Penmaenmawr Railway Disaster

The disaster scene
In 1950, the nation’s newspapers and radio were full of news of a major railway disaster in the quiet Snowdonia town of Penmaenmawr. A little after 3 am on 27 August, a train from Holyhead with over 500 passengers from Ireland, collided with the rear of a small railway locomotive which had travelled from Llandudno Junction to collect a number of stone wagons from the sidings. The engine was crossing the main line to gain access to the sidings.

A fireman on board the small engine heard the Holyhead train coming and signalled to the signal box with his lamp that a collision was about to happen. The signalman changed the signals for the Holyhead train to red, but it was too late. The passenger train collided with the rear of the small engine pushing it forwards for about 240 yards, ripping the tracks. The force of the collision shattered the sleeping carriage of the passenger train, which was immediately behind the locomotive, and five people inside were killed. Several further carriages were thrown off the rails.

Raising the locoBoth the running lines were blocked and a second collision was prevented when a freight train approaching from the east was stopped just clear of the wreckage by the prompt action of the driver of the Holyhead train who knew the freight train was due and, on his instructions, the fireman went forward, despite painful injuries from which he would later be hospitalised, and protected the line with detonators to warm the oncoming train. The goods driver saw the signal change and then heard the detonators, and braked hard, stopping 120 yards before he would have hit the coaches lying across the down line. It was particularly fortunate that the goods train was stopped because its load included ammunition.

After the crash, local people came to the station with blankets and a cafe nearby opened to dispense tea and coffee to the rescuers and survivors. Penmaenmawr station was used as a casualty-clearing area until ambulances arrived to take the injured to hospital in all 36 people were injured and six killed (five at the site and one later in hospital) – a remarkably small number.

A Pathé newsreel shows a video of the aftermath of the crash test.  

 

Craig yr Undeb – Snowdonia’s trades union place of pilgrimage


CerdynUndeb1921bWe look towards the Welsh Valleys when we think of  Wales Trade Union history but in the heart of Snowdonia a significant event in Trades Union history took place.

Slate was king in the 19th century and North Wales quarry owners had grown rich through supplying roofing slate to the rapidly-growing urban communities in the UK and abroad at the height of the Industrial Revolution. Sadly, this was at the expense of the quarrymen who endured poor wages and appallingly dangerous working conditions. !n a situation where the quarry owners ruled absolutely, there was no provision for the workers to register their dissatisfaction over their working conditions. In the face of continued victimisation, the only course open to workers was collective action. The impetus for founding a Union came not from Penrhyn, Bethesda, despite many disputes and an earlier attempt to form a union in 1865, nor from Dinorwig in Llanberis. the other large quarry in the area, but from the nearby smaller Glyn Rhonwy quarry.

In the early 1870’s 110 quarrymen from the Glyn Rhonwy quarry declared themselves to be union members and were promptly locked out by the quarry owner. He soon realised he was losing money and within three weeks the workers returned and were recognised as union members.

However, the owners of the other quarries were alarmed by this development and attempted to stop the spread of the trade unions by refusing permission for any meetings within the quarries or on any of the extensive lands belonging to the large connected with the quarries.

Union rockThis is where the story takes a strange twist. Lord Newborough, owner of the Glynllifon estate west of Caernarfon owned some land near Llanberis on the shores of Llyn Padarn. He allowed the men to use a rocky outcrop (providing natural shelter) which became known as Craig Yr Undeb (Union Rock) to plan secretly the formation of a trade union. It’s fascinating to speculate his motives – perhaps he was in dispute with his aristocratic neighbours. Whatever his motives were, these secret meetings led to the creation of the North Wales Quarrymen’s Union.

Men at Union Rock
However, Dinorwig’s owners were unwilling to recognise the union. As a resut, 2,200 quarrymen were locked out of Dinorwic Quarry in June of that year, but after five weeks the managers agreed to recognise the union. This was followed by a dispute at the Penrhyn Quarry, which resulted in a great victory for the workers and their new union.

