The recent centenary of the Senghenydd colliery disaster in South Wales featured quite prominently in the UK media, as one would expect for the worst mining accident in the country’s history. On 14 October 1913, 439 miners and one rescuer died in an explosion at the Universal Colliery near Caerphilly. What was particularly poignant during the commemorations was how many ordinary individuals stepped up – both in the mainstream media and on social media sites – to tell moving, vivid stories of their great grandfathers, great uncles who died, and of the families left behind.
I am not aware of anyone in my own family having been involved in the Senghenydd disaster, and without passed-down accounts from within the family it would be quite hard to find out at this stage, since the lists of those who died contain to a large extent numbers of men who shared common (Welsh) surnames, combined with a fairly limited palette of first names and only the most rudimentary information on age, address and so on. I was surprised, though, when some random googling of a more unusual name from the peripheries of my family tree led me to reports of an earlier pit disaster – that of January 1879 at Dinas Middle Colliery near Llantrisant – for which the list of those killed turned up the distinctive names of two distant relatives who I’d never thought had any personal connection with one another (within their lifetimes). Their names were River Jordan and Elisha Upjohn.
River Jordan was born in 1827 at Middle Forge, Lydney in Gloucestershire. I believe he was a second cousin of my great-great-great grandfather Mark Jordan. Like many of the Forest of Dean Jordans, River was a forgeman, working in tin manufacture by 1851 and as an iron pudler in 1861, by which time he was married for the third time, had three (surviving) children plus a number of stepchildren and – in a move mirrored in many Forest of Dean families of the period – had relocated to the more heavily industrialised area of Wolverhampton. The transfer back south-westwards to the Rhondda Valley occurred some time between 1861 and 1871; by the latter date he was working as a hammerman in Aberdare. I don’t know exactly when he started working in mining, nor whether it was a choice or a necessity for him.
Elisha Upjohn, the grandfather of my great-uncle Tudor Apjohn, was born in Figheldean, Wiltshire, in 1825. This was a predominantly rural area where most of the men worked in farming, and certainly up to 1871 Elisha seems to have stayed in exactly the same location, working as an agricultural labourer and raising a family with his wife Emma. Again, the exact date and reasons for him moving his family to South Wales are unclear, but he was one of many thousands who moved from rural areas to the ever expanding South Wales coalmines during this period, exchanging agriculture for industry, often attracted by the prospect of higher wages and more consistent availability of work. Statistics derived from the censuses of the period show that the population of the Rhondda Valley increased from some 3000 in 1861 to over 55,000 by 1881 (source: Wikipedia).
The chilling events of 13 January 1879 – the date coincides with Hen Galan, the old Welsh New Year celebration – that claimed the lives of 63 men and boys can be reconstructed from newspaper reports published in the aftermath of the accident. I’ll quote directly from some but have included a complete list of those I consulted at the end of this entry – many details occur in more than one report, though I should also say that there are some apparent factual inconsistencies as well. Looking at them together, one can build up a picture of working conditions, the dangers involved and the precautions introduced to try to keep these in check. The special locked safety lamps used by the Dinas colliers are just one example of the precautions needed – ironically perhaps, the smokeless steam coal produced by many of the South Wales collieries was also associated with them being particularly “fiery mines”, volatile environments where “firedamp” (composed mainly of methane) was a constant risk factor; even so, the Aberdare Times comments that “it is rumoured that the hitchers [shaft attendants] sometimes used naked lights”. The newspaper reports also record the painful twists of fate that occurred that night and the involvement of the local community.
The regular daytime shift on that cold, wet Monday in January had been uneventful: some 100 men and boys had gone underground and returned safely at the end of the working day. Though this was only a quarter of the workforce, Mondays were “idle days” compared to others; this figure of 100 was actually higher than on many Mondays, as in this week many of the men wanted to leave early on the Wednesday to attend the funeral of the elderly widow of a former colleague. The smaller night-shift party numbered around 60, and these went down at 7pm, just before the day shift ended, to carry out necessary maintenance, remove rubble and carry out other tasks to ensure the safe working of the mine (if one can ever really talk of “safe” in this context). On this evening, they would as usual have been lowered down into the pit in a cage, ten men at a time, and with the cage descending once a minute (to a maximum depth of 427 yards, according to the Cardiff Times), they would soon have all been busy at work. Twelve horses were also sent down, in addition to the 32 already in the stable below ground. I had known of the “pit ponies” before but had no idea there would have been so many of them in one place at one time. But if they were responsible for transporting large amounts of timber plus the colliery’s output of 600 tons of coal a day, I guess I should be less surprised (Wikipedia suggests that the horses would have worked 8-hour shifts and could have pulled up to 30 tons of coal each per day on the underground tramways).
