Wales

1913 Senghenydd mine disaster: Tragedy and heroism

A double-page newspaper spread, reporting on Britain's worst-ever mining disaster in Senghenydd
Image caption A double-page newspaper spread, reporting on Britain's worst-ever mining disaster in Senghenydd

It remains the worst mining disaster in British history.

At around 8am on 14 October 1913 a methane explosion ripped through Universal colliery in Senghenydd in the Aber valley near Caerphilly, south Wales.

The blast was so powerful that it blew a two tonne cage back up the shaft, destroying the pithead.

It claimed 439 victims that morning, although in the days which followed a rescuer would also give up his life in pursuit of survivors.

Yet the death toll could have been even worse as 950 men had been down Universal's three pits at the time of the explosion. The last 18 survivors were pulled out over two weeks later.

Stories of heroism and tragedy were everywhere, nowhere more so than in the house of 33-year-old father-of-four Albert Dean, who poured tea into his muffler, and gave it to a 14-year old with whom he had been working.

Image caption The pithead wrecked by the explosion

Albert's 80-year-old grandson Noel Snailham, himself now a retired miner and former mine rescue team member, recalled the mixed emotions his mother felt at this act of selflessness.

"He took his muffler off and gave it to the boy and the boy was saved, but Albert didn't make it. The gentleman was pointed out to me years later," said Mr Snailham.

"Even though they were so proud of what he'd done, mother never talked about it. She was only seven at the time and it was just too painful."

But the pride felt in the rescue attempts was tinged with bitterness in Senghenydd, as many felt that the mine's owners had failed to heed the warning of a similar disaster nine years before, in which all but one of the 82 miners on shift had been killed.

Prof Tony Mills who grew up in the village explained that it was a feeling which never went away.

"I wasn't born until years after the disaster, and my father was a steel worker, not a miner, so we were one of the least-affected families." he said.

'Serious'

"But in a village of that size everyone is touched by such a tragedy; you have to remember that 440 men would have constituted something like one in eight or nine of the population there.

"And the wounds took longer to heal because of the sense that it was a needless and avoidable disaster."

The outbreak of of World War I a year later obscured the memory of Senghenydd in British, if not Welsh minds.

Prof Mills, who has worked in Cheshire for the last 30 years, says he was surprised at how little his English friends knew about the explosion until he showed them photos taken on the day, which he inherited from a family friend.

"Outside of Wales, some people recall the name Senghenydd, and vaguely know that it was something to do with a mining disaster, although very few people appreciate how serious it was.

"But when you see the images in the photos, it brings home the sheer scale of the devastation, and the raw emotions of the people involved."

Image caption An earlier explosion at Universal Colliery in Senghenydd killed 81 men in May 1901. Only a single worker survived. By J Nash RI, from a sketch by H Thomas

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