The Jam & Marmalade Industry in Swanseashire

An extract from a treatise by Professor CD Crafty-D’Og on the famous mining industry of the Swanseashire Valley and its environs, including the Chutney workings of the Amman Valley.

The story of South Wales is one that revolves around its mineral wealth; naturally everyone thinks of the coal, iron ore and even, to a lesser extent, silver and gold.  The rich seams of coal on which the industrial revolution was built are only matched by the equally thick beds of the pre-cambrian preserves, which outcrop across the area, most notably around Swanseashire.  Everyone has heard about the treacle mines of Lancashire on which the Eccles cake industry was built but just as important are the seams of jam found in the hills around Crafty Dog Towers.  The history of jam, chutney and marmalade extraction in the county of Swanseashire is believed to go back many centuries. 

In the 1870’s the skeleton of what was thought to be a female from the stone age was found in a cave on the Gower peninsula.  This “Red Lady of Paviland” was coloured in what was thought to be red ochre.  This has now been corrected; the skeleton was indeed from the neolithic period, but was a young man and the colouring was a red preserve, believed to be either strawberry or redcurrant jam.  The strawberry jam seam that outcrops west of Swansea (the famous three feet sweet deposit) made many landowners rich in the middle ages; whereas the Cotswolds had sheep and wool, medieval Swansea had strawberry jam and preserves.  In fact, it has been suggested that the main reason that the Romans came to Britain was to tap into the jam and marmalade deposits they had heard legends of.  Professor Theophilus Jones[1] has postulated in his book on Greek and Roman folk tales that the Golden Fleece was not one full of gold dust but of a yellow marmalade, probably lemon and lime. 

Where the jam came to the surface there, inevitably, was a share cropper scrabbling for a living from a preserve mine, digging out small quantities of jam or, if it was the 2ft Bleddyn seam, marmalade.  These small jam-mine owners made money but it wasn’t easy selling their products in small wooden jars which were hand-carved in cottages across Swanseashire.  During the middle ages more enterprising (or possibly gullible) marmalade producers worked with the cottage industries that produced flannel and wool and made small lined bags to put their product in (due to a few obvious design issues these soggy bags never really caught on).  In the 1750’s the Swanseashire potteries started making ceramic pots and at the same time a number of mine owners consolidated their businesses by buying out their smaller competitors.  With this industrial revolution (or “Jamolution” as writers on Industrial South Wales have called it[2]) some of these jam owners became jam magnates.  The Swansea Canal was built not only to move coal down the valley to the docks but also long barges of preserves, which initially went round Britain but later, the world.   Nelson fought the Battle of Trafalgar after a breakfast of Swanseashire Lime Marmalade on toast, and it has been recorded that Napoleon Bonaparte was partial to Swanseashire plum jam on his croissants[3].  It was General Picton who on the Waterloo Campaign introduced Sir Arthur Wellesley, the Duke of Wellington, to the wonders of Swanseashire preserves[4]

As the price of Swanseashire pottery rocketed due to the popularity of Swansea porcelain it created another crisis in the South Wales preserves business – the pottery jars were just no longer available.   The woollen industry smelled money and dusted out the patterns of the soggy pre-industrial marmalade bags, but another entrepreneur in the English midlands came forward with the first glass jam jar.  The Welsh woollen industry switched back to socks and blankets and the glassworks around Stourbridge boomed.

Chutneys are always considered to be an introduction from the great Indian sub-continent, and they were being imported from there in large quantities by the early nineteenth century.  This lack of a local chutney was largely due to the difficulty in reaching the Welsh chutney seams which were too deep to reach with existing technology.  British chutneys had long been extracted from the small bell-pits of the south-east of England but this had been of the Picallilly variety.  Though it was popular, it was not universally so.  There had been some Welsh chutney during the late eighteenth century as the beds of mango of the Amman valley had been exploited due to their closeness to the surface.  It’s popularity and scarcity led to its early demise, as the trade never really recovered from the Amman Valley Bubble scandal of the 1790’s. 

