This year, 2013, is the centenary of the Senghenydd Mining Disaster, a tragedy that claimed the lives of 436 men. It was the largest - I hesitate to say "greatest" - mining disaster to ever occur in this country. But mining was always a hazardous occupation and the history of Wales is littered with events of almost similar magnitude.

The Gresford Disaster of 22 September 1934 was one such case. The Gresford Colliery sat just north of Wrexham, the original shaft being sunk in 1908. By 1911 the pit, owned and run by the Westminster and United Collieries Group, was ready to be opened.

There were two shafts: the Dennis, named after the mine owners, who were the principal landowners in the area; and the Martin. The Dennis shaft reached a depth of approximately 2,264 feet, while the Martin was just a few feet shorter. Together, they were the deepest mining shafts in the whole of Denbighshire.

It was unfortunate that the Dennis shaft was very prone to fire damp. Working conditions in the Dennis were always poor, the air being constantly hot and humid. Ventilation was also bad and while there had been a degree of mechanisation, because of the conditions underground some of the coal was still mined by hand.

By September 1934 the Gresford Colliery was employing around 2,200 miners. The previous year the colliery had made a loss and manager William Bonsall was under considerable pressure from the Dennis family to ensure that it did not happen again. That September the colliery was working around the clock in an effort to increase profits and on 22 September 500 men were working the night shift.

At 2.08am a huge explosion rocked the mine. The explosion occurred about 1.3 miles from the bottom of the Dennis shaft and fires immediately broke out. The fires not only killed 266 men, they also blocked access and trapped miners behind the flames.

Six men managed to escape, all of them enjoying a mid-shift break when the explosion took place. Soon volunteer rescue teams, from Gresford itself and from Llay Main Colliery, arrived but they, too, encountered disaster.

Three members of the Llay team were overcome by gas; John Charles Williams, the team leader, was the only survivor. It was later rumoured that Williams was the author of the anonymous ballad The Gresford Disaster, a poem that was openly critical of the managers and management of the mine.

All weekend the rescue teams battled with the flames and the rubble. But on the Sunday evening they were eventually withdrawn as conditions were felt to be too hazardous. The shafts were capped and the fires allowed to burn out. Only 11 bodies were ever recovered from the mine; the rest were sealed up underground.

There were more explosions over the following week but with the mine sealed and nobody working underground they did not cause undue problems. However, a few days later, mine worker George Brown became the final victim of the Gresford Disaster when he was hit by flying debris after a blast blew off the cap on the Dennis shaft.

The disaster brought untold hardship to the area. The wages of over 1,000 miners were docked by the owners as the men had failed to complete their shift - short sighted and incredibly cruel management. And, of course, the mine stayed closed.

By the end of that autumn it was estimated that 1,100 Gresford men had been forced to sign on the unemployment register. Relief funds were set up, with over half a million pounds raised, but they could not even begin to compensate for the loss of regular income.

The inquiry that began on 25 October 1934 highlighted a lack of safety measures and bad working practices in the colliery. Te owners faced possible criminal charges over negligence, and they brought in a formidable team of barristers to fight their corner. They refused permission for anyone to enter the closed-off pit, something that was widely seen as a deliberate cover up.

The owners were never prosecuted and no single cause for the disaster was ever found, although Sir Stafford Cripps, the miners' legal representative, did later use evidence given to the Inquiry as one of the arguments for the nationalisation of coal mines in 1947.

As part of the nationalisation agreement, however, all records of the disaster and the colliery itself were destroyed - yet another betrayal by those in power.

Gresford Colliery reopened in January 1936, with miners working from a totally different angle and direction. The pit continued to run until it was finally closed, as uneconomical, in November 1973.

The Gresford Disaster remains the second largest mining disaster ever to occur in Wales. It decimated the Gresford area and is still seen as the result of cynical exploitation of working men by mine owners. It has to be remembered.

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  • Comment number 6. Posted by Aunty Gill

    on 26 May 2013 23:41

    Growing up in Saundersfoot between 1947 and 1958 I do remember the railway lines still in parts of the village particularly the harbour area, the railway incline up to where Bonvilles Court Colliery had been. The tunnels along to Amroth and if I remember correctly, what is now The Strand along towards Copitt Hall and the first of the tunnels, was Railway Street.

