Wales may be a nation built on coal, but it is also one built on tragedy.
And nowhere was this felt more than the Rhondda Valley.
During the industry’s heyday in the late 19th and early 20th Centuries, 53 pits were sunk in the region, and the 40,000 strong workforce lost countless lives to pit falls and accidents.
Miners knew that, at some point, their pit was likely to be visited by disaster.
And on Wednesday 8 November, 150 years ago in 1867, it was Ferndale’s time.
- Total killed: 178
- Children left fatherless: 145
- Wives left widows: 67
- Age of youngest victim: 12 years
- Number killed aged under 18: 54
An explosion – ripping through the mine, burning men and boys on site and causing a cascade of rock falls which would go on to suffocate countless others.
Describing the scene in a letter to The Times, engineer C. M. Barker, wrote, “The frightful sights, misery, and anguish here are indescribable.
“In one house, a father and three sons are lying dead, and nearly every cottage has a corpse or is waiting its arrival.”
In the Aberdare Times, a further report recorded a “father and son laid out together on a board”.
“The lad was not more than 13 years of age,” it read. “There was a sweet smile on his face, and it was hard to believe that there had been anything like violence in his death.”
But violence there was.
And by the time the men descended the 278 yards that bleak Friday morning, it was already brewing.
A heavy fog was blanketing the surrounding mountains of Blaenllechau and Ferndale – two fledgling hamlets separated by the River Rhondda – bringing low air pressure which would prove a fatal factor.
Already, previous rock falls had blocked the passage of air through the workings, allowing lethal amounts of flammable gas, or firedamp, to build up.
For the 340 men who descended in cages that morning, the mine was a pressure cooker.
None the wiser, they worked throughout the morning – using their mandrills, or small picks, to chip off large blocks of coal from the five-foot seam.
At 12.30, they had a short break in the darkness, then at 13.00, colliery manager John Williams, 50, from Aberdare, descended to inspect the pit.
It proved a disastrous move.
For exactly half an hour later, at 13.30, the mine was ripped apart by an explosion so loud it was heard across the valley.
Most likely sparked by a naked flame from a tampered Davy lamp, the resultant fireball funnelled through the workings – scorching those in its path and sending rocks crashing down on others.
Driving up the shaft with “incredible power,” flames shot through the mouth of the pit, reportedly blowing the banksman – the man in charge of loading the cages – from his post.
The terror of the men below the surface was mirrored by those above.
Stretching for roughly two miles underground, the Ferndale mine was split into three districts – Duffryn, Rhondda and Globach.
But it was the Rhondda district that was worst hit and it was here where loved ones flocked.
Immediately, rescuers sought to find John Williams, hopeful he would lead the rescue operation.
Instead, his was one of the first bodies they found.
Overcome by chokedamp – a gas comprising carbon dioxide found after explosions – he was found in a sitting position with a “handkerchief over his mouth and his hat drawn over his face”.
Soon, more bodies joined his, hauled up to the pit mouth alongside the injured.
Reports from the time recounted blackened burnt bodies like “cinder,” with skin and flesh dropping from their frames at the slightest touch.
Fathers carried up their dead sons on their backs, while the sound of wailing women rang out around the valley.
In the historical journal Hanes Morgannwg, a report read: “The coalmine after the explosion was like a field of blood on the day of a battle; There were crowds of corpses throughout – a silent slaughterhouse.
“The pit was like a terrifying grave, with scores of miners’ bodies, white and wan; A pitiful sight under the Iron-like soles of death.”
The scenes of horror were exacerbated by the location and poverty of the time.
Ferndale was remote, a fledgling hamlet set at the top of the valleys, with no road access or passenger railway.
People walked to it over the rugged hills, or came by horse.
To compensate for this, workers were paid slightly higher than average, plus the mine – then averaging 10,000 tonnes of coal a month – was billed as one of the safest of the time, with a complete ventilation system throughout.
Yet amenities were poor and most of the houses were little more than overcrowded wooden huts, with beds slept in round the clock.
Yet, despite the hardship and grief, the remaining community pulled together.
Work parties were quickly assembled to search for victims and by the following day, 53 bodies had been brought to the surface.
Recovering the rest, however, proved a momentous task.
With limited light and ventilation, rescuers crawled along dark passages filled with “hot, foul air,” climbing over rock falls with an overwhelming stench of decomposing bodies.
When they did eventually reach the dead, they found them mostly huddled in groups, burnt or suffocated.
Two men were discovered who “died in the act of kissing, their lips being, as it were, glued to each other”.
