‘THE price of coal’ was the headline of one newspaper as it reported the Senghenydd pit disaster in October, 1913. 

The cost of course was the lives of 440 men and boys, who died after an explosion ripped through the Universal Colliery in Senghenydd in the Aber Valley, near Caerphilly at 8.10am on October 14. The final death toll was recorded as 440 on October 20 when a rescuer was killed. 

To this day it remains the worst disaster not only in the tragic history of Welsh mining but of the industry across Britain. 

As terrible as the disaster was, which literally shock the ground with a two tonne cage shot back up the shaft destroying the pithead, it could have been worse as 950 miners had been working in the colliery’s three pits at the time of the explosion. 

The National Wales: A young mother and baby wait for news from the collieryA young mother and baby wait for news from the colliery

Those working on the east side were all brought to safety but the west side was engulfed in flames from which only a few would escape. 

Fortunately the efforts of the rescue parties, which stretched into the coming weeks, were not in vain as the last 18 survivors were brought to the surface a fortnight later. 

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The sheer numbers working in the colliery indicate its importance, and centrality, in the life of Senghenydd, and the wider area, and of the terrible, generation toll it would take on the village. Mothers and fathers mourned sons, wives lost husbands and children would never know their fathers and young men their futures. 

The cold, hard numbers can be measured as 205 widows, 542 children and 62 dependent parents, another shockwave sent through the village by an explosion for which the cause could not be determined though it was agreed methane gas was involved. 

Of the miners who perished 60 were younger than 20-years-old, and eight of those were aged only 14. 

The National Wales: A tired rescue party Picture: Old Caerphilly and District in Photographs by Howard C Jones A tired rescue party Picture: Old Caerphilly and District in Photographs by Howard C Jones

Such pain could never be a price worth paying for coal, the industry which had made an elite fabulously wealthy but also shaped communities that survive to this day and drove the local economy. 

READ MORE: Welsh mining communities 'left on the slag heap'

But a price would be put on the lives of the men lost in the Universal Colliery explosion in May the following year when the mine manager Edward Shaw and the owners, the Lewis Merthyr Coal Company would be brought before a court. 

Shaw, was convicted of eight of 17 charges he faced and fined £24. A local newspaper headline read: “Miners Lives at 5½p each'. 

The owners were fined £10 with £5.25 costs after being convicted of just one of four charges, found guilty of failing to fit reversible ventilation fans.

The National Wales: The scene following the disaster Picture: Old Caerphilly and District in Photographs by Howard C Jones The scene following the disaster Picture: Old Caerphilly and District in Photographs by Howard C Jones  

Concerns over safety in the industry had led to the 1911 Coal Mines Act and there was anger in Senghenydd as it was clear there had been breaches of the legislation shaped at a time when trade unions and the Labour movement, including the fledgling Labour Party, were beginning to win concessions. 

Sadly Senghenydd was all too familiar with the dangers of working underground and the price paid by employees who must risk everything in real life disaster capitalism. 

An earlier explosion at the Universal Colliery in 1901 had cost 81 men their lives, that was all but one of the men working on the shift. 

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The Universal Colliery would close in 1928 but the impact of the disaster has been carried through generations in the village which is now in Caerphilly borough. 

As the site of the disaster with the highest death toll in the British coalfields it’s fitting that the village is also home to Wales’ national mining memorial which was unveiled on the centenary of the tragedy. 

The National Wales: The memorial statue was unveiled by Roy Noble on October 14, 2013The memorial statue was unveiled by Roy Noble on October 14, 2013

Commissioned by the local Aber Valley Heritage group, which had secured Heritage Lottery Funding and undertook its own fundraising campaign, it pays tribute to the victims of all 151 recognised disasters, when five or more people died, to have occurred in Wales. 

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Thousands from Senghenydd and beyond turned out to witness the unveiling of the memorial in 2013 – poignantly illustrating how the disaster still impacted the community and that it had never been forgotten even if the story isn’t as well known outside of Wales. 

The National Wales: The wall of remembrance forms part of the national memorialThe wall of remembrance forms part of the national memorial

Among those paying tribute at the centenary when the memorial, that features a bronze statue, a wall of remembrance, and a path of memorial tiles, was unveiled was 99-year-old Morfydd Sylvia Oates. She had been brought up a stone’s throw away from  the mine. 

She had travelled from her home in Lincolnshire for a Cymanfa Ganu (singing festival) and was invited to the memorial service. 

The National Wales: Lynn Evans and mum Morfydd Sylvia Oates, who lost two uncles in the disaster, in front of the statue Lynn Evans and mum Morfydd Sylvia Oates, who lost two uncles in the disaster, in front of the statue

Brought up in the village high street, she lost two uncles in the 1913 mining disaster, and 26 years later, lost her twin brother in a separate mining accident. She said: “It’s very sad but I’m very happy to be here.” 

Her son, Lynn Evans, 68, who is originally from Caerphilly, said: “I grew up with it but I’ve learned more about it this weekend than I did all my life. It is terribly sad but it has been a wonderful day – it just brings it all home.”

It's hard to comprhend a disaster on that scale today but for many Welsh communities, and coalfield communities across the globe, the collective memory ensures such tragic and avoidable loss of life isn't forgotten. 

The Aber Valley Heritage Group is holding its annual memorial service for both Universal Colliery disasters at 10am at the Welsh National Universal Mining Memorial & Garden today. 

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