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History of Dolaucothi

A close-up shot of pick marks carved into the rock at Dolaucothi Gold Mines, Carmarthenshire
Pick marks on rock at Dolaucothi Gold Mines | © National Trust Images/Andrew Butler

Discover how gold mining at Dolaucothi dates back at least 2,000 years. Starting before the time of the Roman author, Pliny the Elder, mining at the site ended 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.

Hard labour

Most of this was 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.

Roman invasion

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.

Abandoned military fort

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.

A low arched doorway with a metal grate is carved into a craggy stone wall at Dolaucothi Gold Mines, Carmarthenshire.
The Mitchell Mine entrance at Dolaucothi Gold Mines | © National Trust Images/Andrew Butler

After the Romans

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

Turn of the 20th Century

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

Founding of a company

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.

Reopening of the mines

In 1905 James Mitchell, who’d experience the South African gold rush first hand, was employed by the Johnes family to reopen the mines.

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.

Cothy Mines

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.

Shut down

He sunk his first major shaft on site, topped by a large wooden ‘headframe’ that lowered miners into the depths in barrels.

Once again, 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 remains of crumbling mine buildings that are set into a hillside and overcrown with grass and moss at Dolaucothi Gold Mines, Carmarthenshire.
The remains of mine buildings at Dolaucothi Gold Mines | © National Trust Images/Andrew Butler

1930s at the gold mines

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.

Discovery of Roman workings

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

Gold for a royal wedding

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 1937 when the company became British Goldfields (No 1) Ltd and employment dramatically rose as the labour force increased to around 150-200.

Soaring gold production

The expansion of the workforce allowed gold production to soar to some of the highest levels ever seen at Dolaucothi. On average, several hundred tonnes of ore were extracted each week.

End of an era at Dolaucothi

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.

How did the gold form? 

The bedrock in this area is approximately 438 million years old and lies close to the Ordovician-Silurian contact. It consists mostly of Silurian shales which were initially formed in a marine environment. If you look closely at the mine walls, you can spot signs of sea floor ripples.

During a mountain building event, the Caledonide Orogeny, the rocks folded, sheared and thrusted under the enormous pressures built up in the crust. 

Rich veins

Dolaucothi is located on a major fold for this area, the Cothi Anticline. The gold itself is found in the apex of the folds and in the quartz veins that formed either as thin discontinuous veins or lenses. The richest ores also contain an abundance of pyrite (fool’s gold). 

The mined zone is around half a mile squared in area, marked on the surface by numerous shallow pits, trenches, adits and shafts. The most lucrative deposit is known as the ‘Roman Lode’, a saddle reef deposit, which was mined during the last period of mining between 1935 and 1938. 

What happened to all the gold mined at Dolaucothi?

We know very little about what happened to the gold after it left Dolaucothi, but significant nearby finds suggest that it led to the creation of very beautiful decorative gold items.

In 1797, a farmer ploughing his field close to the mines made an exciting discovery: a cache of gold decorative items, including a fragment of a Roman gold serpent-headed bracelet, now in the British Museum. 

These items are part of the British Museum Collection, and you can view them online on the British Museum website.

Royal links

There’s also the Royal Family link to Welsh gold. Most of the royal collection is from the Dolgellau mines, but we’re told that some of it can be linked to Dolaucothi. 

The Johnes family are also known to have commissioned some jewellery from the gold found at the mines, but sadly we can no longer trace the location of that collection. Perhaps one day it will be rediscovered.

Visitors with a row of mine tubs in the foreground at Dolaucothi Gold Mines, Carmarthenshire.

Dolaucothi's collections

Explore the objects and works of art we care for at Dolaucothi on the National Trust Collections website.

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