    I knew very little indeed about the industrial history of the village or how the closure of the Colliery affected the people of the area. My mother and father moved to Saundersfoot after the Second World War and ran the local butcher's shop before moving to Sussex in 1958. As they say in the Highlands of Scotland where I now live, we were "incomers". My father was from Clarbeston Road and my mother from Worcestershire. They met and married while they were both serving with the RAF in Egypt. My father having served with the RAF at Pembroke Dock before volunteering for the British Expeditionary Force to France in 1940.

    I've already found some interesting sites on line about the history of Bonvilles Court but very little about how the closure of the Colliery affected the local community and what happened to those who lost their livelihood. An interesting topic for some research. As I remember Saundersfoot in the 1950's it was relatively prosperous with new houses/bungalows being built and a growing tourist industry.

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  • Comment number 5. Posted by rmacmhor

    on 26 May 2013 13:37

    Yes, that’s right Noreen, throughout WW1 and a large part of WW2, I quote:

    “When a merchant ship was sunk, the seaman’s pay stopped on the day of the sinking. He did not receive any more pay until he joined another ship. The seaman was given 30 days survivor’s leave, dated from the day his ship was sunk. This leave was unpaid. It only meant that he didn’t have to report back to the pool for 30 days. If he spent 10 or 15 days in a lifeboat, or on a life raft, that time in the boat was counted as survivor’s leave.”

    Legally, the ship owners didn’t have to pay the seamen if their ship was sunk – some more philanthropic ones did, however, and eventually I think it was Churchill who instigated merchant seamen being employees of the Ministry of War Transport so that they did get paid.

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  • Comment number 4. Posted by Noreen

    on 26 May 2013 08:21

    I know it's not mining but do you really mean that in World War Two sailors wages were stopped whenever their ship was sunk? That's almost unbelievable.

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  • Comment number 3. Posted by rmacmhor

    on 24 May 2013 20:02

    The N. Wales Collieries had a reputation for being ‘gassy’ – like the Lancashire Coalfield, so extra precautions and good ventilation were essential for safe working. Of course, as you point out Phil, the mine owners were interested in one thing – profits not losses, and no doubt corners were cut. What a terrible waste of human life these pit disasters were, even if the mining industry did provide employment for many in Wales. Events like this undoubtedly helped the mining industry along the road to Nationalisation, where conditions for miners undoubtedly improved.
    Your comment about the miners wages being docked for half a shift reminds me of the situation in WW2 when Merchant seamen’s pay was stopped if their ship was sunk by enemy action. Floating around the N Atlantic in a lifeboat wasn’t making profits for the shipowners.

    As for Saundersfoot, well the pier and harbour there were built for one reason – to export coal. I doubt many visitors today are aware of that. I have some good old photos of the harbour, coal drams going through the village and of Bonvilles Court Colliery, which closed in the 30s.
    I wonder if Crackwell Caravan site is still there too? Memories of my youth….

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  • Comment number 2. Posted by Phil

    on 24 May 2013 08:10

    It's interesting, isn't it, that we glibly talk about end of the mining industry and the valleys "being green again" but we tend to forget the affect the closures had on the local communities. I'll certainly look up "The Pitmen's Requiem."
    Saundersfoot, where you were brought up, was once the home of a thriving mining industry - hard to believe it when we see the town today.

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  • Comment number 1. Posted by Aunty Gill

    on 23 May 2013 21:49

    For anyone interested in the Gresford disaster and how the closure of the Durham Coal Field affected local communities, Peter Crookston's book "The Pitmen's Requiem" based on Robert Saint's famous brass band composition "Gresford", known as the Miners' Hymn and seen as a requiem for mining communities and their way of life, is well worth a read.

    On another track ... I have just read "A Pembrokeshire Childhood in the 1950's". I was born in 1947 and brought up in Saundersfoot in the 1950's. It brought back so many memories. Thanks Phil.

    Sorry the blog on the Cory Band is closed as I am interested in Brass Bands having gained my MA in History and Cultures in 2007 ("mature" student) with an Essay on "British Brass Bands: Their History and role in the Culture of Britain at the Start of the Twenty-First Century."

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