All was well for the first few hours, but then events took a devastating turn, as reported by the Cambrian thus:
At 20 minutes to 11 o’clock, the engineer, John Burton, heard a crash at the pit’s mouth, and going out saw that the heavy iron cap which diverts the air through the tunnel into the fan had been blown up into the pit gearing and fixed there. The banksmen [men stationed at the top of the pit to unload the full tubs of coal], William Taylor and William Webber, had also been blown away from their places, and directly afterwards there came the deep reverberation of an explosion, followed by a cloud of dust and densely sulphureous [sic] vapour.
According to the Aberdare Times, the explosion occurred in the mine’s so-called middle pit, more precisely in the four-foot “polka” seam located 80 yards above the bottom of the 430-yard-deep pit. The paper also portrays the immediate community response:
The shocks of the explosion shook the cottages adjacent and the echoes were heard miles away. The inhabitants of the district came rushing down to the mouth of the pit, some only half-clad and others scarcely clad at all, just as they had tumbled out of bed. On learning what had happened they became frantic with grief, and the scene was truly heartrending. Women and children shrieked with terror, and many wives and mothers were carried away in a fainting condition.
For the sake of balance, however, I want to contrast this with the altogether much more sober account provided by the Cardiff Times:
Perhaps one of the most striking features of the occurrence is the absence of outward demonstration on the part of the bereaved relatives. All those whose business has led them to the mine state that neither on the day of the explosion nor since have the people flocked to the pit in that grief-stricken state, and with those unreasonable demands which so often intensify the terrible nature of these calamities. This is not attributed to any want of feeling however—far from it—but to the probability of the dreadful news having been sympathetically imparted to the sorrowing relatives, accompanied by such judicious advice as would lead them to become resigned to the unfortunate state of things.
Take your pick as to which account you find more convincing, but differing degrees of dramaticisation aside, the reports seem fairly consistent in suggesting that numerous managers from this and other local collieries had arrived by 1 or 2am and were engaged in grave discussions about what to do. Attempts to go down into the mine were made impossible by the continuing escape of noxious fumes (“afterdamp”), and it soon became evident that the volume of rubble that had fallen had all but cut off any air supply that might have existed. Rescuers, under the technical leadership of the engineers and including several local medical professionals, did what they could to insert ventilation tubes, but the prospects were pretty grim, as described in the Cambrian:
They gave small hopes indeed of a single individual being recovered alive, but thought there might be the barest possibility of some of them retiring into the remoter workings, where the air would be purer. There was not much consolation in that they said, because miners overtaken by an explosion of fire-damp invariably made their way to the pit’s mouth if they could, and if the poor fellows did so in this case, those who escaped instant death would only be rushing upon a cruel doom.
It was Wednesday before anyone could safely attempt to go below the surface to assess the situation further. In the meantime, any attempts made by any survivors to make themselves known to those on the surface would also have had mixed success, as the Aberdare Times explains:
The signal wires of the pit are broken, and the men could not consequently, if alive, communicate with those above but no hopes are entertained of their safety, as they would, it is believed, have shouted for help if they had not succumbed, and their shouts would probably have been heard.
Initially it was thought that 59 had died, this figure based on the number of safety lamps issued for the evening shift. Within days, this figure had been revised upwards to 63 after it transpired that a few men had collected their lamps earlier and/or taken them home with them after a previous shift. The Gwladgarwyr reports that 45 of those who died were married, 4 widowers, and just 14 unmarried (some of whom would have been mere boys). It tells us further that Evan, David and John Jenkins were brothers, as were John and James Edwards and John and James Rounstable. Octavius Wheadon and Charles Wheadon were father and son, and River Jordan was father-in-law to one of the Jenkins brothers (the article doesn’t specify which). It does not mention – though I have confirmed this through genealogical research – that another man killed, Thomas Richards, was the husband of River’s stepdaughter Louisa. As the Cardiff Times reported, “The colliery being a very old one [it was in fact the oldest and deepest in the Rhondda], many of those who work at it have lived in the neighbourhood for years, have intermarried, and so become related”. Several of the newspapers also give details of how many children each man had, though adult children that existed in the cases of River, Elisha and some of the other older men are not included as, presumably, they would not have been (as) dependent on their fathers. Nevertheless, this means the number of all those who lost a father that day far exceeds the number printed.