Amongst rumours of a great find of an easily accessible hot chutney (supposedly a chilli one) a fake company sold shares in this rich chutney seam.  The company bought a stretch of the Black Mountain and had even started clearing trees and scrub for a tramroad to take the chutney in wagons to the coast.  Just as the ground was due to be broken to open up a tunnel for a drift mine, the samples that had gone to be tested were discovered to be a jam mixed with peppers.  Customs officers sped to the site and arrived only to find the mine abandoned.  There followed a desperate chase across Carmarthenshire, horse-borne customs officers racing after two stage coaches of Amman Valley Chutney Company “managers”. The ship with the fraudsters on was just leaving Kidwelly docks as the customs men arrived at the waterside, only to watch them sailing into the sunset with the shareholders money.  The shares which so many people had bought were worth absolutely nothing, a scandal which stunted the Welsh chutney mining industry for many years[5]

Borrowing from technology derived from coal mining in the 1850s a pioneering engineer sank a deep mine into a legendary seam of mixed mango and red onion chutneys.  Far cheaper than importing Chutney from India, it made it available for the first time to the working man.  This was the making of the upper Amman valley; the number of workers from West Wales (3000), South West England (2000), and Ireland (3,000) working in the deep chutney mines that mushroomed across the area meant that the small village of Afonamman that had been a farm of 8 people in 1750, grew to 250 in 1810 and 14,0000 by 1875, nearly all employed in chutney mining.  The town of Afonamman boomed, with over 12 chutney mines along the hill on both sides of the River Amman.  The large number of miners, and their families, had money to spend and so emerged the many public houses and places of ill-repute where lonely miners would exchange money, or a pocketful of rough-uncut chutney for a strong drink or a stronger woman.  The Wild-west of the Amman Valley was a dangerous place until the local police force bravely opened three police stations to try and establish a modicum of law and order.  In the wilder parts of the hills were bands of ne’er do wells, known as Shrub Rangers, some of whom have gone down in history.  Dai Kelly[6], Beefy Casserole, the Sundown Kid, and the “Hole-in-the-Dry-Stone-Wall Gang”.  Just as famous was the argument over two buckets of Spiced Tomato Chutney that led to the shootout that killed 6 of the outlaws and 3 of the police, the Gunfight at the Not-So-Bad Sheep Farm.  They were dangerous times, until the ‘Revival’ of the 1860’s, which brought Methodism and God to the area; there may have been sixty pubs, but by then there were also 60 chapels and 60 Wesleyan, Calvinistic Methodist, Baptist and Welsh-Independent ministers.  As the first preachers spoke fire and brimstone from their pulpits the last of the Shrub Rangers melted into the mists of time.

In Swanseashire the jams and marmalades made many rich, and in the neighbouring Amman Valley the chutney mines also created great wealth[7].  The world cried out for the preserves of South Wales, especially so after the secret was found for exporting Welsh chutneys and preserves to the hotter climates of the world.  There had been a request by the British Government to find a way of producing preserves that could withstand the long boat journey to the far-flung parts of the world still painted pink on the map (which we now know as The Commonwealth).  This is how the first batches of “India Pale Mango Chutney” came about, varieties that South Wales sent to India rather like coals to Newcastle.

The Swanseashire Preserves were so important to the morale of troops in the South African Wars (the 24th Foot, based at Brecon who later became the South Wales Borderers were particularly fond of Peach & Ginger Jam[8]) and pots of Swansea Strawberry and Raspberry Jams with Queen Victoria’s face on were some of the first items smuggled in to break the Siege of Ladysmith. Even in the muddy, wet trenches of the Western Front in World War 1 the Welsh soldiers were consoled by pots of Swanseashire Marmalades and Amman Valley Chutneys, wrapped in thick flannel scarves to keep the soldiers warm. 

