Rhian E. Jones writes on the commemoration of the mining disaster in 1913 which took 439 lives.
The Universal Colliery in Senghenydd, closed since 1928, remains the site of the worst mining disaster in British history. In 1913, on the morning of Tuesday 14 October, 439 of its workers died by explosion, fire, and poisonous gas. This month, Senghenydd’s existing memorials will be joined by another, close to the colliery, which will commemorate 150 other Welsh mining disasters. The centenary will be further marked by a week of memorial services, archive film, music, dance and poetry.
1913 was Universal Colliery’s second tragedy; just over a decade earlier in 1901, a previous explosion had killed 81 miners, leaving a single survivor. Mass death, its memory and anticipation, has always been part of the fabric of the Welsh coalfield. The prospect of death in the course of one’s occupational duty is a seam that runs from what Gwyn A. Williams termed the coalfield’s ‘frontier years’, through its subsequent development as a forcing-house of the Industrial Revolution, to the 4 lives lost at Gleision Colliery in 2011.
While this particular kind of catastrophe is the stuff of ballad and dirge all over the world, its specific association with Wales still seems to define the country’s inhabitants, even with the industry now in terminal decline. Some years ago an otherwise unmemorable folk singer, who knew me only by my regional origin, attempted to engage my interest by introducing a song, immaculate earnestness etched on his face, with the words: ‘You’ll like this one – it’s about a mining disaster.’
Such stunning ill-judgement aside, the coalmine does still bear an undeniable symbolic weight, but an uncomfortable tension exists between mourning the loss of mining as a way of life and recognising how grim and unromantic its reality could be. Events like Senghenydd are a stark reminder that mining is a gruelling, incredibly dangerous practice which takes a material and emotional toll on individuals and communities. My political resentment of the Thatcherite destruction of industry in south Wales is invariably allied with relief at not being personally subject to industrial life’s harsh routine and realities.
The depth of reaction to mining disasters is informed, at least in part, by a collective memory of the lack of regard in which the lives of miners have always been held by the industry on which they depended. Senghenydd was typical in its reliance on the mine as the community’s primary employer, and it was estimated that almost every family in the town suffered bereavement in the 1913 explosion. A subsequent enquiry into the event found numerous culpabilities on the part of the colliery’s owners and managers, but the fines and compensation required of them totalled only twenty-four pounds – in contemporary terms, around a sixpence for each life lost.
To mark the centenary of Senghenydd, the bells at Caerphilly's St Martin's Church will be rung in a pattern normally reserved for Remembrance Sunday. In the run-up to the first world war the privately-owned and run Universal Colliery profited, like so many others, from the rocketing demand for Welsh coal for the Royal Navy’s battleships. If there are parallels to be drawn between Senghenydd’s centenary and next year’s WWI commemorations, perhaps it lies in these intersecting exploitations, in the sacrifices one class has historically been asked, required, or forced to make for the gain of another.
Industrial coalmining was brought into being by the imperatives of industrial capitalism, and the communities that grew up in its shadow did so almost in spite of the demands and degradations of their circumstances. Lives were lived on the verge of disaster, but mining communities salvaged the best from it: forming mutual aid societies; unionising in the pursuit of safety and security; and encouraging self-education and democratic access to culture through libraries and workmen’s halls. My own mining town produced the blueprint for what was forged into the National Health Service by Bevan – himself a former miner. From the vantage point of today, both things – the NHS and the ascent of a mining-town boy to Secretary of State – seem achievements barely short of miraculous.
From the vantage-point of today, too, industrial and political organisation by workers is increasingly needed as the profit motive again takes rapacious precedence, as training, expertise and skill in a worker are seen as less desirable than deferent, powerless compliance. Injury and death at work due to official mismanagement, negligence and cost-cutting remains a familiar story both in Wales and beyond. As we commemorate Senghenydd, we might also look askance at Newport Council's acquiescence to the demolition of the town's Chartist mural, which memorialised this country’s last great militant workers’ movement for improved conditions. In that campaign and others like it, south Wales played a vital part. The history of Welsh working-class struggle and resistance deserves remembrance alongside the hardship and loss which it often attempted to remedy.