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Success Stories

by Michael Brown

ISBN 0 86243 775 X
Dinas, 2005
211pp, illustrated paperback
Retail price 9.95

Open Book

Review by Deborah Fisher

Never having heard of Dylife before, I was grateful to Michael Brown for his first sentence, which tells us that it is located close to the Montgomeryshire/Cardiganshire border. I felt that it was a little excessive to describe it, in the subtitle, as a "famous" Welsh lead mine; but it seems that it is well-known among industrial archaeologists.

Mining is of course not a modern activity. The Romans were doing it, and they were doing it at Dylife. It then disappears from the record until about 1600, when it was again (or still?) being worked. Its mines continued to be worked until the early 20th century. After their closure, the community which depended on them for its economic survival gradually dwindled away, and nothing now remains but the remains so dear to archaeologists.

There are several aspects to the story. First, there is the history of the mine itself, as described above. Then there is the habitation of the area, with the original village dating back as far as the 17th century and further, gradually growing into a thriving community of three pubs, a church, three chapels, a school, and a "big house" – the Plas. Mr Brown draws on a range of official and unofficial records to build up a picture of life in the village during the 19th and early 20th centuries.

Chapter 6 consists of an extract from a geological report of 1922, and makes rather dry reading unless you are interested in mineralogy. This is the point at which I began to suspect that the author had run out of things to say. Part of me felt that Dylife would have been better served by a smaller, more compact publication, concentrating on the core of facts available to Michael Brown, and his interpretation of them, rather than the wide splay of information, some of it peripheral to the ostensible subject of the book. The neighbouring mine of Dyfngwm deserves, and gets, some attention, but I wondered if it might have been more useful to look at it separately. Perhaps it was a case of economy of scale, the publisher being reluctant to divide resources between two or more booklets. So often, in the world of non-fiction publishing, the presentation of the author’s findings can be compromised by commercial pressures.

The latter part of the book goes into some detail on the technical aspects of lead mining, including diagrams, old maps and photographs to help convey the data in a more palatable form. These later chapters are really only going to appeal to a minority, but, by combining them with the anecdotes and local colour in the earlier sections, some kind of balance is struck. Thus readers of different types can be attracted to the same book, even if they only read half of it. This, again, is all about saleability, and we can hardly complain at that. Had the author not had the energy to pursue his research, this history might have been condemned to lie obscurely hidden forever among the archives; but had Y Lolfa not chosen to publish it, the same would have been true.