Conserving Photographs on Glass

The National Coal Board collection at Glamorgan Archives contains around 4000 glass plate negatives, documenting coal mining in South Wales.  These glass plates illustrate a range of subjects concerning colliery life above and below ground.  As glass plates offered more dimensional stability in comparison to plastic supports, they are often found in large industrial collections containing lots of technical imagery and reproductions of maps and plans.

Although the supports provide more chemical stability than their cellulose nitrate and acetate counterparts, glass presents its own problems.  Deterioration can occur in glass, particularly older glass, because it contains water sensitive components which can leach out in fluctuating environments and closed microclimates.  As well as damaging the glass, this process of degradation can also affect the photographic emulsion.

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An example of damaged emulsion

The main issues affecting the glass plate negatives in the NCB collection include broken plates and damaged emulsion.  The broken plates have been given new housing which cushions and separates the shards and allows for the possibility of further treatment in the future.  The plates with damaged emulsion need to be repaired before they can be digitised, re-housed and accessed by the public, making their conservation a high priority.

In October, the Art Gallery of Ontario, in Toronto hosted a workshop on the conservation of photographs on glass, which project conservator Stephanie Jamieson attended, thanks to generous contributions from the Archives and Records Council Wales, the Clothworkers’ Foundation and the Anna Plowden Trust.  This three day course was run by Katherine Whitman, Photograph Conservator at the AGO and Greg Hill, Senior Conservator of Archival Materials and Photographs at the Canadian Conservation Institute.  The course began with a day of lectures on the chemistry and nature of glass, the history of photography on glass and the identification of techniques and materials.  Talks were given by Stephen Koob, Head of Glass Conservation at the Corning Museum; Sophie Hackett, Curator of Photography at the AGO and Katherine Whitman.

The second day focused on teaching repair techniques and storage recommendations.  There was also time to discuss the specifics of individual collections and share experiences of working with this type of material.

On the final day, the course participants got to test out the techniques they had learnt in the AGO’s conservation studio.  This involved repairing broken glass plates and consolidating emulsion.  One repair method used sticky wax to hold the fragments of glass in place while assembling vertically in a vice.  Adhesive was then applied to the break using a piece of steel wool on a stick.

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Trying out the vertical assembly method

To consolidate the damaged emulsion, controlled humidification was applied to the lifting flakes to relax the gelatine before adhesive was brushed onto the glass underneath.  Light pressure was then applied through bondina with a bone folder and the flake was left to dry under weight.

This workshop was extremely applicable to the conservation issues present in the NCB collection at Glamorgan Archives.  The next stage will be to test and perfect these repair techniques before starting work on the damaged glass plate negatives.

Stephanie Jamieson, Glamorgan’s Blood Project Conservator

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Colliery Closures: The End of Era

The records of the National Coal Board and its predecessors held at Glamorgan Archives show the ups and downs of the coal industry in south Wales. Through financial records we see how large colliery companies such as Powell Duffryn and Ocean Coal were performing in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

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Page from Pit Summaries of Cost of Coal, Ocean Coal Co. Ltd, 1900-1905 (D1400/2/5/1)

Come 1947 and the Nationalisation of the industry we see records showing the huge investment and reorganisation schemes that those in charge of the National Coal Board thought would secure the industry for years to come.

Unfortunately the history books tell us that, contrary to the claim made on the Betws Drift Mine (Carmarthenshire) promotional leaflet, the future was not bright for the coal industry, as less than 50 years after nationalisation the UK coal industry had all but ceased.

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Betws Drift Mine, Colliery Leaflet, Jan 1984 (DNCB/5/1/5/2)

The records held at Glamorgan Archives show us the steps that the National Coal Board took in their decision making when it came to the closure of the collieries. A pit closure register dating 1948-1970 gives information on output, reasons for closure, number of personnel, number of people transferred or retained, estimated redundancy figures, negotiations with the National Union of Mineworkers, notices given to men and pit closure date. This overview of reasons for closure is supplemented by files concerning individual colliery closures, containing closure reports, minutes, correspondence, meeting minutes and profit and loss accounts.

