Probus Club, Penarth

First published in News by

MR BRYAN Davies, who has been employed at Pontypridd Museum for the past 25 years, spoke to the Probus Club, Penarth, this week on the subject of "John Nixon and the Welsh Coal Trade to France".

Historically it is known that there was a Welsh migration to Brittany some 300 years ago, followed by exports of Welsh coal to steel works at St Nazaire on the Western coast of France, but until recently little was known how that came about.

Mr Davies has researched the history and was able to fill in the blanks for a contingency of Bretons when they visited Wales on a fact finding mission.

John Nixon was born at Barlow in Durham in 1815, son of a tenant farmer.

He studied engineering at Dr Bruce's academy and, incredibly, left at the age of 14 years and served a seven year apprenticeship under the Marquis of Bute's chief mining engineer in the Great Northern coal field in Newcastle.

At the end of his time he saw an advert for a Chief Engineer at Nantyglo, and travelled for five days in a horse drawn carriage, but he did not take up the appointment; instead, he walked some 37 miles to Cardiff and met with the agent of Lord Bute and undertook a survey of the underground workings of the Dowlais company in South Wales.

It was during this time that Nixon noted that Welsh coal produced considerably less smoke than that from the North East and realised that there could be a market for Welsh coal on the steamers crossing the river Loire, which he had seen on a previous visit to France.

He put this proposal to Mrs Lucy Thomas, the owner of an open cast mine at Abercanaid in the Cynon Valley, but she explained that she supplied coal to the Thames steamers and was disinclined to extend her operation.

Nixon then negotiated a deal with mine owner Thomas Powell from Newport for 100 tons of coal to be transported by canal to Cardiff then loaded onto a ship en route to Nantes and initially distributed it to the sugar refineries which had previously used Newcastle coal.

This venture was successful insofar as he eventually convinced the French government that Welsh coal was more efficient for their Naval ships.

Powell eventually reneged on the agreement and refused to pay him.

Nixon then returned to South Wales and opened a mine at Werfa, but initially struggled for financial backing until he entered into a number of mining ventures with men who provided the capital whilst he had the know-how.

The first deep pit in South Wales was Navigation Colliery in Mountain Ash which Nixon opened in 1860; from there he opened a number of collieries in South Wales, mostly in the Cynon Valley, and was responsible for promoting Welsh coal the World over.

He also is credited with inventing ventilating and winding machinery, and an improved weighing system for coal that ensured fair payment to the miners who worked so hard to produce it. Nixon died in London in 1899, but it was his request that he be buried in the Mountain Ash cemetery in the Aberdare valley.

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