Thomas Powell 1779 – 1863


Thomas Powell

Thomas Powell was rumoured to born on 6th January 1779 at Monmouth, son of John Powell. He began works as a timber merchant at Newport, but afterwards extended his activities to the coal trade.

His first venture in coal-mining was the purchase of a small colliery between Llanhilleth and Aberbeeg, Blaenau Gwent. In 1829 he sank two shafts at Gelligaer, Merthyr Tydfil proving a vein of coal nearly six feet thick. In 1833 Powell applied to Sir Charles Morgan for leave to work coal under the Place Bedwellty farm, adjoining his own colliery at Buttery Hatch, but they failed to come to terms.

This application had its sequel in 1841, when Sir Charles was awarded damages at the Monmouthshire assizes against Powell for trespass and working coal under the aforesaid farm from his Buttery Hatch pit without permission. In 1833 Powell together with his close business associate, Thomas Prothero of Malpas and John Latch of Newport founded the short-lived Newport Coal Association to control prices, the first coal ring in South Wales.

Thomas Powell was a man of dogged industry; his commanding personality; large and heavily built, capable of remarkable feats of physical strength. He was a sharp customer but would distribute coal to the poor and indigent at Christmas time and at times of hardship. He finally owned sixteen pits and, in 1862, when he exported over 700,000 tons of coal, he was probably the largest coal exporter in the world.

The increasing dominance of steam over sailing ships and the preference shown by the Admiralty for the South Wales smokeless steam coal provided Powell with rapidly expanding markets. He appreciated early the value of railways as an outlet for his trade and was one of the chief promoters of the Taff Vale and Monmouthshire railways. At a time when it was rare for one coal-master to own more than one pit, Powell stands out by the vast scale of his undertakings. Not content with his phenomenal success in the Aberdare valley, where he sought to gain a monopoly, he opened a series of small pits at Llantwit Fardre for the house-coal trade, and later sank a large pit at New Tredegar.

In 1840 he resolved to exploit the steam coal in the Aberdare valley, sinking his first pit at Tir Founder; in 1842 he struck the famous four-foot seam. He followed up this success by sinking the Plough, Lower Duffryn, Middle Duffryn, and the Upper and Lower Cwm Pennar pits. Through the agency of John Nixon he secured a ready sale for his coal in France, but characteristically fell out with Nixon over the payment of commission.

He died at his home, the Gaer, near Newport, on 24 March 1863. According to the Bassaleg bishops’ transcripts he was then aged 83; if this was so, Bradney is wrong. Powell was married three times.

In died on March 24th 1863 at his home, he had been in office the previous day, He was three times married and had several daughters and three sons. By his will dated February 20th 1863 he left all his collieries to his sons Thomas, Walter and Henry St John in equal shares and they carried on the business for some time as Thomas Powell and Sons, but later Walter sold out to his brothers.

In April 1869 Thomas Powell of Coldra Hill Newport with his wife and small son were murdered while on a shooting expedition in Abyssinia.

Walter who was keenly interested in aeronautics was lost over the English Channel during a balloon flight.

Henry St. John was a noted rider to hounds famous for his skill and daring in jumping gates and palings and known as “Timber” Powell died from a paralytic stroke after a fall from his horse.

With the death of Thomas Powell in 1863 collieries in his name later became known as Powell Dyffryn chiefly through the instigation of Sir George Elliot with a Capital of £500,000. At the time of his death he owned 16 pits and employed 6000 men.