1860, Queen Victoria was in the 23rd year of her long reign; the Liberal Party in Great Britain were the rulers of the day with Lord Palmerston, the Prime Minister.
In that same year an Ironmonger, Mr. Evan Thomas set up business in Cardiff Street, Aberdare, on the site of a present supermarket building, manufacturing miners lamps. The business was to develop into a concern which put Aberdare on the world's industrial map.
In those far off days in the middle of the 19th Century, industrialists were looking for a safer means of underground lighting. The 'Davy' lamp and the 'Dr. William Reid Clanny' lamp had already been invented, but because of certain weaknesses they had been found wanting, being extremely vulnerable to damage in the arduous conditions of a coal mine.
Evan Thomas designed a lamp which was a tremendous improvement on those which had hitherto been used in the mining industry. He produced one known as the 'Evan Thomas Type No. 7 Lamp' The royal commissioners of the Woolwich Arsenal committee of the time stated "...in which the quality of safety, in a pre-eminent degree is combined with simplicity of construction, and with illuminating power at least fully equal to the lamps hitherto in general use, the Evan Thomas No.7 has given the best results". The improvement on previous lamps in use was so great that they were soon in use in collieries country-wide.
In 1890, the lamps won gold medals for the firm at the London International Exhibition of Mining and Metallurgies but, regrettably, Evan Thomas did not live to see the fruits of his considerable expertise and success.
Later in the 1860's Evan Thomas was joined by Mr. L.N. Williams, but not very long after the former died, and Mr. L.N. Williams became the sole proprietor.
During the latter part of the nineteenth century, a purpose built factory was erected in Foundry Town on the outskirts of Aberdare for the sole purpose of manufacturing mining lamps and other safety equipment.
A famous invention and development was that of a new type of weighing machine which enabled the coal’ (for which the miners were paid) and the slack, as muck (for which they were not) to be separated. This machine came to be known as 'Billy Fair-play' - a very apt name. At first the Trade Unions were suspicious of the new fangled innovation, but common sense was soon to prevail and those who scorned the machine realised their folly and accepted it as an instrument for good.
The apparatus, of which we give an illustration, was designed by Mr. EF, Thomas, ef the Cambrian Safety 1 Works, Aberdare, to. supersede the machine called by miners “Billy Fairplay” for weighing small coal. Hitherto the amount «f small coal to be deducted from cach man's wagon or bogey has been witnessed at, the nenee being that very often the careful miner had to suffer for the commissions of his designing and less scrupulous fcllow-workmen, At first the introduction of “ Billy Fairplay " was strenuously apposed by the men, but, after secing it in operation, they have generally declared themselves in favour of it in its improved form, as it has heen found to weigh with great accuracy, indicating the exact amount of small coal to be allowed for. Many of the principal collieries in South Wales and elsewhere have the machine Some of them the old single lever Billy, with the Duplex
It is easily adjusted, and wears long. The first cost of the and in its latest form has favourably spoken of by mining engineers who have seen it in action.
In 1919, Mr. L.N. Williams, died at the age of 75, and his eldest son, Mr. E.D. Williams
became Managing Director. At the time, the second son, a Regular Army Offices, Major,
Acting Lieutenant Colonel R.D. Williams. He had a distinguished war service having won the
D.S.O. for gallantry. In 1920, he resigned his commission and returned to join the
company, as Company Secretary.
His return coincided with the unrest in the coal industry, with strikes and lock-outs being
very much the order of the day. The Depression years were starting.
While there were no labour problems in the Company itself - over 100 people were employed at the time - the draughts of trouble in the coal industry were severely felt by the firm. Business declined and the Directors, of necessity, had to lay off staff accordingly. What was happening to the coal industry was happening to E. Thomas & Williams, and it was a considerable struggle to survive those traumatic years.
Traumatic years they were, lasting for almost the complete inter-war period. Indeed it was not until the commencement of the Second World War in September 1939 that the Company regained the momentum lost some 20 years earlier.
In addition to the reviving demand for safety lamps, contracts were obtained from the ministry of supply for the manufacture of steel parts and also a small battery ‘light-buoy', which when throw overboard from a ship stricken by shell fire or torpedo, would float on the water - the light blinking intermittently which marked the area where survivors could be found and rescued. This was another manufacture in keeping with the firm's long tradition of making reliable equipment for the protection of human life. At this time the work-force
was in the region of 40 employees.
In 1941, Mr. W.R. Donovan joined the firm as a junior clerk straight from Aberdare County
School, an event significant in the future fortunes in the history of the Cambrian Lamp
The work of the Company went ahead apace, but when the war ended, a new technological
age put in an appearance.
The introduction of the electric lamp for coal mines gradually replaced the oil lamp as a
source of underground lighting. The oil lamp, of course, was still of great importance for the
detection of methane gas and an oxygen deficient atmosphere underground.
The 'Cambrian' gas detector flame safety lamps both for colliers and for deputies or mining
officials, were and still are widely used throughout the coal-fields of the United Kingdom and
In 1946, Mr. E.D. Williams who had followed his father as Managing Director 1n 1919, died
and was succeeded by Major R.D. Williams D.S.O.
The good work was carried on with production for domestic industry and export ensuring
the high standards that had made the Company internationally famous.
However, international markets, especially in India slowly contracted: On the sub-continent, °
following self government and partition with Pakistan, the reason for the decline was mainly
indigenous manufacturey By the late 1950's contracts with India had disappeared.
In 1960, Major R.D. Williams, a familiar figure in the town died, and the final family
connection with the firm, ended. Mr. W.R. Donovan, who has already been mentioned, had
joined the firm, was appointed to a newly formed Board of Directors.
The period from 1961 proved to be a very difficult one with attempts to diversify into other
Eventually work was obtained for the making of wire mesh filters and similar products which helped the Company to carry on. Work was carried out for British Telecom, the shipping industry; the Admiralty and the Merchant Service benefited from the expertise of the
Cambrian Lamp Works.
Aboard ship, at sea, men were expected to work in places where there may be a deficiency of
oxygen, and the flame safety lamp is the ideal instrument for detecting such conditions.
A new avenue opened in 1969, the year of the investiture of the H.R.H. The Prince of Wales,
Charles. A committee whose members included Lord Snowdon was set up to examine the
quality of activities to be offered the public commemorating the historic event.
The Company submitted its lamp products, and were delighted when Certificates of Excellence in Quality and Design were received from the Snowdon Committee. Favourable comment in the press and television followed. Types of lamps produced for the occasion were put on permanent display at the London Design Centre.
It was at this period that the Company made its first serious attempt to sell mining lamps outside the mining industry, an attempt which proved to be enormously successful.
In 1976, Mr. W.R. Donovan climbed the final rung of the ladder on which he had made his first tentative steps as a 14 year old clerk in 1941. He became Managing Director. A success story due to application and diligence indeed. regrettably, only two years later, in 1978 the original premises in Craig Street, Foundry Town were completely destroyed by fire and Aberdare had lost one of its most historic and familiar buildings. With the building went all machinery, tooling, drawings, raw materials and most of the unfinished stock. To regard the fire as a serious set-back is nothing short of a gross understatement. It was disastrous!
However, in the words of the theatre people "the show must go on", and it is a source of great pride to the Company, that new premises, fully equipped was in operation within seven - weeks of the disaster. This was due almost entirely to the loyalty and great efforts of the work-force, and this ig stressed by Mr. Donovan in no small measure, to the prompt assistance of the public services.
In spite of the fire tragedy, the period since 1976 has been one of success and achievement.