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The 1913 Senghenydd disaster that destroyed an entire community

Archive footage shows extent of Senghenydd colliery disaster

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Hold a mirror up to Senghenydd and, apart from the Welsh language signs, you could be looking at any former mining town in Britain. ‘Sneggy’, as the locals call it, sits at the top of the Aber Valley in South Wales, a long stretch of undulating grasslands and meadows scarce of people but for Senghenydd and its neighbouring village, Abertridwr.

It is a peaceful place that only came into existence thanks to a mass of black gold — coal — found beneath its surface in the late 19th century. Coal breathed life into the town and sucked it back out again.

The village, which today constitutes a high street and nothing more, is the site of Britain’s worst mining disaster in history, the Universal Colliery explosion which tore not only through the mine’s infrastructure but through Senghenydd’s social and economic fabric.

It all happened on a dark and damp Monday morning, October 14, 1913, at around 8am, just as 950 men clocked in for their morning shift.

‘Greatest disaster ever known in Great Britain’

When the men descended the mine shaft, a blast from the West side of the pit ripped through the intricate system of tunnels, sending the two tonne cage they had travelled in skywards, wrecking the pit head on the surface as it rocketed past. The blast’s sparks caught onto firedamp — a flammable gas mostly made up of methane — lingering in the air and started an inferno that would blaze for days.

Word spreads quickly in small towns, and thousands soon gathered at Universal Colliery, owned by Sir William Lewis, a local coal magnate and Baron. Many came simply to see what the commotion was, others to find out if their husband, father or brother was alive.

Fire and rescue teams were called out from the neighbouring Rhondda and Rhymney valleys but it would take them days to find any trace of the survivors, buried beneath layer upon layer of coal and dust. Many had already died by suffocation. Others from the blast itself.

It took a day for the news to reach London, where on Wednesday, October 15, the Daily Express, on its front page, described the event as the “Greatest disaster ever known in Great Britain.”

By Friday, October 17, the death toll had risen to 440, including a member of the rescue team. That weekend, 150,000 people turned out for the funerals of 11 of the men found — a gargantuan number when considering Senghenydd’s population is today less than 8,000.

The effect it had on the town was seismic: 217 women were widowed, 522 children left without a father, and 47 dependent individuals faced with the loss of their sole breadwinner.

Despite this, Universal Colliery began its operations again on November 20, even though the West wing was out of action and 11 bodies were still missing. The onset of WW1 just eight months later meant an immense effort to fuel the war. Things returned to normal, the disaster forgotten.

The hasty return to day-to-day life is something that haunts 84-year-old Gill Jones MBE, Secretary of the Aber Valley Heritage Museum, the halls of which are full of excruciating details of the men and boys who were killed.

“We were just forgotten. We were left behind,” she said. “What was a little group of Welsh men in a mine? What importance were they to the world? Nothing…nothing.”

Could it have been avoided?

“Yes, I think so,” said Ceri Thompson, curator of all things coal at the Big Pit museum in Blaenavon, itself the site of a former working mine. Thompson has spent a considerable time pouring over the inquiry documents and subsequent court findings from the time of the disaster.

Proceedings were unusually quick. The investigation lasted just three days, and a subsequent inquest ran for 13 days and heard evidence from 50 witnesses. A further inquest ran for five days and heard testimonies from another 50 witnesses.

Using all that was collected, it was concluded that the disaster had caused “accidental death.” For many, however, there was nothing accidental about it.

As part of the 1911 Coal Mines Act, all collieries were required to introduce reversible fans into their mines, intended to reduce the risk of fires spreading in the event of an explosion.

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A month before the disaster, Sir Lewis’ company was told to install those fans at Senghenydd.

“But they never did,” Thompson said. “If the fans had been reversed, by the time the air came back round to the fire, it would have got out [of the mine] and so the fire would have been starved of oxygen.

“It would’ve saved men who were trying to make their way out of the pit through an atmosphere laden with carbon monoxide — it was the result of corporate laziness.”

Sir Lewis faced four charges in court, while the pit manager, Edward Shaw, faced 17. Shaw was convicted of eight while nine were dismissed, and Sir Lewis was found guilty of just one charge: the failure to fit reversible fans. He was fined £10, but died in 1914 before the sentence had passed.

It would have been viewed as a hefty sum. But it was miniscule when compared to the figure local newspapers at the time calculated to be the cost of each miner’s life lost in the disaster: 1¼ shillings, around £14 in today’s money.

