Lucy Thomas, (baptised 11 March 1781 – 27 September 1847), was a Welsh businesswoman and colliery owner known as 'the mother of the Welsh steam coal trade'. Thomas, with her son, took over the running of her husband's coal mine after his death in 1833. Much of Thomas' subsequent success as a businesswoman were embellished by Merthyr historian Charles Wilkins, who wrote one of the few articles on her life in 1888. It is now believed that, George Insole, a Cardiff agent was the architect of her success, though this does not diminish Thomas' position as one of the few women coal owners in industrial Britain.
Thomas was baptized in Llansamlet, south Wales on 11 March 1781. Born Lucy Williams to Job Williams and his wife, Ann James. She married Robert Thomas at Llansamlet on 30 June 1802. Robert was a contractor of a coal level, providing fuel for Cyfarthfa Ironworks. They had eight children, six sons and two daughters.
As an industrialist
In 1828 Robert Thomas took up an annual tenancy from Lord Plymouth for the opening and mining of a small coal level at Waun Wyllt, near Abercanaid, south of Merthyr. The contract forbade Robert Thomas from trading with the four local ironworks which were under the ownership of Lord Plymouth. Although little was expected from the level, it was the first to hit the 'Four Foot Seam, a rich deposit of high quality steam coal. The mine initially sold its coal to local households in Merthyr and Cardiff, with a tramline being constructed from Thomas' level to the Glamorganshire Canal to allow transportation to Cardiff Docks. Within a couple of years of the level being opened Robert was in contract with George Insole a Cardiff trader. In November 1830 Insole had agreed the shipment of 413 tons of steam coal from Waun Wyllt to London.
In 1833 Robert Thomas died. Lucy Thomas and their eldest son Robert were granted probate and from that time Insole's payments for the coal dispatched were paid to them. Through Insole a contact was written with Messer's Wood and Company to supply the London-based coal merchants for a quantity of 3,000 tons of coal per year. These early deals with the London markets helped establish the reputation of Welsh coal and how Thomas became known as 'The Mother of the Welsh Steam Coal Trade'. Although Thomas and her son Robert were credited with this success, it is now believed that much of this success was down to Insole. The embellishment of Thomas' achievements are today attributed to Merthyr historian Charles Wilkins, who wrote an account of Thomas in 1888. Wilkins had a penchant for imaginative touches and his work gave the impression of Thomas as an enterprising woman who looked to set up new markets, whereas evidence now suggest that this work was conducted by her agents. Further research has also shown that coal had been shipped to London from Wales before either of the Thomas' began extracting coal from their level, with shipments from Llanelli and Swansea being exported to the capital as early as 1824.
In the mid-1830s the lease for the Waun Wyllt level was terminated and Thomas instead leased the neighbouring Graig pit which also exploited the 'Four Foot Seam'.
Death and legacy
In September 1847 Lucy Thomas contracted typhoid fever and died two weeks later on 27 September 1847 at her home in Abercanaid. She was buried at the family plot in the cemetery of the Unitarian chapel at Cefn-coed-y-cymmer near Merthyr. Despite this evidence available today, the myth of a sole woman engaging in a near-total male dominated industry has endured. This myth was given further credence with the construction of a fountain on the High Street of Merthyr Tydfil in commemoration of Lucy Thomas and her son Robert. It was part funded by her granddaughter's husband, William Lewis, 1st Baron Merthyr.