Senghenydd Universal Colliery Disaster 100th Anniversary Commemoration

The village of Senghenydd marked the 100th anniversary of the Universal Colliery disaster on October 14th with a truly poignant memorial programme, led by Roy Noble, that honoured the thousands of men who have lost their lives in coalmines throughout Wales. The Wales National Memorial was unveiled to mark the event, along with plaques inscribed with the names of every man lost at Senghenydd. Hundreds of people, including many relatives of those who lost their lives, turned out to commemorate the lost miners. Many laid floral tributes and joined in with the Aber Valley Male Voice Choir who sang at the memorial. It was a fitting way to remember the many Welsh men and boys who paid the ultimate price while trying to earn a living.

Read Roy Noble’s moving and fitting speech here:

Senghenydd – Universal Colliery Disaster -100th Anniversary Commemoration Oct.14th 2013

Address given by Roy Noble OBE at the National Mining Memorial site.

Arglwydd Rhaglaw. Prif Weinidog, Archesgob Cymru, Gwesteion Anrhydeddus- holl, Boneddigion, Boneddigesau, Annwyl Gyfeillion, ffrindiau

Lord Lieutenant, First Minister, Archbishop of Wales, Honoured Guests-all, Ladies and Gentlemen, friends.

More than anyone, may I welcome the residents of Senghenydd, the AberValley, and everyone who has a connection, in family or in feeling for your fellow man, with this commemoration today. Wherever you are from, Wales, the United Kingdom, or from overseas…..to all of you, a warm welcome.

To some of you,  welcome home…..welcome home.

Croeso unwaith eto I’r Cwm. A welcome again to the Valley.

Gadewch i ni ddechrau wrth fynd yn ol , lawr y daith dros y blynyddoedd.

To set the scene, let’s go back, along the track, down the years.

Idris Davies, the common man’s poet from Rhymney, wrote in his poem, ‘ Gwalia Deserta’….

“There are countless tons of rock above his head

And gases wait in secret corners for a spark

And his lamp shows dimly in the dust

His leather belt is warm and moist with sweat

And he crouches against the hanging coal

And the pick swings to and fro.

Oh, what is man that coal should be so careless of him

And what is coal that so much blood be upon it ? “

In Rhydwen Williams’ book ‘ Amser I wylo’ ( Time to cry)- Senghenydd 1913 there is a letter written from one friend to another, after a silence of  some time…….

“ Dyma fi. Yn fyw ohyd ar ol y tawelwch, Fi’n gweithio yn Senghenydd….y  pwll gorau yn y byd”

Derbyniodd  ei gyfaill y llythyr yn gynnar ar fore Hydref, 1913.

Digwyddodd y danchwa awr cyn hynny.

“ Here I am after some time of silence, still alive. I’m working in Senghenydd…..the best pit in the world”

The letter was received in North Wales ,early, on October 14th 1913. The explosion had happened an hour before

On that morning, Harry Wedlock had been awake from 4 a.m. At 14 years of age, this was his first day at work. In the Universal Colliery he was due to work with Sydney Gregory, of 24 Station Terrace.

His Mam had prepared his ‘ Tommy’ box and ‘ jack’. His working clothes were on the chair and he was full of excitement and apprehension, but he was ready….ready for anything.

Now here was a day he’d remember !

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As I look around at the numbers here today, it signifies how deeply what happened here one hundred years ago has entered the psyche and soul of the nation. A record breaking event that was thrust, in a callous calamity, upon a community. The largest loss of life of any coal-mining disaster in Britain….the third largest in the entire world. .

We are here to commemorate, to pay tribute and to give respect and honour  for all those who paid the ultimate price in the quest for coal.

Disasters, of course, are classified as 5 men or more. Gleision two years ago took 4 lives, but it was a reminder of the sacrifice in the coal industry. With that in mind, I wrote a special message, with a Welsh translation, on one of the paviers ,to especially honour those who died in ‘ unclassified’ disaster It reads :

“ Dedicated to all those who worked in the coal industry in Wales.

Men and boys coursed their life’s blood to carve the coal seamed Klondikes into new communities

Vibrant of spirit and searching of soul, they set up, from wage contributions, the

keystones of society, in their clubs, institutes, halls, libraries, hospitals and chapels.