Many concluded that the 1913 disaster was a freak accident, regardless of the reversible fans. But something similar had happened at Senghenydd just 12 years before, when an explosion killed 81 men.

Back then, mining engineer William Galloway had been sent to the site to write up a report, in which he listed several shortcomings of the mine, which had been in operation for just seven years at that time.

Some, like John Brown, a local author and historian, argue that these warnings were disregarded. In his book about the disaster, he writes that “there is little doubt that if the message it contained had been heeded the second Senghenydd explosion could well have been avoided”.

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‘It makes me angry to think how those women were treated’

Below the brow of the hill where the mine once was, a line of trees and shrubs divides the site of the disaster and Senghenydd memorial park and garden, a small enclave filled with beautiful flowers and brass statues of miners holding gas lamps in front of them, forever looking for a way out. Stone slabs with small squares force passersby to remember the names of the men who never reached the surface.

“It scarred the village,” Jones said, shuffling through the museum’s hallways, searching for the forgotten stories of the men who died. “There’s so many I don’t know where to start,” she said. “But I’m waiting for someone to tell the story of those women who were left behind.”

Various funds were set-up for the families affected after the blast, including a donation made by King George V. By July 1914, £126,000 had been offered for the families. Compensation was given by the mine, around £172.15s.9d per case — far less than the £300 maximum sum, and only slightly more than the supposed £150 minimum.

The 1897 Workman’s Compensation Act dictated that any compensation should be given to those affected as a lump sum. But this didn’t happen.

Debate was rife over whether women could be trusted with a bag full of cash. One newspaper column, written by a Mr Evan Owens, read: “£300 to many a housewife would appear inexhaustible wealth… and there was a very real danger of such an impression proving disastrous.”

Widows were as a result paid in weekly instalments. Catherine Wilsby, writing in her 1995 report on the treatment of the women after the disaster, argued that this method of payment was “used as a means of control over them”.

Alongside this, many conditions were put in place if the women expected to receive their money. They had to avoid “all immoral habits”, things like staying chaste and not remarrying.

Those conditions were decided on and enacted by the Executive Committee and Board of Trustees, frequented entirely by men, with no direct representation given to the women involved.

The widows were forced to live out their lives in a perpetual state of anxiety. They were unable to work for fear of losing their compensation money but couldn’t to afford to live and sustain their families on those same meagre funds. The women were stuck in a catch-22. It is a dark chapter in Senghenydd’s history that is as forgotten as the disaster itself.

“There had been notification given that one of the widows was receiving a money order from someone fighting in France during the war,” Jones said. “They committee asked her who the man was and said if she didn’t tell them they’d stop her money. She wouldn’t say who it was so they stopped all her compensation.

“He was a boyfriend and she didn’t want anyone to know. It’s just awful. Awful the way they were treated. It makes me so angry.”

In correspondence shortly after the compensation sum was agreed on, Sir Lewis’ accountant for Universal Colliery was overjoyed with the financial deal that had been struck: “Having regard to all the circumstances I think the settlements can be regarded as extremely favourable from our mutual point of view.”

‘That’s when the poverty came’

Senghenydd colliery flourished in the war years, but the coal industry had already begun its decline by 1914. In 1928, Universal Colliery packed up and shut its doors, taking any money left with it.

What was a mining town to do without a mine? “Nobody would have ever built terraced houses in these places if it wasn’t for the coal industry being there — once that colliery is gone, the reason for existence goes too,” Thompson said.

Stagnation followed, and something that once resembled a community disappeared almost overnight. Everything changed: the thriving pubs closed, the clubs ran out of money. The working men’s institutes had no working men. The churches lost their congregations and choirs. Those lucky enough left. Everyone else stayed.

“That’s when the poverty came,” said Jones. “I can remember as a young girl being ashamed of living there. The entire village was destitute.

“Children playing in the street without shoes on, without knickers and pants on. It was awful. The filth and the dirt. You lost the will to live.”

It is a story all too familiar to former mining towns in Britain, but especially those in the Welsh Valleys that even today bear the scars of their industrial past. “Places have never really recovered,” Thompson said.

But while the disaster and the decline of the mines is still a very real presence in those towns, Jones lights up when talking about the Senghenydd of today.

“Those same houses that you wouldn’t want to step foot in back then, those houses that were dirty and decrypted, now, I go into them and they’re immaculate.

“You see photographs of great-grandchildren in their university cap and gown. You’d never have imagined it after what happened.”

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