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Page from National Coal Board Pit Closure Register, 1948-1970 (DNCB/67/5/20)

Press releases issued concerning the closure of Ty Mawr/Lewis Merthyr, Coegnant, Brynlliw/Morlais, Britannia and Aberpergwm can be found in the Public Relations department files (ref.: DNCB/5/4/1/1). In addition to this, there is also a public relations file containing briefing notes and correspondence on colliery closures and wage disputes (ref.: DNCB/5/4/2/1) and a file concerning colliery closures, containing various lists of collieries that detail the dates they opened and the date and reason for closure (ref.: DNCB/5/4/2/8).

Following closure, some colliery sites were to be given a new lease of life. A file dating 1977-1987 contains correspondence concerning the fate of Lewis Merthyr Colliery (ref.: DNCB/67/7/45). The file includes correspondence and plans relating to the colliery site along with correspondence concerning the sale of the land and proposals to turn it into a heritage museum. Some of you may have been to the site in its current form as Rhondda Heritage Park.

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Lewis Merthyr Colliery, c.1950 (DNCB/14/1/17)

The closure of the collieries was the end of an era and a way of life for those in the south Wales coalfield. To commemorate this way of life and the end of the industry, souvenir leaflets were published celebrating the achievements of the collieries on the eve of closure.  Examples from Penallta and Mardy Collieries survive within the Glamorgan Archives collection (ref.: DNCB/5/3/4 and DNCB/5/3/5).

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Souvenir Leaflet, Mardy Colliery Closure, 1990 (DNCB/5/3/4)

Our catalogue Canfod provides more information on these items and other records relating to the rise and fall of the coal industry in south Wales. Start your search with the DNCB collection and see where it takes you. The cataloguing of the NCB records is still in progress, so keep checking Canfod for new material http://calmview.cardiff.gov.uk/

Louise Clarke, Glamorgan’s Blood Project Archivist

Glamorgan’s Blood Preserved on Glass

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The National Coal Board collection at Glamorgan Archives includes a large amount of photographic negatives on both plastic and glass supports.

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The glass plate negatives, approximately 5440 in number, feature a range of subjects, including images of tunnels, miners in action, equipment, pit ponies, medical centres, social events and other varied content.

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As part of the Glamorgan’s Blood project, this photographic material will be catalogued, cleaned, digitised, conserved and re-housed, allowing public access to these images.

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While the majority of the glass plate negatives simply need cleaning prior to digitisation, some display more extensive conservation issues.  A number of the plates are broken or have lifting or highly damaged emulsion (fig.5).  These issues will require more supportive housing solutions or more intensive conservation treatment.

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Figure 5

Undamaged but dirty glass plate negatives require cleaning prior to digitisation and re-housing.  Surface dirt on these items can contribute to long term deterioration and be visible on the digitised image.  It is important that the plates be properly cleaned before any further steps in the preservation process can be taken.

To clean the plates, first an air-puffer is used to remove loose dust and dirt on both the emulsion side and the glass side.  By using this tool, the emulsion side of the plate can be cleaned without risk of abrasion.  Next, cotton wool buds wrapped in fine tissue and dipped in a solution of water and ethanol (50:50) are used to remove dirt and grease from the glass side of the plates.  A final wipe, using a dry cotton wool bud, removes any streaks.

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Figure 6

The cleaned plates are then re-housed in folders made from material up to PAT (Photographic Activity Test) standards.  We use different sized folders for the varying plate formats to ensure a good fit (fig.6). The original packaging for these items was glassine envelopes, which is a type of highly calendared paper often found used for the storage of photographic negatives. Glassine is an inappropriate storage material as it yellows over time and can damage the photographic emulsion (fig.7).

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Figure 7

Once cleaned, the plates are scanned and a positive image is created.  This will then be added to the Archive’s catalogue.

