Coal mining is one of the most important heritage themes in the area and has certainly been one of the most influential forces that have determined the development of the landscape and settlement patterns of Gorslas community during the past 150 years.
Most coal mined in the Gorslas district before the Industrial Revolution was probably extracted by local people for their own use – either as domestic fuel or for lime burning. Early coal workings were simple affairs, either small drift workings and simple coal pits or perhaps some deeper bell pits. The records of the Duchy of Lancaster for the Commote of Iscennen (Williams Rees, 1953) tell us that tenants of the Lordship were entitled to mine coal on the Mynydd Mawr common ‘for necessary ffyre and burning of lyme’ during the seventeen century. Therefore, it is evident that mining on a limited scale would indeed have been carried out in this area during that period.
In common with the rest of the Carmarthenshire anthracite coalfield, the coal reserves of the Gorslas district were not exploited to any great scale until the late nineteenth century. Thomas Kymer’s pioneering work in the lower Gwendraeth valley area in the later eighteenth century, where a purpose built canal was used to carry coal to the coast at Kidwelly, was the beginning of a gradual increase in mining activity.
During the period from 1814 up to the late 1830s, Kymer’s Canal was extended as the Gwendraeth Valley Canal, with its terminus at Cwmmawr, to aid the development of collieries in the upper Gwendraeth area. A feeder reservoir for this more ambitious canal was built at Cymyglo, just south of Cefneithin, and the dam and the now drained reservoir bowl can still be clearly seen between the village and the playing fields at Crosshands. The canal was relatively short-lived however, being replaced by the Burry Port and Gwendraeth Valley Railway, which opened in 1869 and had much of its track laid along the line of the infilled canal.
It would be several decades, however, before industrial-scale exploitation of the coal seams of the upper Gwendraeth, including the Gorslas area, would be seen. There was a dramatic expansion of coal mining and associated settlement growth between 1891 and 1921. It was Carmarthenshire anthracite that established Welsh coal as an internationally acclaimed fuel.
New markets open up during this period, such as supplying the market gardening industry of the Netherlands, for which anthracite coal proved ideal to heat its hothouses. The invention of an anthracite burning stove in Scandinavia in 1880 as well as new developments in central heating added to the overseas domestic fuel market, particularly in France, Germany and Italy. Anthracite was seen as a fuel suited best to the closed ovens or fires of new central heating systems, rather than for burning on an open hearth. It was rarely used as a household coal outside the anthracite coalfield. The new markets saw a 300% increase in the output of the South Wales coalfields.
Locally, coal output peaked relatively late on. During the 1920s, the small, independent colliery firms faded away and new combines were formed across the anthracite coalfield, such as the United Anthracite Collieries Limited, which controlled many mines in the Ammanford and Gwendraeth valley districts. This was a period that saw increased mechanisation within the industry, technical improvements that consolidated existing pits. The year of peak production of South Wales anthracite was as late as 1934 when over 6,000 million tons was mined, despite a world recession. Anthracite was sold to such a varied range of markets – from brewing to central heating systems, that it was relatively unaffected by the recession in terms of demand. From the mid-1930s, coal mining in Carmarthenshire declined, apart from a period of renewed investment and confidence that followed nationalisation in 1947, until the effective end of large-scale production by the 19902, which was by that time largely dependent on opencast rather than deep mining.
Only a few successful pits of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century date – Gors Goch, Clos-y-yn, Clos-uchaf and Cwmmawr were found within the community area.