The Cardiff Times, in a bid to offer some slight relief, recounts the story of one man who had a lucky escape that night:
One man, a middle-aged miner, had one of those escapes which on such occasions always seem to indicate the intervention of Providence. He was not particularly well on Monday night, but did not think of staying away from the pit. His wife, however, though thinking her husband but slightly indisposed, was, as someone forcibly remarked, “dead set” against his going to work; and yielding to her persuasions he stayed at home. How much he has to be thankful for he himself now knows.
It also makes reference to a number of men who had recently been laid off, who it suggests might also have reassessed their situation somewhat in the light of the disaster. However, it also reports that one of those who died was a 15-year-old boy who was working in the pit for the very first time on that occasion (in the interests of accuracy, though, the youngest on the list accompanying the article, Evan Jenkins, was 16).
In addition to the loss of human life, the 44 horses underground at the time of the explosion also all died.
The inspector of mines established that defective ventilation had caused the disaster: a significant blockage in the air supply in or out of the shaft would have allowed for a rapid build-up of explosive gas. It is well worth noting that only two months before the explosion occurred, the colliery manager, a Mr John Chubb, had had his manager’s certificate suspended for six months for negligence, after it was found that inadequate or improper ventilation had led to a build-up of gas underground on two previous occasions. Mr Chubb’s cousin Robert, a married father of five, also died in the accident.
The recovery of the bodies must have been a particularly arduous, harrowing and time-consuming task, and I am not certain whether they ever found or formally identified all the bodies. The deaths of River and Elisha were both registered in the September quarter of 1879, i.e. in July, August or September, so some months after the explosion.
And what about the families they left behind? Maria, River’s widow, who was 54 when he died, was living with her daughter Sarah and family in Aberdare in 1881, and she was still with them in Pontypridd in 1901. I wonder if she was relieved that her son-in-law, William Evans, was a tailor and not down the mines. I have not been able to trace River’s daughter Mary who was also left a widow after the disaster – maybe she remarried and/or moved away. His other two children, Thomas and Fanny, were back in Lydney living next door to one another with their spouses and young families by 1881.
Emma Upjohn found her way out of widowhood rather quickly – a move, I should stress, that was just as likely to be prompted by economic necessity as by any other possible factors! – as she married a sawyer called Isaac Williams in early 1880. Of their children, I know that Elizabeth Anna had married a stonemason, Thomas Longhurst, by 1881 and like her mother and brothers, Harry and Frank, was still in the Pontypridd area. Harry was a butcher by now and was boarding with the parents of his future wife, a school teacher. Ultimately they changed their surname to the more Welsh sounding Apjohn, and one of their children, Tudor, born in 1891, was later to marry a Jordan, my great-aunt Marion. I have distant memories of visiting them in Whitchurch near Cardiff.
Finally, I think Elisha and Emma’s son Frank’s story is at once the happiest and the saddest: in October 1880 he married Louisa Richards, the stepdaughter of River Jordan who had been left a widow aged just 20 after the Dinas Colliery Disaster. Rather tragically, Frank died in 1882 before the birth of their second child, though Louisa married again the following year and had two further children before she herself died in 1891.
Sources (all accessed via NLW’s Welsh Newspapers Online):
- “Terrible colliery explosion in the Rhondda Valley”, The Cambrian, 17 January 1879
- “Disastrous colliery explosion in the Rhondda Valley”, Aberdare Times, 18 January 1879
- “Tanchwa ddychrynllyd Pwll y Dinas”, Gwladgarwyr, 24 January 1879
- “Terrible colliery explosion at Dinas”, Monmouthshire Merlin, 17 January 1879
- “Terrible explosion at the Dinas Colliery”, Cardiff Times, 18 January 1879 – this is by far the most detailed article I have read on the topic