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Figure 8

Broken glass plate negatives require housing which both supports the fragments but also keeps them separate to ensure the delicate emulsion is not damaged through abrasion between the glass shards.  The new housing incorporates cushioning plasterzote foam within an un-buffered card enclosure.  This new enclosure allows the negative to be safely stored and, if necessary, viewed without removing the individual shards (fig.8 & 9).  This simple housing solution can provide either temporary or long term storage, allowing for further repair treatment to be carried out in the future.

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Figure 9

The broken negatives will also be scanned and digitised, reducing the need for handling while at the same time ensuring public access to these wonderful images.

Stephanie Jamieson, Glamorgan’s Blood Project Conservator

“Get your butty to wash your back”: Pithead Baths in the South Wales Coalfield

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DNCB/79/8/188: Three unidentified Colliers, Caerau Bath Opening, 6 Mar 1954

As the Glamorgan’s Blood project continues, material concerning the colliery pithead baths comes to light within the Glamorgan Archives collection.

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DNCB/66/197: Pithead Baths, Treharris, General view of the pithead baths, c. 1921

The introduction of pithead baths from the 1920s onwards was a huge benefit to those working in the south Wales coalfield. Before the pithead baths, miners would return home from work in dirty clothes, wet from water in the pit and sweat, increasing the hazards of mine work by adding the danger of contracting illness. The introduction of the pithead baths offered some protection against these types of ailments, with showering and changing facilities allowing miners to return home in clean and dry clothing. 1

Washing at the pithead baths also meant that miners were not having to wash at home in the family sitting room, a task that often required the miner’s wife to prepare the miners’ bath and clean and wash his dirty clothes, tasks that brought coal dust and dirt into the family home. The preparation of the bath water was also dangerous to the miner’s family as:

…many children were badly scalded – and often died – as a result of falling into prepared bath water or upsetting water which was being boiled in readiness for the bath. One south Wales coroner claimed that he conducted more inquests into the deaths of children who were scaled than he did into miners who were killed underground. 2

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DNCB/66/3: Penallta Miner bathing, c.1930

One of the main areas of the National Coal Board collection concerning the Pithead Baths is the colliery building plans collection. As part of the Glamorgan’s Blood project the archivist and project conservator are currently working simultaneously to catalogue the material and assess it for conservation treatment and storage requirements.

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DNCB/1/4/2/10: Abercynon Pithead Baths, Apr 1950

The wide range of sizes, processes and materials present in this collection pose a variety of conservation issues and requirements in terms of storage, access to the material and long term preservation. The plans for the pithead baths in the NCB collection display a variety of different techniques and processes for producing architectural drawings.  Diazotypes, blueprints and pencil and ink drawings appear most frequently on a range of substrates.  Examples of wash-off prints, gel-lithographs and silver halide prints also appear in this collection, displaying different conservation issues.  The most pressing conservation challenge is the heavily degraded acetate support used as both a tracing material and as a negative to create duplicate plans, appearing in this collection as a base for both pencil and ink drawings and diazotypes. The majority of these acetate plans display advanced plastic deterioration in the form of embrittlement which has caused them to crack and shatter, making them impossible to produce in the searchroom.  Digitisation of these plans will be the only way to make them accessible, as options are limited in terms of conservation treatment and long term preservation of this type of material.

 

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DNCB/60/65/4: Example of a Shattered Plan, Acetate, 1951

The plans show the pithead bath facilities from collieries across south Wales, dating so far from between the 1930s-1970s. Through floor plans, site plans and elevations researchers will be able to see what facilities were on offer to colliery workers, including separate clean and dirty entrances and locker rooms, shower facilities, boot cleaning areas, medical treatment centres and canteens. On nationalisation these facilities became ‘a necessary piece of equipment for production’ and the plans and other material within the Glamorgan Archives collection will ensure that these buildings, now mostly vanished from the south Wales landscape, are recorded for future generations.

