History of Dolaucothi

Inside the Roman adit at Dolaucothi

Gold mining at Dolaucothi dates back at least 2000 years starting before the time of Roman author, Pliny the Elder and ending just before the Second World War.

The Romans at Dolaucothi

Between 70AD and 80AD the Romans began the first extensive mining of Dolaucothi creating large open-cast workings and digging several tunnels (adits) to exploit the gold veins. This period of mining will have altered the physical landscape of Dolaucothi beyond all recognition. 

Most of this achieved using nothing more than picks and hammers and the power of water in what must have been very hard labour. Some of the original pick-marks, which are almost 2,000 years old, can still be seen in the adits whilst on the tour. Alongside the remains of the leat channels and water tanks that were used to bring water in for purposes of scouring away the topsoil and washing the crushed ore. 

No one knows how the Romans first found or heard about Dolaucothi, although we do know that their trade routes extended into Wales, yielding the precious metals was a reason for their invasion. 

We also know that they established a fort in an area that now encompasses the village of Pumsaint soon after arriving in Carmarthenshire around 70AD and began mining shortly after. 

The Roman military fort was largely abandoned in 125AD when it became a civilian fort with evidence of continuing activity in the area thanks to discoveries of Roman coins dating back to the late 4th century.  

After the Romans

Once the vestiges of Roman occupation disappeared from Dolaucothi, the knowledge and usage of the gold mine apparently disappeared with them. 

The next significant period of mining was in the Victorian/Edwardian age occurred around the turn of the 20th century, at the same time as the first South African gold mines and the famous Klondike Gold Rush. 

The South Wales Gold Mining Company was founded by a lead miner from Edward Jones to sublet the mines from the Johnes family who owned the estate in 1888. Hoping to make his fortune, unfortunately for him there was only a small proportion of gold in the ore being mined which made the operation too expensive to be worthwhile. 

In 1905 James Mitchell, who’d experience the South African gold rush first hand, was employed by the Johnes family to reopen the mines in 1905. Making a profit in his first year convinced him to found his own company Ogofau Proprietary Gold Mining Company. It claimed initial success, but sadly lack of further discoveries forced the venture to cease in 1909.

Nevertheless, the lure of gold and potential riches remained captivating, as Cothy Mines immediately took on the lease, re-employing James Mitchell as mine manager in the hope that he’d strike lucky a second time. 

He sunk his first major shaft on site, topped by a large wooden ‘headframe’ that lowered miners into the depths in barrels. Once again though, Dolaucothi stifled his efforts to make a fortune as he struck the remains of Roman workings flooded centuries earlier. The cost of pumping out the water proved too great and Cothy Mines shut down operations in 1912. 

The 1930s at the gold mines

A newly formed Roman Deep Ltd began work to extensively develop the mining area, starting with Mitchell’s 1909 shaft. New technologies meant that adits could be driven further and shafts sunk deeper than ever before.  The shaft was drained of water and steadily deepened to 480ft (146m) making it the deepest known shaft on site. 

It was in the 1930s that they discovered the Roman workings including wooden ladders, scaffolding and wooden water drainage wheel. 

Despite the ambition of this development, even though this was the most substantial amount of gold extracted since the Romans, it didn't prove financially viable to continue. According to some miners who worked at the site at the time, they supplied a small amount of gold for the royal wedding of Prince George, Duke of Kent to Princess Marina of Greece and Denmark. 

Changing hands and expanding production

Over succeeding years the mining company was renamed and lease transferred until in 1937 when the company became British Goldfields (No. 1) Ltd and employment dramatically rose as the labour force increased to around 150-200. The expansion of the workforce allowed gold production to soar to some of the highest levels ever seen at Dolaucothi. On average, several hundred tons of ore was extracted each week. 

Sadly, just a month after gold production had reached its peak, mining operations were ground to a halt in October 1938. Within two years all the buildings were removed and the mine shafts allowed to flood. 

Mining at Dolaucothi would never resume.