The great depression of the 1920’s and 30’s hammered the area economically and socially; it led to the closure of the coal mines and the neighbouring preserves mines, the laying off of countless colliers and preserves diggers.  Numerous of the smaller companies never reopened, and others staggered on, yet in decline only to fizzle out in the 1960’s.  Today if you walk along the hillsides you will see the remains of buildings and mine workings once bustling with life.  Where Orange Marmalade emerged by the tramload, bracken and bramble grows, where raw jam was processed in the washery, sheep now graze (and the occasional lama[9]).  After World War 2, cheap imports, and the availability of even cheaper artificial preserves made from fruit and vegetables virtually killed off Jam and Marmalade mining, and even the once thriving Chutney business shrank to merely a trickle.  Today there are only one or two small mines who literally extract a few buckets of raw product by hand, and process the conserve in cottages, rather like they did in the pre-industrial era.  If you venture into local craft shops and markets you may be lucky enough to buy a jar or two of hand-dug and cooked preserve’s, fresh from the hillsides of Swanseashire.  Beware any pale imitations!

[1] In the earliest tales the fleece is referred to as being Golden and Unctuous, and later translations from the Ancient Greek are wrong in thinking this means Gold and Heavy. T.J. Jones, “Honey & Fruit Spreads in the Ancient World”, Morriston University Press, 1979

[2] Higgins & Smith, “South Wales in the 18th Century; Jam, Marmalade and Revolution”, Thrumble Books, London, 1968.

[3] P. Lafayette, “The Diaries of Napoleon Bonaparte; Volume 2 – Breakfasts that Conquered Europe”, Librarie d’Evreux, 1956.

[4] Picton was offering the Duke a sandwich when he had his leg blown off, leading to the famous exchange; “I seem to have lost my orange marmalade on toast”, to which the Duke replied, “Indeed you did sir.  I suppose I will have to have cheese.”

[5] The boat was one of the first to arrive in Chile, where the fleeing fraudsters became some of the earliest settlers in Patagonia, hiding from the long-arm of the Customs & Excise.  Higgins & Smith, “South Wales in the 18th Century; Jam, Marmalade and Revolution”, Thrumble Books, London, 1968, p 235-7.

[6] Dai Kelly was allegedly a (very) distant relative of the Australian Ned Kelly.  He is known for his holding up the mail coach outside Pontamman, where he wore an enamelled chamber-pot on his head, and a very thick flannel vest which he believed made him bulletproof.  There were two flaws in his plan; the flannel was grade 3 and not thick enough (especially without a woollen under-vest), and he had forgotten to drill holes in the chamber pot so he could not see very well – only his feet.  Challenged by the local police constable (Evan Evans, known as Evans the Law), he turned to flee and fell over a parked sheep.  He only served 18 months hard-labour in Ponty Prison, due to the Judge, Justice Hugh Andcray, saying that he had made him laugh more than he had in years.  Kelly ended his days running a pub in the Orkneys. Crispin O’Dowd, “Wild Wales and the Kelly Gang”, Pembrokeshire Free Press, 1985.

[7] Of all the millionaires in Wales in the 1890’s, 1/3 were from the Amman Valley and had a finger or two in the Chutney and Preserves industry. “Money, Power and Preserves; The Growth of the Amman Valley Chutney Lords”, J.C. Thomas, Carmarthenshire Historian, XXVII, July 1958.

[8] At Rorke’s Drift in 1879, contrary to previous reports, it was wooden jam crates that were used to build the redoubt and firing steps that sheltered the soldiers from the Zulu’s toward the end of the battle. “The Washing of the Jam Spoons”, Thrumble Books, London, 1964. P. 154-170 gives a full account of the battle, including the breakfast order of the leaders of the British soldiers.  JRM Chard, Royal Engineers, preferred a Lime Marmalade, though Bromhead was a traditional Peach & Ginger jam eater.  Both preferred toast to army biscuits.

[9] Llewelyn Proudfoot-Rees sold his Marmalade rights to a London company in 1952 and bought four llamas from a travelling zoo.  He hoped to establish a knitting factory but it never came to fruition.  Now small herds of these South American ungulates can be seen in the local hills wandering across the Welsh pampas.