May 28th, 2014 ~ Vol. 84 No. 21
Looking Back - John Kinnear
Re-creating the Senghenydd Wales Disaster
Crowsnest Pass Herald Front Page
John Kinnear Photo
Commemorative Senghenydd bronze statue of rescue man and miner
Last October 14th Wales’s first national mining monument was unveiled at Senghennydd (pronounced Seng-en-ith) where exactly a hundred years earlier the lives of 439 men and boys were snuffed out by a horrific explosion at the Universal Colliery. There was also one rescuer lost in what must have been a draegerman’s worst nightmare.
The story of Senghenydd is an all too typical one back then of production pressures because of the demand for steam coal and management ignoring mine’s inspector’s orders to improve safety combining into a catastrophic event. The Universal had had an explosion in 1901 that killed 81 men but little if anything was done by mine owner William Thomas Lewis since that time, despite warnings. By January 1913 a new mine’s act dictated that a reversing fan must be installed at all mines to quickly exhaust the poisonous gases created by methane/coal dust explosions. Lewis ignored the September deadline given to him and no fan was in place when the mine blew up.
There were no less than 950 men working in two pits that day at Universal. The funerals took over a month to complete and left 542 children fatherless and more than 200 widows. The mine manager was fined a paltry 25 pounds and owner Lewis 10 pounds. And this wasn't at a time when people could expect to be looked after by the state. The mine owners, culpable as they were, eventually paid out something like one shilling in compensation for every man or boy dead. Incredible and disturbing.
Their national monument includes a bronze statue of a rescue worker coming to the aid of a survivor, a ceramic tile wall of remembrance dedicated to all those who lost their lives in Senghenydd disasters with each miner listed, a path of memory that has 152 special tiles for each of the mining disasters of five or more men that have occurred across Wales. There is also a garden of contemplation and it that garden they have planted giant oats to acknowledge the horses that suffered also.
One of the miners who died at Senghenydd was a man named Thomas Jones. We all recall the famous singer Tom Jones who is Welsh but the stunning thing about the aforementioned Thomas Jones is that he was in fact one of five men named Thomas Jones who died in that 1913 disaster. When I said men and boys earlier I meant boys. When boys reached the age of 14 they went into the pit when they finished school and tended to stay close to their fathers, uncles and brothers in the mine, to learn from them and to stay safe. Safe indeed!
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There are all kinds of parallels of Senghenydd at the Hillcrest Mine Disaster Memorial Monument in the way the site is interpreted and presented. The stone pillows, the walkways, interpretive signs and monument all combine to present this sacred place in an important way. The enhancements for this June’s event are well in hand with new sidewalks, fencing, grass terraces, a new gate and way finding sign, handicapped access walkway and mine lamp bollards being installed. When all is said and done Hillcrest, like Senghenydd, will truly shine as a site of national significance.
Part of the commemoration of Senghenydd last October included the creation of a profound image at a local school soccer field there. Students spelled out the number 439 on the soccer pitch and a photo was taken from on high. Yesterday at three Pass schools Frank Slide historic interpreter Myriah Sagrafena led the effort to create a similar acknowledgement using students from Isabelle Sellon, Crowsnest Consolidated High School and Horace Allen School. They came together to form the number 189. I can’t think of a better way to have young people acknowledge and grasp the scope of the Hillcrest losses than to have them participate in this unique work.
On hand to help make the on-high photograph was Steve Hanon, author of The Devil’s Breath, the definitive work on Hillcrest. Steve brought a special flying drone that carries a camera that flew over top of the students at each school to capture their human 189 creations.
Steve is a Calgary writer, photographer and filmmaker who became fascinated by the Hillcrest story, one he had never come across in his research before. Hanon eventually created a film on the Hillcrest disaster as he felt bound to share this story that seemed to have been forgotten. Once done he realized that the truncation and condensation that results from television just didn’t do it the justice it deserves. He then immersed himself in the mountain of documentation he had accumulated on the story and created his 320 page definitive work on the Hillcrest disaster.
For Steve Hanon context is everything and to tell this story he used 100 pages of lead-in to get to the day of the tragedy. One needs to understand the industrial age thinking of the time, the complicated world of coal mining labour struggles and also the work ethic that was such a part of small communities back then to understand the story properly.
I hope the students that participated in the 189 event Tuesday contemplated, if only for a moment, the stark reality of the picture they painted with their bodies. And maybe tried to imagine some of the pain and heartache that came with loosing fathers and sons, brothers and uncles, all in one brutally swift moment.
May 28th ~ Vol. 84 No. 21
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