Cilfynydd, 290 Lives; the Price of Coal

Piti-head day of disaster
Piti-head day of disaster

At 3.50pm on Saturday 23 June 1894, the tiny South Wales mining village of Cilfynydd was rocked by an explosion at the Albion Colliery and 290 men and boys plus 118 to horses were killed. Eleven of those killed were never identified. It became Wales’ (and Britain’s) worst mining disaster, only eclipsed 19 years later by the explosion at the nearby Universal Colliery at Senghenydd 1913 which resulted in the loss of 439 lives.

It is hard to imagine what a disaster of this magnitude meant to community of only 3,000 people. That day, 150 women became widows and more than 350 children from the community were made fatherless. Moriah Chapel lost 40 members and stories emerged of families with huge losses: one house lost a husband, two sons and a son-in-law; another lost a husband three sons and two sons-in-law; a third lost a husband, sons and lodgers totalling nine deaths. Houses became vacant as widows and children moved out to live with relatives elsewhere in Wales and attendance at the village school was so low that it was officially closed for a month.

Immediately after the explosion, 2,000 people gathered at the pit-head and the following day that number increased to an estimated 20,000 sightseers in the area. Opportunists were quick to take advantage and dray loads of beer were brought into the village to replace stocks at the pubs which had been drunk dry the previous day. The pubs opened illegally on Sunday — an unheard of event — and ironically, the chapels remained closed, which was an indication of the shock experienced by the residents of Cilfynydd.

Like all such dreadful events, when examined later it became clear that human failings were the cause of the accident. The mine owners were able to employ expert witnesses at the inquest who testified that there was nothing that the Management could have done to prevent the explosion. The jury returned a complex verdict with a number of recommendations. They concluded that the explosion had been caused by fire damp, a mixture of flammable gases, principally of methane and that a number of regulations had been broken and staff negligent in their safety duties. Among their recommendations was that old workings should be stopped up; a record should be kept of the number of men underground at all times and that more frequent inspections should be made by Her Majesty’s Inspectors.Lamp check During the inquest it became clear that the management had no idea how many men were below ground and eventually all collieries were compelled to introduce a system to identify every miner underground at any time. An Albion colliery ‘lamp check’ is in my possession, which was placed on a rack in exchange for a safety lamp, is shown.

Eventually, minor charges were brought against two employees which resulted in fines of £10 and £2 respectively and the colliery reopened two weeks later.

My grandfather travelled as a young man in about 1902 from Trefor in North Wales, where he worked at a granite quarry, to earn more at the Albion colliery in Cilfynydd. He told me stories of how traumatised the village was only eight years or so after the explosion.

Centenary memorial
Centenary memorial

A memorial was erected to the 11 unidentified miners who died in the accident and on the Centenary in 1994, a permanent memorial was created at Coedylan Comprehensive School which stands on the site of the Albion colliery. Although the colliery closed in 1966, after 80 years of existence, some capped shafts are still visible on the school playing fields.

Most of the information for this blog is drawn from R Meurig Evans’ excellent book about the Cilfynydd explosion of 1894, titled “One Saturday Afternoon”.

 

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