Abercarn was for several years the home of our direct ancestor, Lewis Foster, his brother Evan, and their families 

Abercarn is a large village nestling in the Ebbw Valley, in Monmouthshire, South Wales. The Ebbw River runs past the village, and down the valley to enter the sea at Newport. The life of Abercarn and its inhabitants was, and is, inextricably tied up with that of Newport, through which its output of iron and coal was shipped, and which became the administrative centre for the area.

The heavily wooded terrain around Abercarn has been occupied since the Bronze Age - and the Silure tribe, who inhabited a large part of South Wales, built a hill-fort here during the later Iron Age. With the coming of the Romans to this part of Britain around 70 AD, the Silures were found to be particularly obstinate foes, and the Romans were obliged to build a major Legionary fortress at Caerleon, now a suburb of Newport. This was one of only three regional Legionary Headquarters in Roman Britain, and was built by the River Usk, which joins the Ebbw River at the coast. Strategically, it was an excellent position, allowing them to control both of the rivers and the generally mountainous terrain surrounding them. The remains of the Roman's barracks, bath-house, and amphitheatre, can still be seen today.

Caerleon amphitheatre



After the Romans left, the Saxons also saw the strategic advantages of the site, and in 971AD, Edgar, king of the Saxons, established a huge fleet at Caerleon. The Vikings are known to have raided up the River Usk in 1049AD, and fought with the Saxons in the area.

By 1100AD South Wales was under control of the Normans, who built a motte and bailey fortress at Newport, which was replaced by a stone castle during the 14th Century.

Newport Castle on the banks of the Usk in 1853. Our ancestors, travelling by train to Abercarne in the same year, would have seen it just like this.



Towards the end of the 16th Century, iron was being smelted in a small way in Abercarn using charcoal - the fuel of choice for smelting at the time - and this continued until 1804 when coal started to be produced from a shallow level locally. Four years later, the iron-works were sold to Richard Crawshay, the famous iron-master of Merthyr Tydfil.

Demand for coal for the iron-works was great enough by 1836 for the Monmouthshire Iron and Coal Company to sink the first shaft of the Prince of Wales Colliery. Accommodation and conditions were generally considered to be of a considerably higher standard in Abercarn than elsewhere in the South Wales coal-fields. Managers of the company had been sent to mines around Europe and America to study operations there, and to develop ways of improving working and living conditions for their workforce back in Wales. Consequently, all the collier's company-provided houses were thoroughly drained and sewered - which of itself was unusual in South Wales in the mid-19th Century - and were built, according to a chronicler of the time, with an attention to domestic comfort far above the usual level of collier's cottages. There was a public bake-house, public baths and wash-houses, a scientific institution and reading-room, and national schools for the miner's children. All in all, a very enlightened environment.

The first of the Fosters, Evan, moved here in 1851 - a few months after the first passenger train service into the valley commenced - to be followed by our direct ancestor, Lewis and his family in 1853. It is not known how long they were here, but probably until the mid to late 1860s.

It is just as well that they ceased to work in Abercarn when they did, because a few years later the Prince of Wales colliery was virtually destroyed by an underground explosion and fire, in which 268 men and boys lost their lives. In order to extinguish the fire, the shaft had to be sealed, and the mine deliberately flooded by diverting the waters of a nearby canal into it. It took 2 months and 35 million gallons of water before mine inspectors were satisfied that the vast fire had been put out. Many bodies were never recovered.

Relatives rush to the pit-head after the explosion at the Prince of Wales
colliery on the 11th of September, 1878.




 
After the disaster, the mine - and the area - became nationally famous for a while, but soon slipped back into relative obscurity. Over the years the coal veins became depleted, and by the 1930s the mine was no longer viable, the shafts being finally filled in, in 1959. The area stretching along the bank of the Ebbw, formerly occupied by the mine complex, was eventually cleared, and a large industrial estate built on the site to reflect the changing nature of employment in the area. The smaller Cwmcarn colliery site, in the beautiful Cwmcarn Valley nearby, was also cleared; trees were planted, roads were laid, and the area became the Cwmcarn Forest Drive - now a popular recreational facility and tourist attraction. Little is left to indicate the area's mining past, except for some remnants of Cwmcarn's colliery buildings, and the now beautiful, fish-stocked lake, originally downstream of the colliery wash-house.