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The coffins of men who died in the pit were carried by the hands of their comrades more than four miles, to be buried in this churchyard at Eglwysilan.

The work was hard, dirty, dangerous and often deadly

For more than 150 years, from the mid-1800s, the steep, narrow valleys of South Wales were a booming source of arguably the world’s highest quality steam coal. Hard Welsh anthracite burned with little smoke.  

Coal has been wrested from the Welsh earth for centuries. It wasn’t until the middle of the 19th century, however, that large scale production became feasible—with mechanization to bring the coal from deep pits to the surface, and trams and railroads to transport the black gold down the valleys to the ports of Cardiff and Newport.

Spreading out fanwise to the north above those ports, the Valleys filled up with pit heads, winding engines and bleak housing terraces that crawled up the hillsides. By 1913, Cardiff was the largest coal exporting port in the world. At that point, there were 620 mines in the South Wales coalfield, and more than 230,000 men and boys working the collieries. Welsh steam coal was highly in demand, fueling the dreadnoughts and cruisers of the mighty British navy and that of its Empire allies into the Great War.

From the villages and the countryside across Wales and far beyond, people flocked to the Valleys and their seemingly prosperous mining towns, lured from the hard-scrabble life of subsistence farming to a hard-scrabble life in the mines—that at least offered cash pay, chapels, pubs and a sense of community.

The work was hard, dirty, dangerous and often deadly. At the collieries, life was cheap indeed. Mine safety was always a concern, but accidents were common. Death, mutilation and lung disease were omnipresent realities in the towns lining the valleys and following the coal seams. In practice, it was more difficult and expensive for a mine owner to replace a pit pony than a miner.

At the head of the small Aber Valley, rising some six miles above the market town of Caerphilly, the village of Senghenydd still remembers that it suffered even more than most.

The twin shafts of the Universal Colliery, named York and Lancaster, were sunk in 1891. As the shafts reached a depth of nearly 2,000 feet, it became evident that there were rich coal seams indeed to be mined. Senghenydd became something of a boom town over the next few years as colliers, builders and railroad workers turned the sleepy little farming hamlet into a bustling mining community of several thousand. Those who built the terraced row houses and the railroads stayed on to work the mines. Just down the road, the Windsor Colliery in neighboring Abertridwr completed the transformation of Aber Valley.

Senghenydd’s first disaster struck in the early morning on May 24, 1901. At the end of the night shift, when many men had been brought to the surface, three explosions in quick succession rocked the still dawn. The pits were dry, hot and heavy with coal dust; all it took was a spark. A quick count in the lamp room showed that 82 men were still in the mine. Only one survived. Eleven days later there were still 120 men working around the clock to recover the bodies, clear the falls and restore working operations. The explosion left 57 widows and 230 fatherless children. Alas, the tragedy proved merely a rehearsal.

Following the 1901 explosion at Senghenydd, the Coal Mines Act of 1911 provided a number of regulations for mine safety, including control of electrical equipment, watering down the ever-present coal dust and providing reversible fans to pump clean air into the mines. Unfortunately, all these measures hadn’t been implemented at the Universal Colliery by the autumn of 1913.

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