Cardiff’s mining disaster

The death by drowning of four Welsh miners at the Gleision colliery in the Tawe valley was like an event from another age, especially when one looks at photos of the drift mine’s antiquated innards – the claustrophobic tunnels, dripping walls and sagging pit props seemingly straight out of the 19th century.  The disaster has brought back painful memories of coal mining’s horrendous impact on Wales since the monks of Neath Abbey first began the systematic digging for coal in the 13th century.

It has been calculated that at least 60,000 people have been directly killed in Welsh mining accidents (and countless more through the long-term diseases and injuries caused by mining) – making Wales, pro-rata, the country that has paid the highest price in the world for the fossil fuel.  And for this untold suffering and misery we didn’t even reap any financial rewards, having no sovereignty over our own natural resources.  A few venal and vicious coal barons became immensely wealthy and the British state acquired the unlimited steam power for its navy to conquer half the planet, but Wales gained nothing.  When oil replaced coal as the favoured carbon in the 20th century, the mining valleys were ditched as quickly as they had been raped (4,000,000,000 tons extracted from over 400 collieries in Glamorgan alone in just 100 years), leaving them the poorest places in Europe, synonymous with destitution and deprivation: a reality that still applies today.

Getting at the high quality anthracite and steam coal of the South Wales Coalfield was always dangerous due to deep seams, myriad faults, inclined and folded strata and pockets of gas.  When you then factor in the coal owners’ cavalier disregard for safety and the UK government’s laissez-faire unwillingness to regulate mining (not until 1872 was even the mildest regulation introduced) the extraordinarily high Welsh death-rate begins to be understood.  So commonplace was disaster in the Welsh coalfield, Wales and tragic death are still inextricably linked in public consciousness; Gleision now adding yet another line to a never-ending funeral eulogy.  It was in Wales that the UK’s worst ever mining disaster happened (and the world’s 6th worst to this day) at Senghenydd in 1913 (439 dead), as well as the disaster that has come to epitomise disaster itself at Aberfan in 1966 (144 dead).  Only in an exploited colony with no control over its own affairs could it be possible for mountainous slag heaps to hover over pit villages because nobody judges it worthwhile to remove them. I wish someone would explain to me what little Wales ever did to deserve such cruel torment.

Senghenydd is just 7 miles from Cardiff, Aberfan 15.  Cardiff is inextricably tied to coal and owes its position as the capital and the wealthiest part of Wales entirely to Welsh coal.  Cardiffians know this in their bones, as the genuine grief here at the Gleision tragedy attests, not to mention the heartfelt renderings of David Alexander’s mawkish back catalogue regularly heard at karaoke nights all over town. But our neophiliac rulers would prefer it if the coal era was forgotten, lest it prompt dangerous thoughts about the exploitation and abuse of Wales and our contemptuous treatment by Britain.  People might begin to notice that it’s still going on (Wales has no say over the massive wind farms the current UK government plans to plaster over our mountains and encircle our coasts for instance), and might, heaven forfend, conclude that Wales would be better off running its own affairs.  So the Welsh coal experience, the textbook example of an extractive economic model designed to appropriate a country’s assets, has been reconfigured by Cardiff’s British establishment as a sentimental, sepia-tinted heritage-industry trope, stripped of all its blood, guts, politics, conflict and horror – just take a look at the cheesy, condescending sculptures of miners by Robert Thomas (1926-1999) along Queen Street to see what I mean.

I am led to understand that those responsible for ‘The Cardiff Story’ museum have taken great offence at a previous blog of mine, considering it unfairly “negative” (Qui, moi?).  Ok then, here’s a “positive” suggestion: why not include the incredible story of Cardiff’s very own mining disaster? When Cardiff expanded its boundaries in 1996 (Russell Goodway needed the extra rates to pay for his Bay projects) the city climbed up into the Glamorgan hills to reach the southern outcrop of the coalfield at Pentyrch and Gwaelod-y-Garth.  By doing so, Cardiff took over an area dotted with old mines tunnelled sideways into Mynydd y Garth at level entrances and connected deep in the mountain in a warren of passages.  The mines of Coedybedw, Cwm Dws, Rocks, Sidrig, South Cambria and Lan would be of little consequence in the annals of Welsh coal – the steam coals of the deep pits further up the valleys would soon render such small-scale drift mining obsolete and all were closed by 1913 – but it is because of them that today’s appealing mountainside community of Gwaelod-y-Garth developed, its lovingly restored stone terraces clinging to the east face of the Garth like a cartoon rendition of a Welsh mining village.  It was here, on a snowy December morning in 1875, that what now must be embraced as Cardiff’s mining disaster took place at the Lan colliery.

The saga of the disaster, in which 16 men and boys were killed when a huge gas explosion ripped through the ‘Brass Vein’ workings in the bowels of the Garth, begins with the establishment of the Pentyrch Ironworks in 1740 by Thomas Lewis (c1695-1794) a member of an old Welsh dynasty, the Lewises of Y Fan near Caerffili.  His branch of the many-tentacled family had settled at New House high up on Craig Llanisien (today a hotel on Thornhill) and, with money to spare, Lewis realised that the Taff Gorge was the ideal location for the then infant industry of iron making.  Lesser Garth contained masses of iron ore as well as the limestone necessary to remove impurities in the blasting process; the hills all around were densely wooded to ensure a supply of charcoal and later coke for fuel; the river and its tributaries provided an abundance of water to provide the motive power; and the Garth itself had not just the coal seams that would become increasingly important as the technology of iron manufacturing advanced, but also an abundance of sandstone with which to build the furnaces and forges.  Here, in the dreamy hanging valley of the Nant Cwm Llwydrew between the two Garths, Lewis set up his Ironworks, the birthing pool of Glamorgan’s industrial revolution.

