Senghenydd pit explosion 1913: Britain's worst mining disaster

Senghenydd Mine explosion, 1913 Senghenydd Mine explosion, 1913

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One hundred years ago, the UK's worst mining disaster happened when 440 people were killed by an explosion which ripped through the coal mine at Senghenydd, near Caerphilly.

It was the morning of Tuesday 14 October 1913. The 950 miners working at the Universal Colliery had just started their shift.

Start Quote

I felt a horse down. Then I felt a man. Felt his legs. I felt his face. He had his scarf over his mouth.”

End Quote William Vizard, Survivor

Among them was Thomas Jones, who was working on the Nine Feet seam.

At 8.10am he heard "a roar or rumble… coming from some distance" and then a terrific and distinct bang. Then the roar went on, "but more vigorously than previously."

Miner William Vizard was loading rubbish into one of the mine's trams (rail carts) when it happened.

"I shouted into the next heading because I knew the man that worked there and his two sons. Not a sound, nor a light. Well, I thought, something has happened. So I went on creeping out to the double-parting.

"When I got to the straight to go to the double-parting, I could hear a boy shouting for his father: 'Where's my father? I want my father.'

"I went on down to the parting. There, I felt a horse down. Then I felt a man. Felt his legs. I felt his face. He had his scarf over his mouth.

"And he spoke to me. And we knew one another's voices. Of course, I knew him. 'It's an explosion,' he said."

'Looking into a furnace'

The blast was so strong, it lifted a two-ton lift cage hundreds of yards up one of the mineshafts into the headgear. Windows were smashed on Coronation Terrace, half a mile away and the blast was heard many miles beyond that.

First on the scene at the pithead was Mr Shaw, the mine manager, who had been in the lamp room at the surface when the explosion occurred.

According to the inquiry following the disaster:

"He was joined by Mr Thomas, the overman, and together they got into the cage at the top of the upcast shaft, examined the air for a distance of 50 yards and found it foul with smoke and fumes.

"Signals were being sent from below, so, being joined by others, they descended the shaft. When half-way down, they saw the body of a man in a tram in the upcoming cage with his legs hanging on the crossbars. This man had been practically blown into the tub in the cage at the pit bottom."

Underground, the doors on the west and east side were on fire, but the scene on the east side looked less severe.

Gases found in mines

  • Damps is the collective name given to all gases found in coal mines and originates from the German word Dampf, or 'vapour'.
  • Firedamp is a flammable gas, commonly methane, which gathers in pockets next to the coal face.
  • Afterdamp is a deadly mixture of gases left in a mine following an explosion, containing carbon dioxide, carbon monoxide and nitrogen.

The explosion had been caused by a build up of firedamp (methane) gas. The blast had disturbed coal dust on the mine floor, raising clouds that then also caught alight, spreading the destruction further.

The fire was mainly confined to the west side of the mine, with the east side blocked with noxious gases. The result was over 400 men trapped underground.

Mr Thomas described how when he worked his way along towards the west "It was exactly like looking into a furnace."

Hope and fear

The first rescuers on the scene battled to control the fire, initially hampered by difficulties with water supplies and a lack of breathing apparatus on site.

"It was like a living hell," one of the rescue team told The South Wales Daily News. "The heat was simply intense. Scorching. It was like a street of fire."

The blast had brought the whole community to the pithead.

"Within an hour, hundreds of men, women and children had assembled at the pit head, too eager and anxious for tears, and many inarticulate with fear of early confirmation of the doom of husbands and sons in the great underworld," the newspaper reported.

As a clearer picture emerged, it was apparent that miners on the west side who were not killed by the explosion, were trapped behind a wall of fire, and were likely to be killed by the noxious gases.

Miners from the east side were gradually returned to safety at the top.

Rescuers battled on for days to recover the wounded and the dead. Six days later, the death toll had reached 439 mine workers and one member of the rescue team. Eighteen men came out alive.

Safety breaches

The official inquiry into the disaster heard 13 days of evidence, with 21,837 questions put to witnesses. It closed on 21 February, 1914.

The report failed to identify a definite cause, however it was agreed the explosion involved highly-flammable firedamp gas found in the area being ignited.

It was clear there had been several breaches of the safety measures introduced by the Coal Mines Act of 1911, including ventilation not meeting required standards, inadequate removal of coal dust from the roof and sides, the use of "open sparking" signalling equipment and inadequate fire provisions.

Senghenydd disaster, 1901 Senghenydd disaster, 1901

Shockingly, it was not the first time such a tragedy had struck at Senghenydd - an explosion on 21 May 1901 saw 81 miners lose their lives and only one man saved.

But lessons were not learned. The 1914 report stated: "I should have thought, in view of the fact that the colliery was such a gassy one, and it had already been devastated by an explosion, that the management would have made arrangements for a supply of water adequate to meet an emergency of the kind that actually occurred."

It said: "Some of the breaches, compared with those to which I have already given especial prominence may appear trivial, but taken in the aggregate they point to a disquieting laxity in the management of the mine."

'Miners' Lives at 1s 1½d'

Both the mine manager Edward Shaw and the owners, Lewis Merthyr Consolidated Collieries, were prosecuted. Shaw was fined £24, prompting a local newspaper headline "Miners' Lives at 1s 1½d". Today, that sum would equate to around five and a half pence.

Funeral of one of the Senghenydd disaster victims Funeral of one of the Senghenydd disaster victims

The mine owners were fined £10 with £5 5s costs for not fitting the required reversible ventilation fans.

William Hyatt, a miner who survived the explosion, said: "My father always said there was more fuss if a horse was killed underground than if a man was killed. Men came cheap - they had to buy horses."

The impact on the community was devastating. It left behind 205 widows, 542 children and 62 dependent parents.

The Universal Colliery closed in 1928. A memorial to those who died in the two explosions was erected on the site in 1981. On the centenary of the disaster, the people of Senghenydd will unveil a new memorial to commemorate the event.

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