When we think of Welsh coal, it’s easy to think of rows of tiny terraced houses built into the steep faces of the south Wales valleys, overlooking pit buildings and towered over by tips.

It may come as a surprise to many - including those from the area - that there are collieries in the north, ones that formed the backdrop to some of the most significant social conflicts of the Victorian era.

Welsh history and identity is intrinsically linked with coal mining.

It’s no surprise, since coal was the nation’s main export at the time when national institutions and the modern national identity were first taking shape. 

The booming population of Wales, fuelled by the economic prosperity that exporting coal to the far reaches of the British Empire brought, left an image in the popular consciousness of coal mining as an exclusively southern industry, but the north has an equally fascinating history.

The sand dunes and beach at Talacre, with its iconic lighthouse, belie the area’s heavy industrial past.

The village of Ffynnongroyw just in-land reveals a clue: the single road through the village, flanked either side by rows of small, stone terraced houses punctuated by large churches and chapels, make it look like a tornado took a village from the Rhondda and plonked it down by the sea.

The National Wales: Ffynnongroyw in Flintshire: "It looks like a tornado took a village from the Rhondda and plonked it down by the sea" . (Image: Google)Ffynnongroyw in Flintshire: "It looks like a tornado took a village from the Rhondda and plonked it down by the sea" . (Image: Google)

Ffynnongroyw was built for the workers at the nearby Point of Ayr colliery, the seam of which extended out underneath the Dee estuary towards the Wirral and Merseyside. It only stopped operating in August 1996.

The discovery of coal in the area wasn’t a late development, either. In 1841 there were around 3,700 colliers employed in the old county of Clwyd, and by 1861 there were 73 pits operating in the area.

Despite suffering one of the UK’s worst mining disasters at Gresford in 1934, the north east of Wales rarely gets recognition for its coal mining history, often hidden by the shadows cast by the scale of the industry at the other end of the country.

As such, it’s not too surprising that the story of the 1869 Mold Riots has faded into obscurity - despite the very Welsh nature of this dispute.

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Despite rapid growth to the coal mining industry throughout the century, by the 1860s demand had slumped for coal extracted in the north of Wales. Pay cuts were common as mine owners in the area tried to keep their operations viable.

During this time a large number of pits were taken over by English owners, and while Welsh miners grew to accept their English colleagues down the pit - thanks to the solidarity of trade unions - friction grew between them and their often absent employers.

Eventually the Welsh managers of the English-owned pits were replaced by English managers, who frequently showed anti-Welsh prejudice and a general lack of tact when dealing with local workers.

The National Wales: The Grade I listed gates of Leeswood Hall. (Image: Eirian Evans CC BY-SA 2.0).The Grade I listed gates of Leeswood Hall. (Image: Eirian Evans CC BY-SA 2.0).

In 1863 six miners in Leeswood near Mold were given a week’s notice before the termination of their employment and their eviction from the company houses they occupied.

On the day of the eviction the colliery manager faced a strike by 600 workers, who took him from his home and marched him to the train station in Hope (not forgetting to stop and buy him a drink in every pub on the way), paying for his ticket back to England.

This is one of dozens of examples from the area of “packing off” - a tool employed by Welsh workers unhappy with their English employers.

The Leeswood Green colliery was operated by a Welsh family, but by 1859 it was under English ownership. In 1863 its manager was John Young, who had come from Durham to replace a highly respected Welsh manager - causing local resentment.

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Young brought in English miners who worked the easier jobs but earned nearly three times as much.

The Welsh miners who referred to these workers as Young’s “fancy men”.

The first Welsh language novel is Daniel Owen’s Rhys Lewis from 1885. It's set in Mold and an English pit boss, Mr. Strangle, seems to have been loosely based on John Young.

By 1869, facing a downturn in the market for coal, long-term wage depression and years of slowly building resentment towards him for his management, things came to a head when John Young posted a notice advising of wage cuts which seemed to largely affect Welsh workers - depriving them of nearly two thirds of their usual earnings.

Two days after the pay reduction was imposed, two hundred miners confronted Young to demand the restoration of their wages. When he refused, The Times reported that the miners “gave very short notice to quit according to a custom peculiar to the district” - they were packing him off.

By the time they got to Hope station, the police had arrived and Young gladly told them who the ringleaders were and accused them of assault. Eventually they were all arrested, but not before an angry mob 1,500 strong had marched on the lock-up in Mold and forced the release of one of their fellow colliers.

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Eight miners stood trial at special sessions the following week in Mold.

Unlike the previous week when the crowds used force to obtain the freedom of one of their fellow colliers, the thousands of miners who marched to Mold in solidarity with their fellow workers on trial were keen to remain peaceful in order to convince magistrates that their cause was just.

However, the police didn't want to be caught off guard again, and requested assistance. Fifty English soldiers who had recently returned from Ethiopia were in attendance to keep the peace.

Six of those on trial received fines, but the remaining two were sentenced to hard labour. The waiting crowd was shocked. The two prisoners were to be taken from the court to a waiting train some 200 yards away but the crowd had turned and pelted the police and soldiers with stones - the women holding large pebbles in their aprons for the men to throw.

The soldiers fired at the crowd without warning. Two men and two women were killed. 

The National Wales: The blue plaque in Mold commemorating the 1869 riot in which four people were killed.The blue plaque in Mold commemorating the 1869 riot in which four people were killed.

I asked Martin Johnes, a professor of Welsh history at Swansea University, why the Mold riots of 1869 don’t hold the same place in the Welsh consciousness as other dramatic events of the time, like the Chartist Riots, the Merthyr Rising or the Rebecca Riots.

“Both the scale and contemporary impact of Mold was far less significant than Chartism or Rebecca”, he told me.

“Moreover the Mold Riots are also unusual. Industrial relations in coal communities were characterized far more by tensions of class rather than language and nationality”.

If four people were killed by the police next to Mold’s Tescos today there would probably be outrage that reverberated beyond Flintshire, but in the context of the time it was just another conflict between workers and the forces of the state.

The fact that the contemporary impact of the riots was so small shows how commonplace conflicts around Welshness were - at a time when the nation was only beginning to find its voice.

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