Here in Wales we are used to news about mining disasters. The history of Welsh mining is littered with tragic accidents that scarred villages and valleys, destroyed families and cut a swathe through the life of so many tiny communities.
Garden Pit Memorial (image: Roger MacCallum)
Most of those disasters took place in the industrial belt of the south east, in the Rhondda and other valleys. For many modern-day visitors to beautiful, sea-girt Pembrokeshire it comes as something of a surprise, therefore, to realise that this tiny county in the far west of Wales also once had a mining industry. And the Pembrokeshire coalfield was not exempt from disaster.
On 14 February 1844, 58 men, women and boys were working in Garden Pit at Landshipping on the eastern branch of the Cleddau River when disaster struck.
The pit workings extended out under the river, and when water suddenly burst through the walls of the mine 40 miners were overwhelmed and drowned before they had time to escape.
There had been mining in the area since the Middle Ages but, in the main, this was low-key and seasonal, the mines being worked by agricultural labourers in the quieter times of year. Then, in 1800, Sir Hugh Owen installed the first steam engine in the Pembrokeshire coalfield, at his mine in Landshipping, and the industry transformed itself into an altogether different beast.
Soon, over 10,000 tons of coal and culm were being produced each year. By 1844 Colonel Sir John Owen had succeeded to the estate and quickly developed the infrastructure needed for such an enterprise. In particular he built a quay at Landshipping from which most of the coal was shipped to a wide variety of destinations.
Garden Pit, like several of the mines around the Cleddau, suffered badly from waterlogging, but even so the shaft was still some 67 yards deep and most of the workings ran out for as much as a quarter of a mile beneath the river.
The level where the disaster occurred had not been worked for two or three years as miners had reported a significant leak in the roof of the tunnel. However, in February 1844 it was considered safe to again open the workings and, on the afternoon of 14 February, 58 miners were employed in digging for coal and transporting the product back to the pit shaft.
The first inkling that something was wrong came when, just before 4pm, a powerful current of air suddenly shot up the shaft. It was powerful enough to force the hands and arms of men working on the surface high into the air.
Then spectators noticed a series of violent eddies, almost like whirlpools, in the water close to shore. The next thing they knew, several miners appeared at the bottom of the shaft, screaming for assistance.
Four men and 14 boys were quickly hoisted up the shaft in the buckets that normally carried the coal, swirling water pulling at their boot tops as, behind them, the pit filled up at a rate of seven fathoms a minute. Nobody else managed to get out, 40 miners being drowned or crushed in the fall of rock and mud that accompanied the flooding.
One miner later gave an account of his escape and this was paraphrased in the local press:
"He was overtaken by the water, which almost prevented his progress, dashing him several times against the side of the pit; when he got into the light he rushed past another man who was about to get into the bucket, and was hauled to safety, the water following him so closely that the next and last man was only saved by climbing up the side of the pit, until the bucket which descended to the other was raised, reached him."
The water had broken into Garden Pit relatively close to the shore, cutting off 33 miners working at the far end of the pit. The horror of such a death can only be imagined.
The other seven casualties, men and children working nearer the shore, had been overtaken by the deluge before they could get out.
The cause of the disaster was put down to the pressure of the water - that particular heading had not, previously, been worked at high water. But in those days there were no mining inspectors to check on aspects of safety; some reports say the miners had already left the pit once that day because they were concerned about safety, only to be sent back to finish their shifts.
The names, where known, of those who perished in the disaster are listed on the memorial (image: Roger MacCallum)
The real tragedy of the disaster, of course, was the human one. Many of the dead miners were related to each other and one of the most heart rending facts about reading the memorial plaque, erected by local people in 2002, is how often the same names occur - Llewellin, Picton, Davies, Cole, Hart and John. One man, Joseph Picton, died along with three of his sons, leaving behind a widow and five more children.
Several of the names on the memorial plaque say simply "Miner" - these were probably women, employed and killed in the disaster even though legislation preventing their employment below ground had recently been passed in parliament. Other names on the plaque give ages as low as nine or 11. In one case a person is listed simply as "child".
The disaster at Garden Pit, Landshipping, has been largely forgotten by history. But it remains just one more terrible tragedy in an industry that has taken such an horrendous toll of life, right across Wales.