1894 and disaster at a South Wales coal pit

A new colliery – the property of the Albion Steam Coal Company, Limited – was registered in Cardiff and began sinking operations in 1885 and completed them in 1887.  It was in the Taff Valley = a portion of the coalfield that was virgin until the colliery was opened. It was to the north of the Ocean Coal Company’s Lady Windsor Pit and was near the village of Cilfynydd, near Pontypridd and was one of the largest in South Wales and employed nearly two thousand men but at the time there were only about a sixth of that number below ground on the afternoon repairing shift.

On the left hand side of the Bodwenarth incline a small quantity of water was pumped from the face straight on to the road and allowed to find its way to the shaft. This wet the floor for only 160 yards and it got drier nearer the shaft. A supply of clean water was brought from the surface by pipes for the horses and sometimes the tap was left on and water flowed along Grover’s level but the mine was dry and dusty with deposits of coal dust on the side’s floor and roof of the roads.  Coal was worked by day and by night but only twenty five percent of the production was made at night. There were about 1,020 people working underground during the day shift and 524 on the night shift. On the first five working days of the week there was an interval between the day shift ending at 5 p.m. and the night shift starting at 7 p.m. and there was also an interval between the night shift finishing at 5 a.m. an the day shift starting at 7a.m. On Saturdays no coal was raised after 2 p.m. at the end of the day shift and the nightshift immediately began to descend with no interval between the shafts. This had been in operation for five or six weeks before the disaster and the alteration had been made on the request of the workmen to enable them to finish at 8 p.m. instead of 9 p.m.

Road repairing and cleaning was carried out during the week in both shifts but Saturday afternoon was devoted to clearing away the rubbish and dust from the main roads of the colliery. The colliery had been rapidly developed since work commenced in the latter half of 1887. Before the end of that year as much as 1,000 tons a day had been raised. It was some eight years later – on Saturday 23rd June 1894 – that the mine was the scene of the, up to then, worst ever disaster in the South Wales coal fields. The output for the week ending 23rd. June was 9,542 tons of which 7,170 tons was cut by day and 2,372 tons cut at night. 338 acres of the seam had been exhausted at the time of the disaster.

It was on Saturday 23rd June 1894 when a disaster at the Albion coal pit in South Wales cost the lives of some 300 miners.  At 4 o’clock on this Saturday a massive underground explosion brought about the death of 290 men and boys. 16 men escaped alive from the pit but 11 died soon after. Only 2 of the 125 horses underground survived.

The colliery was re-opened within two weeks of the explosion despite the fact that almost everyone in the community lost someone in the disaster.

An inquest opened in August of that year and heard many differences of opinion between the owners, the inspectors and the witnesses. In the end the jury concluded that an explosion of gas was accelerated by coal dust – but it failed to agree on the cause!

As a result, in September 1894 a Government appointed barrister scrutinised the evidence and reported to the Home Secretary that, in his opinion, the explosion was caused by the blasting of timbers which ignited an accumulation of gas, which ignited the coal dust. He concluded that the risk was increased by dangerous working practices, including blasting of timbers during shifts, inadequate watering of the mine to lay dust and a new Saturday shift patterns which meant that there was no interval for clearing dust between shifts. He recommended prosecuting the Albion Coal Company, but eventually only fines of £10 against manager Phillip Jones and £2 against charge-man William Anstes were imposed!

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