Thomas Lewis left the business in 1759 to found the Dowlais Ironworks (destined to become the world’s biggest and later still to be moved lock, stock and barrel to Cardiff’s East Moors) by which time the Pentyrch Ironworks was working in tandem with the Melingriffith Tinworks, opened in 1748 on the site of an ancient cornmill two miles downriver on the Taff’s big bend at Whitchurch.  Pentyrch forged the iron bars and they were sent downstream to Melingriffith to be rolled into tinplate.  The operations required an amazing communications network, including two canals, two weirs, multiple tramroads and bridges, and ultimately their own railway line, the Pentyrch & Melingriffith Railway.  They were formally united in 1805 under the ownership of a group of Quaker ironmasters from Bristol, then sold to Bristolian Richard Blakemore (1775-1855), becoming a thriving business under his vigorous micro-management.   Via Blakemore’s nephew, Thomas Booker-Blakemore (1801-1858), it passed to the villain of this tale, his son Thomas William Booker (1830-1887).  Booker, cutting corners to prop up the terminally ailing Ironworks, ignored safety in his collieries on the Garth.  Plans of the honeycomb of caves and tunnels were not consulted and rudimentary maintenance more or less abandoned.  Lan was a death trap: today Thomas Booker would be facing corporate manslaughter charges.

Even after the explosion serenely indifferent Booker provided no rescue teams or engineers. It was left to miners from other collieries in the lower Taff valley to flock to the scene and enter the perilous, inflammable, collapsing tunnels to save the vast majority of the 150 who were working in Lan at the time.  The cause of the explosion was established beyond doubt at the inquest at the Walnut Tree Junction Hotel, Taffs Well.  Firedamp (methane) had built up due to the complete neglect of the ventilation systems and had combusted when in contact with fine soot escaping from inadequately sealed old workings . The mine owners were in flagrant breach of the Mines Act passed three years previously, having taken no steps to implement its modest requirements. Yet when the jury returned its verdict the proprietors were completely exonerated, nobody was held accountable and not a penny in fines or compensation payments was ordered.  The company received just the mildest slap on the wrist and the almost apologetic recommendation that it show “greater vigilance in future.”  Even by the standards of Victorian justice this was outrageous.  What actually happened was the jury members, to a man all Booker employees, were heavily leant-on and threatened with joblessness and homelessness if they should find against the Bookers. So, on top of the corporate manslaughter, you can add perverting the course of justice and jury-fixing to the Booker charge-sheet.  This injustice was all to no avail anyway: economic slump and advances in steel manufacturing forced the bankruptcy and closure of Pentyrch Ironworks just four years later and the sale of Melingriffith in 1888, by which time Thomas Booker had retired to spend more time with his three mansions in the area (Velindre, The Pines and Greenhill – the first two still exist) and died a broken man.  Melingriffith, incidentally, rode out the turmoil and prospered under new ownership; it would remain in production until 1957, making it the longest-lived, at 209 years, of any heavy industry in Cardiff history.

Back in 1875, in the colliery villages of Gwaelod-y-Garth, Pentre Poeth and Georgetown, the anguish and grief was raw.  It rippled down through the generations until fading from memory as the area gradually evolved into tame Cardiff suburbia far removed from its sooty, fiery past.  No memorials to the dead were ever raised, no emergency appeals to help the bereaved familes were ever launched, many lives were wrecked.  In contrast, the Bookers got the full respectful Cardiff treatment specially reserved for our conquerors, murderers, land-grabbers and exploiters: Heol Booker in Whitchurch and Booker Street in Adamsdown are named in their honour.

But there is a chance for Cardiff to put right this historic wrong.  In the woods around Gwaelod-y-Garth today are the considerable and unique remains of the early coal mining industry; a thrilling collection of horizontal tunnels with beautifully constructed sandstone arches leading to fearsome black holes, including the gaping entrance to the Lan colliery itself (on the east side of Main Road near the primary school).  At the bottom of the Garth precious little of the vast and complex Ironworks infrastructure has survived, the housing of Heol Berry (1930s) and River Glade (1990s) having covered the site, its railway and its canal.  However the canal’s entrance back into the Taff just north of Ynys Bridge is still apparent, as are many of the routes, cuttings and even rail fragments of the tramlines that sent coal and ore wagons hurtling down both Garths to the Ironworks.  Cardiff currently makes nothing at all of this precious legacy of industrial archaeology.  Restoration, preservation and the opening up of Mynydd y Garth’s astonishing cave systems would create a truly world class attraction; and at its heart should be a sombre, fitting monument to the dead of Lan colliery – Daniel Evans, William Harding, Evan Howell, Moses Llewellyn (at 12 the youngest victim), Thomas Llewellyn Snr, Thomas Llewellyn Jnr, William Llewellyn, Morgan Morgan, William Morgan, William Peters, Abraham Phillips (at 53 the oldest victim), John Pritchard, David Reece, Henry Sant, Robert Taylor and John Thomas.  And there could be no better place than here where the coalfield meets the coalopolis for the missing memorial, so conspicuous by its absence in the capital of Wales, to all the dead of the Welsh coal holocaust.