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DNCB/1/4/13/2-3: Perspective Views of Cwm Colliery Pithead Baths, Jun 1952

Louise Clarke, Glamorgan’s Blood Project Archivist

Stephanie Jamieson, Glamorgan’s Blood Project Conservator

  1. Evans, Neil; Jones, Dot, ‘A Blessing for the Miner’s Wife: the campaign for pithead baths in the South Wales coalfield, 1908-1950’, Llafur : Journal of Welsh Labour History, p.7
  2. Evans, Neil; Jones, Dot, p.6

Glamorgan’s Blood: Dark Arteries, Old Veins

Here, are the stiffening hills, here, the rich cargo
Congealed in the dark arteries,
Old veins
That hold Glamorgan’s blood.
The midnight miner in the secret seams,
Limb, life, and bread.

– Mervyn Peake, Rhondda Valley

Mervyn Peake’s poem, Rhondda Valley, describes coal mining as the life blood of the Welsh Valleys. Indeed, the rapid growth of the coal industry during the 19th century led to the development of a whole new society in South Wales, with a focus on the local colliery. As such the South Wales coalfields have an important part to play in our understanding of the Industrial Revolution and of the history of Wales and Britain more generally.

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‘Pride of the Valleys’ [DNCB/64/60]. New communities developed in south Wales with a focus on the local colliery. Between 1901 and 1911 south Wales absorbed immigrants at a faster rate than anywhere else in the world except the USA.

This significance means that the archival records of the coal industry are also important as primary documentation of South Wales’ heritage.  The National Coal Board (NCB) collection at Glamorgan Archives spans the 19th and 20th centuries, documenting the development, changes and decline of an industry synonymous with South Wales, and charting the impact of the collieries on the lives and health of the people who worked in the industry. It is with this in mind that Glamorgan Archives have now begun the ‘Glamorgan’s Blood: Dark Arteries, Old Veins’ project to catalogue and conserve the NCB collection and the records of its predecessors through the assistance of a Wellcome Trust cataloguing grant.

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‘Pneumoconiosis, The Deadly Dust’ [DNCB/64/53]. Once catalogued, the NCB collection will enhance the possibilities for research into the health and social welfare of the mining communities of south Wales.

The NCB collection is varied in scope and content, from wage books and large scale colliery plans to photographs and accident report books. All of these records are important in their own way as representations of how the NCB and individual collieries operated. We can discover first-hand accounts of the dangers of working in the mines through entries in accident report books; learn about colliery disasters through official reports and enquiries; and understand more about the provision of healthcare and social wellbeing for miners and their families through records dealing with compensation for industrial illnesses such as pneumoconiosis, and documents concerning the introduction of the pithead baths to improve sanitation for colliers. The records can also show us how the collieries interacted with the workforce through material relating to subjects such as strikes and mineworkers unions. Overall, the variety of records within the collection serve to demonstrate the important, if not always happy, role of the colliery in the communities of South Wales.

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Current finding aids for the NCB collection are difficult to navigate and limit access to the collection

Material from and concerning the National Coal Board has been deposited at Glamorgan Archives on numerous occasions since the 1960s, leaving the Archives with over 80 separate deposits of material, all with varying levels of description, from boxes simply titled ‘Miscellaneous material’ to more helpfully categorised boxes with names of specific collieries already indicated. Although researchers can already come into the Archives’ searchroom to view material in the NCB collection, the 225 boxes, 470 rolls and 884 volumes are currently listed in a way that makes the collection hard to navigate and understand as a whole. The ‘Glamorgan’s Blood’ project will provide easier and greater access to the NCB collection through the creation of a comprehensive electronic catalogue (which will be available to search on our online catalogue, Canfod) and the physical conservation of damaged and dirty material.

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Our NADFAS volunteers have already begun the huge task of cleaning items from the NCB collection

Work on the ‘Glamorgan’s Blood’ project is now underway, with our team of volunteers already making a brilliant start on the cleaning of the volumes, and research being undertaken by the project archivist to build up a knowledge of the collection and the South Wales coal industry, in order to inform the organisation of the records. If you would like to find out more about the project keep an eye on the blog page and social media for project updates or contact us at glamro@cardiff.gov.uk.