Britain ’s biggest-ever coalmining disaster occurred exactly 100 years ago today. The explosion 650 yards underground at the Universal colliery in Senghenydd, south Wales, killed 439 men and boys — eight of them were just 14 years old.
Often forgotten is that it simultaneously created 205 widows and 542 orphans.
Technically, the precise cause of the disaster was never established beyond doubt.
Most likely, a rockfall or a fault in the electrical signalling apparatus ignited the gas which set the coal dust ablaze.
There is less dispute about the fact that the number of casualties was hugely multiplied by the criminal disregard for safety shown by Lewis Merthyr Consolidated Collieries Ltd.
After the mine opened in 1896, in the Aber valley a few miles north of Caerffili, the village of Senghenydd had sprung up around it.
Five years later, a gas and coal dust explosion wiped out all but one of 82 miners on the early morning shift.
The enormous damage was quickly rectified as production rose eventually to 1,800 tons a day.
Almost 1,000 men were on the shift ripped apart by a spark on October 14 1913.
Summoned by a siren, local people rushed to the pit-head soon after 8am that morning.
The colliery manager led a rescue party into the depths and they brought out some of the survivors. Mine rescue teams arrived from surrounding areas over the next few hours.
South Wales Miners Federation vice-president James Winstone took a team of trade unionists below to fight the fire, as the Fed held an emergency meeting of its executive council on the surface.
Over the next day or two the scale of the catastrophe become clear.
Many of the bodies could only be identified by the most poignant mementoes — brand-new boots, a newly sewn patch on a vest or a water flask stopped with a champagne cork.
Not that the disaster merited the recall of the Westminster Parliament, then in recess.
Although it reconvened for one day in November, this was to tidy up the criminal law rather than to hear about Senghenydd.
In those days, about 1,700 miners were killed on the job in Britain every year, almost half of them in the deep mines of the south Wales coalfield. Safety standards lagged far behind those in Germany and Belgium.
Apart from the local manager, no company representatives appeared at the Senghenydd inquest in January 1914 because, as their solicitor explained, “The directors have no practical knowledge of the working of the mine.” For nine weeks home secretary Reginald McKenna resisted demands to establish a court of inquiry.
When the chief inspector of mines finally reported in April, he confirmed that the company had flouted the 1911 Coal Mines Act on numerous counts relating to ventilation, water supply, dusting, illumination, testing, recording and other matters.
In particular, the failure to install fans that could have immediately reversed the air flow cost at least 100 lives on the day of the disaster.
The absence of breathing apparatus on site had hindered rescue work until its arrival from the Porth rescue station eight miles away.
As a result of these findings, the company and its local manager were charged with 17 breaches of the 1911 Act.
The magistrates dismissed all charges against the former, fining the manager a total of £24 for five offences.
On appeal, fines plus costs were extended to the company and increased to a total of £39 and five shillings.
Today’s equivalent would be around £3,300, or £7.50 per life.
Ever vigilant in money matters, the company paid half a day’s wage to each of the bereaved families in Senghenydd. The other half was kept back because the men had not finished their shift.
Universal colliery was reopened in time to feed the Great War machine.
It closed in 1928, the workforce having been given one day’s notice.
The miners continued to campaign vigorously for workers’ safety inspectors underground and a host of other safety measures. Many of these were not achieved until nationalisation of the coal industry in 1946.
Under public ownership, Britain’s coal mines became among the safest in the world.
But during the decade prior to privatisation in 1994, the NUM and the National Association of Colliery Overmen, Deputies and Shotfirers had to fight a rearguard action to retain workers’ inspectors, although the role of pit deputies was weakened and the number of mining inspections reduced.
In recent years the fatality rate in Britain’s tiny, private and subsidised coal industry has risen to its highest levels for 40 years.
Undeterred, the Tory-Lib Dem coalition launched its “red tape challenge” in April 2011, inviting views on where to cut government regulations in industry, including those for health and safety.
Incredibly, the consultation explicitly embraced “major hazard industries” such as coal, where respondents were invited to consider a range of options.
These included scrapping regulations altogether and their possible replacement by voluntary codes of practice.
The spirit of the coal owners lives on in the Tory and Liberal parties.
But in the spirit of the Fed — and supported by local authorities, the Welsh Assembly government, top rock band the Manic Street Preachers and former world boxing champion Joe Calzaghe — the people of Senghenydd have now raised the funds for a Welsh national mining memorial.
Unveiled today at the site of the Universal colliery, it not only pays tribute to the victims of past disasters.
It also reminds us of the need to continue the struggle for health and safety against unscrupulous employers and governments.
Robert Griffiths is general secretary of the Communist Party and a contributor to 21centurymanifesto
This article appeared today in the Morning Star