They were later found to be father and son.
Once brought to the surface, bodies were lain out or taken home and covered in sacks, while gas tar with carbolic acid was used to alleviate the smell.
Coffins, paid for by the mine owner David Davies, were brought in by train, with most of the dead buried at St Gwynno’s Church in Llanwonno, roughly two miles away.
At least one workman complained of having to pay the 3s 6d burial fee for a workmate with no relatives.
He told the Merthyr Express, “I know he would have paid for me if I were in his place.”
Yet it was not just the immediate community that was affected.
Many of the workers were from Merthyr and Aberdare, having previously worked for the Davies family at mines at Blaengwawr and Abercwmboi, and in these towns crowds now gathered.
With loved ones desperate to reach Ferndale, an emergency train was put on by Taff Vale Railway company (TVR).
Others, according to the Merthyr Express, “walked the distances from Herefordshire and Worcestershire in search of their children”.
Yet the arrival of these incomers applied more pressure to the situation, with police called to hold back the frantic crowds gathering at the pit mouth.
In the local pub, Glynrhedynog, a fight broke out between Ferndale rescue workers and others from neighbouring collieries.
A report in the Merthyr Express said the Ferndale workers accused them of trying to “take the bread from their mouths” – given that they were being paid for their rescue work.
“A regular row took place and was carried on so furiously that the landlord had to send for the police,” it read.
It went on to suggest the Ferndale men wanted to “protract the painful operations going on in the pit, for the purpose of receiving food and drink, (in addition to high wages)”.
Protracted or not, the search still proved gruesome.
In a rare moment of hope, a Welsh-speaking miner, Thomas Rowlands, 24, of Blaenllechau, was found in a “comatose” condition, but soon recovered to be brought to the surface amid “joyous scenes”.
But he was one of the lucky few.
In total, the harrowing process of rescuing and recovering all 178 bodies from the “shapeless ruins” of the mine was to last a full month.
At the the time, the disaster was the biggest in Wales’ history – with the youngest victim being just 12.
Of the dead, 147 had been burnt by the ferocious fireball, with the others suffocated.
Ten horses also died.
To the Ferndale community of 800, it was a bitter blow, with almost a quarter of its population wiped out, and almost every single house affected.
And at the subsequent inquiry, heavy blame was place on the mine management.
The explosion, it concluded, was the result of a “great accumulation” of gas in the workings – attributed to the “neglect of Mr Williams the manager and his subordinate officers”.
The tampering of lamps – essentially the removal of the protective gauze to enable greater light – was also raised.
The inquiry heard that, prior to the blast, lamp keeper Thomas Powell had raised the issue of tampered lamps with John Williams.
But he reportedly had not known what to do, as the miners were “a rough lot”.
The jury subsequently recommended inspections every three months, and the introduction of “scientific instruments for measuring the quantity and quality of air passing through the colliery”.
As for the community left behind, there was little anyone could do except provide financial help.
Widows totalled 65, while the number of “orphans” – children left without fathers – numbered 145.
Cases of acute poverty were recorded – perhaps the worst being “that of a poor woman who saw her husband and three sons brought into the house dead, while six small children clamoured around her for bread”.
Relief funds were set up all over the country, with Queen Victoria giving £200.
Mine owners Davis and Sons, gave widows seven shillings a week and orphans two shillings a week and money to attend Sunday school, until a proper relief fund was set up.
By 1882, it was reported a total of £21,374 had been raised – a “huge amount” for the time.
Lessons, however, were not learnt.
For just eighteen months later, on June 10th 1869, another explosion occurred at the fated colliery, this time killing 53 men and boys.
Again, the ensuing inquest blamed it on firedamp spreading throughout the workings. Again it was a result of an opened safety lamp igniting the gas.
Once more, recommendations called for greater safety inspections and for all colliery officials to sit mining exams.
For some, the loss of 231 lives was too much. They dubbed Ferndale the “Valley of Death” and moved away.
Yet others stayed.
Local historian Alun Clement said: “The tragedy this community suffered was indescribable, particularly the children who lost their fathers.
“But people needed the work.”
In fact, demand for Ferndale’s coal increased almost year on year until the mine’s eventual demise and closure in 1959.
He added, “As awful as it sounds, miners simply accepted that tragedy was part of life, and that dying in such a horrific way was a chance they had to take.
“It was just the way it was.”
To mark the 150th anniversary of the first Ferndale explosion, a service of remembrance is being held in Ferndale, beginning at 18:00 GMT.