People and Places gallery heading 1901: Living at the Time of the Census People and Places

Senghenydd, Glamorgan

Senghenydd, Glamorgan

Senghenydd pit was the site of a devastating explosion in 1901 that killed 82 men. Only 12 years later, the same pit saw the worst disaster in British mining history, which killed 439 men and boys and again devastated the local community.

In 1901, Senghenydd, some four miles from Caerphilly in South Wales, was a newly-developed mining village. It had a steam coal colliery (producing coal for use on steamships) and was owned by the Universal Colliery Company, which had been established in 1889.

Universal Colliery Company pithead at Senghenydd, taken after the explosion in 1901  -  link to an enlarged version
  Valuation Office map of Senghenydd, showing the pit village and Universal Colliery mine  -  link to an enlarged version

At the time of the 1891 census, Senghenydd did not exist as a village - the area was almost completely rural - but later that year, work began on the first mine shafts. A row of one-storey corrugated iron huts was erected to house the shaft sinkers and railway construction workers; 10 years later these temporary buildings, known as 'The Huts,' housed a number of families. (These buildings can be identified in the Inland Revenue Valuation Office field books of 1914 (held at The National Archives in record series IR 58) where they are described as two-roomed 'zinc huts'.) Brick-built terraced housing was also laid out, one such street being Stanley Street, built circa 1897 and consisting mainly of rented three-bedroom houses.

  Increasing demand for coal and better rail links to the coast meant that deeper pits became economically viable, despite the difficulties and dangers of working coal seams at great depths. By 1900, Senghenydd was producing 183,500 tons of coal a year. Such pits, however, exposed miners to cramped working conditions, flood water and to dangerous pockets of gas as well as to pneumoconiosis, caused by the build-up of coal-dust in the lungs, and other disease. In the early morning of 24 May 1901, there was a massive explosion at Senghenydd pit, killing virtually all of the men on the night-shift, who were working overtime. 82 men and 50 horses were killed; only 1 man and 2 horses survived.
1901 Census entry for Fullalove family, Stanley Street: father (Thomas) and son (Joseph) were killed in the blast - link to an enlarged version
The dead included two neighbours from Stanley Street: George Warren, who lived at number 44, and Thomas Fullalove, living at number 42, whose eldest son was also killed. The Cardiff Times and South Wales Weekly News reported that 'James (sic) and Joseph Fullalove, father and son, were discovered on the east side in Will Evans's heading, lying with their faces to the ground, and locked in each other's arms.'

Their's were not the only widows and orphans left in Stanley Street; John Thomas left a widow and five children, aged between 4 and 10. Many of the bodies were mutilated and burnt beyond recognition; many families were advised to bury their dead unseen. The South Wales Daily News reported that 'included among the victims are some of the brightest characters in the neighbourhood. Deacons, musicians, temperance workers are found amongst them.' Under the Workmen's Compensation Act, a lump sum of between £150 and £300 could be paid to the dependants of those who died and the South Wales Miners' Appeal Fund paid out 10s a week to the bereaved families.

The subsequent official enquiry blamed the disaster on coal-dust and on the failure to keep it watered down, speculating that a blasting shot prepared by Thomas and Joseph Fullalove had sparked the explosion off. The enquiry painted a horrific picture of the speed at which the mine workings were engulfed:

…a considerable volume of flame having been formed, a sudden expansion of the air took place, creating an airwave which swept through the roadways in every direction, raising the coal dust and mixing it with the air as it passed. The flame followed closely behind the airwave, rapidly increasing the volume of heated air and, consequently, the pressure that was driving it forward from behind.

Despite recommendations made by the enquiry and evidence that the Senghenyyd pit was a dangerously dry, dusty and gassy mine, production there continued to expand, reaching 1,800 tons a day by 1913. New safety legislation laid down in the 1911 Coal Mines Act was not fully implemented. On 14 October 1913, Senghenydd pit saw the worst pit disaster in British mining history in which 439 men and boys were killed, including eight 14 year olds. Stanley Street alone lost 18 men.

Both the manager and owners of the Universal Colliery Company were subsequently prosecuted. The £24 fine imposed on the manager produced the headline 'Miners' Lives at 1s 1½d'. The acquittal of the owners was challenged through the courts; they were eventually fined £10 with £5 5s costs. William Hyatt, a miner who survived the explosion, commented: 'my father always said there was more fuss if a horse was killed underground than if a man was killed. Men came cheap - they had to buy horses.'

The Universal Colliery closed in 1928 and its derelict workings were demolished in 1963. A memorial to those who died in the two explosions was erected in 1981.

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