.
The Rhymney Valley, South Wales
Until men began to excavate for raw materials, the Rhymney Valley, about twenty five miles long and running more or less south from the Brecon Beacons, was a deserted place. The remote settlement of Rhymney, some three miles north-east of Cardiff, was difficult to reach and remained isolated, unexplored until the beginning of the nineteenth century when Napoleon threatened invasion. The country grew desperate for iron and taking advantage of the natural resources, in 1802 the Bute Ironworks was established.
This naturally required labour and men began settling in the area building houses from the local quarried stone. The work was hard, conditions primitive and disease was rife. In 1829 a brewery, thought to be the biggest in Wales was opened – this was thirsty work.
The railway followed and by the 1850s several coal pits were sunk adding to the industrialisation. Finding the coal they craved, at its height there were up to 30 working mines providing work for up to 4,000 people. The school could accommodate 180 pupils. For the minority not involved in mining, the surrounding area remained as farm land, sheep being a major source of income. The ironworks closed in 1891, leaving King Coal to sustain the population.
While coal might bring material wealth (to some) and improvements for others, there was of course a price to pay. Men suffered ill health and injury. The wild green countryside turned black with coal dust. Rhymney became a pit village, reliant on the collieries. In 1991 the last mine closed in the valley, leaving bitterness, hardship and unemployment.
Gradually some of the wounds have healed and manufacturing has moved in to replace the mining. The scars where the collieries stood are being landscaped and the valley gradually returned to its former beauty. Ever mindful of the past, some evidence of the industrial history is retained and the aim is to encourage tourism.
Rhymney Reef, Australia
While coal mines were opening up in Wales, Australia was being hit by gold fever. In 1868, four brothers named Morgan who had emigrated from Rhymney in Wales discovered a gold bearing reef some two feet deep in a chain of hills north of Ararat in Victoria. They staked a claim calling their area Rhymney Reef because it reminded them of home. The area was thoroughly excavated and a shaft some 250′ deep was sunk. On average an ounce of gold was extracted from every ton of spoil.
Others settlers soon came to Rhymney. Shops, hotels, a post office, bank and school were opened. At its height the school had 75 pupils. In contrast to the brewery in their home town in Wales, a substantial winery grew up.
Unlike the industry in Wales, the gold rush at Rhymney Reef was short lived and by 1900 all gold prospecting had ceased. The incomers left, the shops and school closed and the area reverted to another familiar Welsh activity – sheep farming. Rhmney Reef is now almost deserted except for the farming tradition, carried on by the Cavanagh family who stayed behind, being descended from some of the original prospectors.
So, two places bearing the same name on opposite sides of the world have experienced a period of prosperity then a loss of the resource on which they depended. To an outsider, the rain soaked grey- green of mountainous Wales and the arid rich red plains of the Australian landscape seem vastly different but the prospect of work and a livelihood both brought people in the search for a better future.
Rhymney Valley – History