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At Tynewydd four miners and a boy were buried alive for ten days.

Posted in Disasters, Historical articles, History, Industry on Tuesday, 30 July 2013

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This edited article about Welsh mining disasters originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 354 published on 26 October 1968.

Coal mines, picture, image , illustration

At the mouth of a Coal Mine in the nineteenth century

An uneasy quiet hung over the Welsh mining village. Four miners and a boy were trapped. Perhaps for eternity.

The afternoon shift was well under way when a dull roar sounded through the dimly-lit galleries of the Tynewydd Pit mine in the Rhondda Valley.

When the Welsh miners first heard the noise, they thought it was a fire-damp explosion, and flung themselves flat on the ground.

A few seconds later, they realised that it was something much more serious than that.

A “huge force of water” suddenly flooded the galleries. As it did so, the men ran for the shaft which led up to the surface.

But some of the miners working in more distant parts of the mine were unable to reach safety. A group of them – four men and a young boy – were trapped at the rock-face in which they had been boring holes for blasting.

They were drilling at the far end of one of the galleries when they felt “a great rush of air”. One of the men, George Jenkins, told how they tried to reach a door which let in fresh air. It was their one chance of escaping the oncoming water.

But before they could get halfway to the door, the water was swirling round their knees. And when they did reach it, they were unable to open it.

“We were getting deeper in the water,” said Jenkins, “until it was up to our throats. Then the boy cried, ‘I can’t hold on any longer! Catch hold of me, will you?’ ”

Jenkins grasped the boy with one hand, and the party struggled towards the gallery exit. Before long they had to stop because water was lapping against the roof. The men dejectedly made their way back again.

“We watched the advance of the water,” said Jenkins. “It was coming in like great waves. It was just like the tide of the sea rolling in.

“But at last, to our great joy, we discovered that it had ceased advancing, and was more settled.”

The miners had left their jackets behind them at the rock-face, and by now they were feeling the cold. They looked for somewhere where they could keep warm. Nearby, there was a tram and they emptied it of most of its load of coal. They left a layer of six inches of small coal at the bottom of the tram, and climbed into it.

“We huddled together to gain warmth,” Jenkins recalled later, “and we had been there for some considerable time when we heard the roof cracking and roaring above us, as if about to fall on our heads. We jumped up and pushed the tram back about fifteen yards. We then stopped and got back into it again.”

Soon after this, the miners’ stock of tallow candles was exhausted, and they were left completely in the dark, without food or drink.

“Occasionally,” said Jenkins, “we got naps of broken sleep. I looked after the little boy as well as I could. Now and then he was crying. At other times we would sing hymns in Welsh.”

The disaster struck Tynewydd Pit at 4 p.m. on Wednesday, 11th April, 1877. Within a short time a team of engineers at the pit-head was pumping 20,000 gallons of water out of the flooded galleries each hour.

The water had burst through from a nearby disused mine, and only when it was reduced to waist-level were the impatient rescuers able to commence their work. At 3 p.m. on Sunday, the fourth day after the accident, a team of 16 volunteers began the arduous task of cutting their way through to the imprisoned men.

It was impossible for them to reach the miners via any of the galleries, and so a special “cut” had to be driven through.

The 16 rescuers split themselves into four groups of four. They worked three-hour shifts, and their digging continued without a break by day and night.

On the following Thursday, the eighth day after the accident, they heard knocking. It seemed a miracle that any of the famished men were still alive.

Although Jenkins and his companions had long since lost all track of time, they had never stopped shouting and knocking against the rock.

“At last,” said Jenkins, “we could hear distinct knockings coming through the coal . . . and at length we could hear the click, click, click of pickaxes. Our joy was then beyond describing.

“After a bit, we heard blasting, the sound of which seemed close to us. Frequently we shouted to those coming to meet us. They heard us, and shouted in return.”

By this time, one of the miners and the young boy were very ill. For over a week the entombed men had had nothing to eat or drink, and none of them could hope to last out much longer. Realising this, the rescuers redoubled their efforts.

In doing so, they almost cost the imprisoned colliers their lives. The rescue team had cut to within a yard of the men when a sudden rush of gas swept out into the tunnel. The rescuers were forced back to the surface. The imprisoned men held their breath until the gas had passed.

It took two days for the tunnel to clear, and even then there was still the risk that further digging would release another discharge of gas.

Then, on the Saturday afternoon, a fresh danger presented itself. The rescuers had just drilled through to the trapped men when they heard Jenkins cry out, “Shut the hole!”

On the other side of the barrier, the miners found that, as the compressed air was released, so the water began to rise again.

“The water was coming up against the face of the coal,” Jenkins said afterwards, “and we had to crowd together in the space that was left above it – about twenty-seven inches.

“At last, we got up on a ledge above the roadway. . . . We could hear the busy way the rescuers were working, yet we were in great peril from the water rising.”

It was now a race against time. The miners were up to their waists in water when a hole was drilled large enough for them to crawl through. Then one by one they crept forward in darkness into a tunnel no more than three feet high.

To the sound of exploding gas, “as loud as the report of a cannon,” and with the water always at their heels, the men scrambled along for a hundred yards until they reached the main shaft and safety.

When the trapped men came to the surface, they had been buried alive for ten days.

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