The rush to the pit head: Universal Colliery, Senghenydd, 14 October 1913

Today, 14 October 2013, marks precisely 100 years since the terrible explosion that ripped through the Universal Colliery in Senghenydd, killing 439 men and boys. It was then, and remains today, the worst mining disaster in British history. To see pictures of the chaotic panic above ground is to be struck by the impossible horror of what went on deep underground. Some of the shift would have been killed outright, others burnt alive in the flames, still others would have slowly suffocated in a noxious mixture of poisonous gases and coal dust as they struggled to escape. Dead too were the pit ponies used to pull the machinery and drams: a scene of destruction and devastation accompanied by the cruel sounds of immolation and death. The rescuers who went instantly to the pit head could hear the screams of young boys, many barely 14, calling out for their mother.

The sense of loss was enormous. For weeks afterwards the Welsh newspapers carried tallies of various kinds, from religious to sporting. Consider one, from the Aberdare Leader, which told of the deaths of precisely half the choir of the local Roman Catholic Church. In neighbouring valleys, in places such as Ynysybwl, Penrhiwceiber and Cilfynydd, collieries stood still to enable families to attend the funerals of the victims. In the chapels and churches of Aberdare and Rhymney musicians played death marches to standing, silent congregations. Alongside the Albion Colliery disaster of 1894, less than 20 years before, and the Gresford Colliery explosion in 1934, Senghenydd served as a tragic reminder of the high price that was paid day-by-day for the coal that drove the British Empire. In 1913 alone, there were four other disasters (defined as a colliery accident that claimed more than 5 lives), with a total of 53 lives lost, and Senghenydd had already paid a high price just ten years before when an explosion at the Universal had claimed 81 victims.

1913, ironically, was the high watermark of the South Wales Coalfield, never before, and never again, would the coalfield produce as much coal as it did that year. In many ways, the Senghenydd disaster signalled the beginning of Wales’s decline. Within fifteen years, the number of miners employed in the Aber Valley shrank from around 4,500 to just 1,000. Little wonder that in the tumult of the 1920s and 1930s, the communities of Abertridwr and Senghenydd lent their support to more radical voices like those of Jack Roberts, known locally as Jack Russia, who served on the Urban District Council under the banner of the Communist Party of Great Britain and fought in Spain under the banner of the International Brigades. It is perhaps fruitless endeavouring to consider what might have been had the Senghenydd explosion not occurred but one thing, I think, is certain: the people of the coalfield would have been more heavily involved in the struggle of their comrades in Ireland, they had already committed themselves to providing food and money, to providing a sympathetic voice speaking the same language. The Dublin Lockout might well have become their battle, as many already felt it was.

A century on, with the coal industry known to the people who rushed to the pit head that day itself gone, the act of remembering the victims of Senghenydd is coupled with a different type of remembrance. We remember, too, the sacrifices made by those who, by fortune, came home every day. We remember, for what it may be worth in the years to come, the struggle of ordinary men and women to keep the industry, to keep the jobs, to keep the galvanising presence of a pit on the communities that sprang up around them. This centenary, along with that of Gwyn Thomas just a few months ago, focuses our minds on everything that has been lost and the need to recover the spirit (if not the infrastructure) that sustained the people of the Valleys.

Today’s is a short post. I leave you, dear reader, with one of those haunting songs that the Welsh have composed to comfort themselves in times of strife. This one was sung by Welsh soldiers on the battlefield of the Somme as they stood surveying the war-torn landscape and breathing a sigh of relief that, for the moment, they had survived:

From Salem’s fair heights we shall witness

Our way through the desert of life,

And then shall we see the sweet fitness

Of all its strange sorrows and strife:

Its storms shall we see and its fears,

And death – from the mansions above –

When, safe from its terrors and tears,

We revel in peace and in love.

Listen to it here: