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Cambrian Colliery disaster, Clydach Vale, 1965

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James Roberts James Roberts | 16:10 UK time, Friday, 14 May 2010

Monday 17 May marked the 45th anniversary to the day of one of Wales' most tragic coal mining disasters in recent memory. As miners at Cambrian Colliery, Clydach Vale near Tonypandy, neared the end of the morning shift, an explosion ripped through the P26 district.

Located near Tonypandy and Blaenclydach, with 800 men employed at the colliery, Cambrian Colliery was in many ways the epitome of the south Wales valley's industrial scenery. Scattered villages, collieries dotted among the hillside and close-knit communities were bound by family, coal and militancy.

In just a few seconds, 31 local men lay dead and 15 injured.

This BBC Wales Today video is from the afternoon of 17 May 1965 and features an interview with some of the mine rescue team that had just returned from the scene of the tragedy.

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Death and destruction underground had visited the Cambrian Colliery almost 60 years before the 1965 blast. In March 1905, 32 men were killed by an explosion in No.1 pit and once again, the local community would have to bury its dead.

Bill Richards was there on that May morning, working as a senior measuring clerk. Now an author on mid-Rhondda histories such as Cambrian Colliery, he spoke to BBC Wales History about the day the explosion ripped through the colliery and devastated so many lives. With news of the disaster filtering through the colliery, Bill spent the frantic minutes following the explosion darting to various officials and managers to spread the news.

"I grabbed a book and pen and ran, my lungs were bursting and burning," said Bill from his home near Bridgend. "I found Bryn Thomas, the training officer who had heard about the explosion at the same time as me. We passed the lamp room and started to take names of the men coming up in the cage from the pit bottom. Nobody believed that there had been an explosion."

As the awful truth dawned, it soon became clear many men were not accounted for. This included a manager and an under-manager. It would later transpire that an electrical spark ignited the firedamp that had accumulated due to a severe reduction in the ventilation underground, causing the explosion.

This video shows some of the scenes captured by Wales Today on the afternoon of the explosion. The accompanying audio is from a BBC World Service news report from the same day.

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"I was at the pit for the next 12 hours," continued Bill. "I was there to see the bodies being brought up from the pit bottom. I couldn't comprehend that a lot of men had gone. We were waiting and hoping that, at the very worst, a few had been killed, as there's almost always fatalities with explosions, but 31 of those boys went on that day."

This audio clip is from a report by Arfon Roberts the morning after the explosion at the Cambrian Colliery, taken from a programme in the Today series.

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"I look back on that and to me it was like the day Kennedy was killed," Bill recalled. "It had an overwhelming effect on the people of the Rhondda. I remember the fleet of ambulances coming up Wern Street, where I lived. The rescue team from Dinas arrived very shortly after the alarm was raised. Heartbreaking sites of people gathered at the pithead. It was a nightmare."

In the days following the disaster the all too familiar process of Welsh mining communities laying their men to rest was played out in the Clydach Vale. Even by the legendary close-knit comradeship of mining communities, Cambrian was among the most tightly bound. Bill recalled the sombre aftermath.

"There were several large funerals and we walked in silence. We put on our best clothes as a sign of respect and I remember old ladies at the side of the road with grey hair and worry etched on their face looking at these men walking past who were paying tribute to those who had died. As we passed, the old ladies would put their arm round the children and clutch them as if to say, 'you are not going down that pit'.

"You'd see men at the pithead, big men, strong men who would pick up a six-pound hammer as if it was a toffee hammer. You'd look at these men standing at the top of the pithead and you'd see the tears in their eyes. Then somebody would put an arm around them. These giants, overwhelmed by circumstances."

Cambrian Colliery closed shortly after the disaster; a disaster which followed on five years from the Six Bells Colliery explosion in which killed 45 miners. Both these devastating events were soon joined by the infamous Aberfan disaster, where, in October 1966 a coal waste tip from Merthyr Vale Colliery slid down a hillside onto Pantglas Junior School, killing 144 people - 116 of them children.

Further reading:

Bill Richards has published Coal, Carpets And Choirs (2003) and Cambrian Colliery And Connections (2006). He is currently working on a third book, provisionally titled 'Just Coal', focusing on Cambrian Colliery and Lwynypia Colliery.


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