Conditions at Dinorwig were rapidly getting worse and in 1885. 53 men were suspended from working because ten men had broken a local rule. A mass meeting was held at Craig yr Undeb where strikers passed votes of no confidence in the manager, John Davies, as well as the chief manager, Walter Warwick Vivian.Neither had experience of the quarrying industry, having spent their training in the hard world of business. They were not in the least knowledgeable about how to improve inefficient customs and practices and had no interest in improving the working conditions of its employees. At that meeting, the striking quarrymen were led in a march to Craig yr Undeb (Union Rock) by the Llanrug Band whose patron was the owner of the Dinorwig quarry, G.W.D. Assheton Smith. He had presented them with new uniforms, a practice room at Gilfach Ddu in the quarry itself, as well as a new set of silver instruments worth £400. They were ordered to return their instruments forthwith to the band room at Gilfach Ddu and to leave them there until further notice. Marching back, they were persuaded by some of the onlookers to play a couple of marches. They obliged, and in so doing gave Assheton Smith the excuse to confiscate their instruments permanently.  He then took the opportunity of presenting them to a newly formed band in Llanberis and employed a conductor and tutor from England in 1886.

Centenary plaqueThe North Wales Quarrymen’s Union was initially not led by miners but by radical Liberals who later became supporters of David Lloyd George‘s Cymru Fydd. It merged with the Transport and General Workers’ Union in 1923. One hundred years after its formation, a plaque was unveiled by Jack Jones, the general secretary of the Transport & General Workers Union to commemorate the centenary of the formation of the quarrymen’s union.

 

 

 

downloadMoral dilemma

If you look carefully on the rock which is the end of the outcrop, you will see that somebody has painted ‘Cymru am Byth’ (Wales for ever!) on the rock. This has now almost faded away and every time I walk past I am sad because if ever there was a place such graffiti was appropriate, it is here. The Welsh Government have preserved the graffiti near Aberystwyth which says “Cofiwch Dreweryn” (Remember Treweryn!) – a reference to the valley that was flooded to provide water for Liverpool despite universal opposition in Wales. Should I go out with a pot of paint and a brush early one morning and renew the graffiti?

Cwm-y-Glo Explosion

Engraving of the carts at the scene

On a very hot afternoon on 30 June 1869, two carts, each containing a ton of nitro-glycerine (then known as powder-oil) set out from Caernarfon travelling the 8 miles to the Glynrhonwy slate quarry on the edge of Llanberis. Although the canisters containing the liquid explosive had been carefully packed into a boxes containing sawdust and covered in straw when loaded onto the carts, nobody at the time knew how inherently unstable nitro-glycerine was!

Just before 6pm, immediately after the carts had passed the Cwm-y-Glo station goods shed, the cargo exploded with what was probably the loudest man-made explosion ever heard up to that time. Both carters died, plus a passing quarrymen from Glynrhonwy and two young boys aged 11 and 13, who were unlucky enough to be nearby. The inquest showed that the carters had spent some time at the Alexandria Inn in Cwm-y-Glo which meant the carts were cooking nicely in the sun.

Where hoof and harness landedNo trace of the carters, horses or carts remained at the site and two deep craters approximately ten feet deep were left behind. Human and animal remains, as well as parts of the carts, were spread far and wide – with some of the debris being found in the neighbouring village of Brynrefail. The damage to Cwm-y-Glo’s buildings was extensive, many having roofs blown off and windows destroyed. Scarcely a house in the village escaped without damage. A wheel and harness from one of the carts landed a half-mile away and, to this day, the spot is marked by a large ‘X’ scratched on a stone wall which locals keep visible.

The far-reaching consequence of this event was the Nitro-glycerine Act 1869 prohibiting the manufacture, transport or sale of nitro-glycerine or any product containing it in the U.K.

PlaqueA plaque commemorates the event which can be seen on the rock face opposite Y Fricsan.

A ballad about the accident (see the excellent Welsh cultural history site,‘ Gathering the Jewels’The text of the song translates roughly as:

Song about the accident“A ballad about a terrible explosion that happened in 1869 at Cwm y glo.

Dear quarrymen and all rockworkers throughout Arfon and Meirionydd.  Hear about this alarming and terrible accident that has made many hearts sad. There has been accident after accident in the quarries, with falling loose rocks from morning to noon.  They tear the flesh and break the bones and people collect bodies in blankets and sheets.  What heart does not melt at the sight of a mother unable to recognise her son or husband, the tears pouring from the children shouting: ‘Dad, where are you?’. And things are far worse with nitro-glycerine.  We’ve had terrible disasters at Abergele, now we have one at Cwm y glo ”

The full Welsh text and a transcription of a contemporary account of the explosion in the Times of  2 July 1869 can be found by clicking on this website

More reading: Death Blast in Snowdonia by T Meirion Hughes.