I was asked to do some more work in Senghenydd this year following the success of a similar project undertaken in Abertridwr last year. The project brief was to work with the local primary school to come up with ideas for an old railway bridge that used to span the tracks of the old line that used to carry coal from the Universal pit.
The young people wanted to create a memorial piece about the tragic mining disasters of 1901 and 1913 in Senghenydd, both events that still affect the community as a whole to this day.
Senghenydd’s Universal Pit was by far the most significant employer in the area. In 1901 a huge explosion in the pit killed 81 miners, with one survivor being pulled from the mine shaft. This was bad enough for the community, however worse was still to come. In 1913 an explosion ripped through the underground mines, and of 950 men working that day, 439 miners and one rescuer lost their lives. Despite many roof falls and raging fires, many men and boys were rescued from the rubble, but the conditions were tough, and the rescue attempts lasted for 3 weeks even though all hope of finding survivors had long passed.
It was estimated that over 1,000 people in the area were bereaved by the Senghenydd disaster. Nearly all of the families in the town were affected, in one way or another. It was said that there was a victim in every household. Enquiries found that numerous faults could be laid at the door of the owners and managers, yet, despite this, the grand total of fines and compensation came only £24. One Newspaper was quoted to tally the cost of each miners life as ‘£0 1s 1 1/4d’. In other words, by today’s rates, only 6 pence. The Senghenydd pit disaster is remembered as the most lethal and tragic mining disaster in British history.
Having worked in the area a number of times over the years, (and created a number of murals on the subject), I am well schooled on the subject, so we set about making pans for the mural. We decided to tie in the bridge by using a concept similar to a project we did last year in the next town by creating a historical piece in black and white on one side, and a colour version on the opposite side representing the beauty of the area. We used old photos from the day of the 1913 disaster as reference, strong images that still reflect the community’s feeling of loss today. Whilst I was painting, people told me stories about their grandfathers or relatives who either died in the accidents or had lucky escapes due to being “on afternoons” that day.
I love this about my job. I often seem to act as a direct link between peoples memories, history, and the preservation of both. I feel honoured to be able to help communities create lasting visual pieces that celebrate or reflect on their own particular culture and history. In this case, Its a privilege to help create such a dedication to the memories of those who lost their lives.