In the constant quest for coal, some paid the ultimate price.

Some in  mind numbing disasters, others on their own and others in small groups,

Gleision Colliery, with its loss of 4 men on September 15th. 2011, revisited the

memories of old.

May they be the last fatalities listed on the long, long register of sacrifice”

In that today, we remember Senghenydd and the disaster at the Universal Colliery of 1913, let us stress that this is a National Mining Memorial and I could …and should, mention other disasters.;

Abercarn   268 lost, Albion Cilfynydd  290 lost

Gresford  266,  Ferndale 178 Cymmer 114,

Llanerch Abersychan  176, Wattstown, 119,

Park Slip Tondu 110     Risca Waunfawr 146 and 120

Those are the ones in the hundreds. If you were to count all disasters, of 5 men or more, the figure is over 6000.

If you added the ones below the line of ‘ 5 for a disaster figure’…..to count and include the loss of those in groups of four, three, two and those perished on their own….what would the total figure be?

If you added those who died, slowly, of silicosis or pneumoconiosis or 100% ‘dust’ as it was called, where the cause of death on the certificate was something else, like pneumonia, so no compensation had to be paid , what  would the total figure be ?

If you added Aberfan in 1966, where 144 died , mostly children, in a coal-tip slide, what would the figure be ?

But we are here today , in Senghenydd, to pay homage to our forbears, with whom we are related, those of us from the Welsh Coalfield, For this tribe, who gathered in the Klondike and melting pot that was the new mining community, became a hugely important patch on the quilt that is Wales. We were all hewn from the black gold and crystal seams that got into the blood and moulded a special breed who fed the power house of the world.

Senghenydd is a symbol….and its story is common to so many of the coal communities, countrywide. We welcome our compatriots from Durham who are with us today.

What happened at the Universal Colliery on October 14th. 1913 was the tragic last step on the pathway leading to disaster.

And isn’t fate fickle.This valley was once called Park and was the ancient hunting ground for the Lord at CaerffiliCastle. The local chieftain, Ifor Bach , gave the Normans real trouble in his day. The few farms on the ridges here give evidence of the rural scene and setting of the AberValley in the past centuries.

In the 1880s, Cardiff seriously considered drowning this valley for a water supply reservoir. There was a change of mind. The ‘ what if ‘ scenario of fate and history, kicked in.

1891 saw the first glint of coal interest and the Universal was sunk.

The sinkers cottages, all single story, were lined to my left, at the roadside, where so many of you now stand this morning. The two colliery shafts, the Lancaster and York, were there, with their winding gear, behind me in the trees and the underground districts were given names familiar to those who read the Boar War reports in the newspapers ….Mafeking, Kimberley, Ladysmith, Pretoria, Bottanic and West York.

The Universal was a dry pit….with dangerous dust everywhere, waiting for a spark.

That spark came at 5 a.m. in the morning of May 24th. 1901, on a Friday.

82 men were down the pit at the time and only one survived….Ostler William Harris….saved by his horse, that was killed at his side .

The explosion in 1901 was greater than the one that followed in 1913, but it was between shifts, so only 82 men were underground. Another hour or so and 900 would have been below,.

There was an enquiry, of course. Prof. W .Gallaway of CardiffUniversity, on conclusion, made many recommendations.. The main three were;

that the fans should be capable of being reversed in an emergency , to drive oxygen to different districts,

electrical equipment should be regularly maintained,

and the abundant dust should be constantly dampened, on roadways, on tunnel sides, on the rails and on the drams. 2

Recommendations were to be implemented, at the latest, by January 1st 1913. The company asked for an extension and got it…until September 16th . That date came and went and at 8.10 a.m. on October 13th.  there was an almighty explosion, with the screaming sound of shattering wood and clashing metal. The cage shot up the shaft at such a rate that it decapitated a banksman standing at the edge.

Edward  Shaw, the manager, bravely , went down the unaffected shaft, but in so doing, wasted time and the mines rescue crews from Porth in the Rhondda were not called for two and a half hours. When the water pipes were used, they were found to be woefully small and in-effective.

