Postcards recording the terrible explosion at the Universal pit, Senghennydd

The village of Senghennydd (Caerphilly) grew around the Universal Steam Coal Company pit when coal mining began there during the 1890s. As railway links improved and the demand for coal increased, deep pits became much more profitable to work despite the difficulties of mining under these circumstances: working in confined spaces, floods, gas and dust. Senghennydd became very familiar with all these dangers.

In 1901 there was a severe explosion in the pit when 82 workers were killed. But twelve years later, on Tuesday, 14 October 1913, there was another disaster in the same pit, the most severe in the history of the Welsh coal industry. 439 men and boys were killed. Following the explosion of 1901 recommendations were made regarding safety in deep pits, and the dangers of the Universal were well known, but production continued to increase as did the number of workers working under dangerous conditions.

The manager and owners of the pit were prosecuted as a result of the disaster of 1913. But the result was a disappointment for the workers and their families in their mourning. The manager was made to pay a fine of £24 but all charges were dropped against the owners. On appeal they were ordered to pay a fine of £10 and costs of £5 5s.

The pit was worked until 1928. No memorial for the victims was unveiled until 1981.

Because of the scale of the disaster there was much interest in what had happened. To sate this desire for information these postcards were produced. The photographer W. Benton must have reached the area shortly after the disaster in order to record the event. The photographer had a studio in George Street, Glasgow, but he specialized in recording disasters. After arriving in the area he rented a local room and proceeded with his work of photographing the scenes following the disaster, later publishing them as a series of 25 postcards. The Library does not hold the whole series, but of the cards that have been used, the earliest posting date is 22 October, eight days after the explosion, and all the used cards bear postmarks from the vicinity of Senghennydd.

Today the idea of producing postcards noting such an event seems to be morbid. But it must be remembered that these images are very similar to what we would expect to see on television or in a newspaper. Therefore, these postcards should be seen as an excellent example of early photo-journalism.

Further reading

  • Rhydwen Williams. Amser i wylo : Senghenydd 1913. Abertawe : Christopher Davies, 1986
  • John H. Brown. The valley of the shadow : an account of Britain's worst mining disaster : the Senghenydd explosion. Port Talbot : Alun Books, c. 1981

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