18 survivors were found in the Bottanic.District on October 15th and this gave rise to false hopes. No one else was found alive in the affected districts, Some of those who were brought up could not be identified, others were identified by their pitiful possessions. Some were not brought up at all.

In all, 439 men and boys were killed. Some had died in family groups, because that was the way of working, fathers training their sons, looking after them and ensuring that the wage packet, in production, stayed ‘ in the family’ as far as possible.

Unlike the 1901 explosion, where reports spoke of women weeping, wailing and tearing their hair out in anguish, there was an eerie silence in 1913,. Almost a dignified solemnity, and a numbing disbelief at the tragedy itself and the creeping realisation of the after-effects on the community and the families..

My association with Senghenydd goes back to a brief flirtation with the rugby club many years ago, when I played a couple of games for their team and , some years later, when I served here as a primary school teacher under Dai Parry, the local headmaster.

My association with coal, however, goes deeper. I am a man of the AmmanValley and I well remember my grandfather being killed in the Steer Pit ,Gwaun Cae Gurwen. I was seven when they brought his body home and I remember clearly the family trauma.

Senghenydd was different. There was a family trauma, several times over in every other household. The scale of the loss was difficult to comprehend.

The figures speak for themselves.

205 widows,  542 fatherless children, 62 aged dependents.  800 affected in all.

Commercial Street, the street behind you leading out of the village lost 45 men., High Street, up ther on the ridge where people now stand, lost 35, Stanley Street 19, the Four Terraces of Woodland, Cenydd, Graig and Phillips…you can just see their roof tops behind me and beyond the trees, lost 56.

Mrs.Eizabeth Twining of Commercial Street, who became a widow a year before the disaster, lost three sons in it.

Benjamin Priest, of Ilan Road, died with his two sons, Tommy, aged 16 and Jimmy, just 14.

The story continued in so many houses. The funerals, when they came , were dramatic and harrowing in their sheer numbers, as they travelled slowly to the graveyatds of Eglwysilan and Penyrheol. On many of the gravestones, in Welsh , was inscribed:

“ Be farw in Nhanchwa Senghenydd “. “ He died in the Senghenydd explosion

Following an official enquiry, the Company and owner, Sir William Thomas Lewis, who had become Lord Merthyr of Senghenydd, was fined £10, The manager , Edward Shaw was fine £24. Levels of official compensation dragged their feet and newspapers reported the life of a miner had worked  at being worth just over a shilling.

It was, of course in that kind of era, .A miner who started an eight hour shift and was killed three hours into it, was not paid for the five hours he failed to work. Concessionary coal ,part of the miner’s agreement ,stopped on his death, the widow getting just one sympathy load. In many cases horses were worth more than men. Horses had to be bought, miners were in plentiful supply.

 

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The Universal Pit stayed open until 1928.The buildings were cleared in 1963 and the shafts were finally capped in 1979.

In 1913, some 100,000 visitors came to Senghenydd., not with a callous , morbid motive, but in sympathy,  concerned curiosity and disbelief that such a thing could have happened.

We are, obviously, fewer today, but looking around at you all , in your vast hundreds, on the road, on the site and on the slope that leads up to High Street on the ridge, there is a warmth and comradeship in the gathering.

Be sure that in media, in mind and in memory, Senghenydd is in focus today…..worldwide.

The story will resonate in so many similar communities…. communities who know….or have known.

The virtues and vices embedded in the narrative are timeless and…to use the pit’s name…universal.

It’s a question of hindsight, insight and foresight. How can you really have the foresight to go forward, without the insight  of knowing who you are now and the hindsight to know what made you, where you are from and what moulded you as a person.

Today, we are all sons and daughters of the strata that was coal…..and all that it meant in our lives and the lives of the special mining communities..

 

“Diolch o gallon am ddod yma heddiw.

 

Mae’n dda in gael chi yma.

 

Heartfelt thanks for coming here today.

 

It’s good to have you here.”

 

As we unveil the National Mining Memorial…..

 

“Da chi, cofiwch pob drychineb a damwain yng Nghymru.

 

Da chi….cofiwch Senghenydd. “

 

“ Remember all the disasters and deaths in Wales,

 

And, as a symbol…..remember Senghenydd”

 

Roy Noble OBE