At 4 pm, 11th April 1877, workers at the Tynewydd coal mine northeast of Cardiff had just finished their shift. Most had made their way along the dark, low tunnels to the trams that lifted them to the surface and daylight. A few lingered, finishing up.
Thomas Morgan and his sons William and Richard gathered their belongings and headed toward the trams that would carry them out. Suddenly air rushed towards them, followed by a loud roar as water surged through the tunnel. Swirling past their knees, the black water nearly knocked them down as they ran back the way they had come, picking up Edward Williams and William Cassia along the way. The five raced into a ventilation tunnel, rushing water at their heels, only to discover more water ahead of them.
The flood had trapped them in a high section of the tunnel. Water pouring in behind and before them had condensed the air so that it pressed on their ears. The water continued to rise, but slower. Thomas Morgan picked up a rock and banged it on the tunnel wall to signal their location. Fighting fear, the men prayed and sang a hymn, ‘In the Deep and Mighty Waters,’ as they waited for death. Slowly, the flood’s roar lessened and the water stopped inching towards them. Hope flared, and they took up their tools and began to dig up toward the passageway overhead.
High above, the homeward-bound miners had been summoned back to the mine. When roll was called, 14 names went unanswered. Relatives and officials began to gather at the pit head as word spread.
The first men to re-enter the mine found the main tunnel dry. They advanced slowly, hammering on the walls and calling out, then pausing to listen for an answer. Groaning timbers and metal trams banging around in the flood made listening difficult. Then they hear the unmistakable sound of a pick striking rock. Tapping back, they heard men singing. The prayer of the five trapped men had been heard. However, 36 feet of coal separated them from their rescuers. Working in four-man shifts — two to dig, two to remove rock — the adrenaline-spiked rescuers carved a three-foot-high tunnel and managed to reduce the intervening rock to a thin wall by early the next morning.
By now the men could easily hear each other’s voices. The rescue team shouted for the trapped miners to stand back as they prepared to cut through the barrier. But young William Morgan, desperate to free himself, broke through the wall first. With a huge boom, the compressed air rushed out, spraying the rescue party with debris and sucking William’s head into the breach. He died instantly.
His head had completely plugged the hole. The rescue party drilled small holes in the wall to release more of the pressure until the young man’s father could pull his dead son back. Then they enlarged the opening to free the rest.
Frantic digging had also taken place in another part of the mine that night. Escaping air hissing up from faults in the rock drew the rescuers’ attention, and they heard signals below. They quickly sank another shaft, but the signals stopped during the night, and when rescuers broke through, the cavity was full of water. Edward Williams and 13-year-old Robert Rogers had drowned as the escaping air allowed water to rise and engulf them.
Half of the miners were now accounted for. Seven remained missing.
Officials determined that the source of the water was a nearby mine, abandoned when it was flooded. Its water level had fallen 76 feet, leaving no doubt. Tynewydd miners had worked much closer to the abandoned mine than engineers realized, and officials had ignored reports of water seepage, a harbinger of the flood.
Pumps were brought in to help empty Tynewydd, but at the rate the pumps removed water, the trapped miners would starve before they were rescued. Early Saturday morning, divers arrived from London by special train. They carefully threaded their way past waterborne trams and debris but failed to reach the trapped man and had to make their hazardous return journey with a message of failure.
Word of the disaster spread throughout Britain. Reporters who came to the site found themselves at a loss because they spoke only English. A Welsh reporter, Owen Morgan, known as Morien, acted as translator.
Meanwhile, the water slowly receded as the pumps wheezed and clanked. On Sunday night, after four days and eight hours, another effort was made to rescue a group of four men and a boy trapped below in the black water, with a bubble of compressed air to fill their lungs. (Though the pressure was hard on them, the high concentration of oxygen kept them from suffocating.) At the onset of the flood, the miners had fled to the face Thomas Morgan had been working. The tunnel flooded, but they could rest on ledges above the water, where they wedged themselves into a coal tram, relying on each other for warmth. A couple of them even tried to swim out but were rewarded with failure and cold, wet clothes.
The only way to get to the trapped men was to cut through 113 feet of coal. If the miners could survive the length of time that would take, they would then face the danger of drowning when the breakthrough occurred and the water rushed in to replace the escaping air. Calculations indicated that the men’s heads probably would remain above water.
Many people volunteered to work on the four-member rescue teams. As Ken Llewellyn writes in Disaster at Tynewydd: An Account of a Rhondda Mine Disaster in 1877, the most thorough study of the event, ‘Each man had been warned of the dangers from the water, the gas, and the compressed air. They had an excellent chance of being drowned, crushed, burnt or suffocated.’
They began their work at 3 pm, Monday, 16th April, and worked full-out, in four-hour shifts. At the end of the first 24 hours, they’d cut through 48 feet. So great was the rescuers’ desire to free their comrades that each team had to be forced to quit at the end of their shift so they wouldn’t become completely exhausted.
Up above, officials puzzled over how to deal with the compressed air so the trapped miners wouldn’t drown when the rescuers broke through. They decided that air locks would be built behind the rescue teams and air would be pumped in so the pressure couldn’t fall uncontrollably.
The teams had been signalling the trapped miners every six hours. At 3 pm on Wednesday, their signal received no response. They tried again, and according to Llewellyn, ‘to their great joy they heard a voice indistinctly from behind fifteen feet of coal. The next team worked as if their own lives were at stake; the South Wales Daily News said ‘the rapidity with which the work has proceeded is unparalleled.”
At 7 pm they heard one of the men calling to them, saying he ‘thought the hole was nearly through but that they should work a little to the right.’ Excitement began to build above at the pit head, and telegraph wires hummed with the news.
By Thursday morning, the rescue team had come close enough to the survivors to bore several small holes through to the men and make some abortive attempts to push food through to them. (They quickly plugged the holes again to limit the escape of air.) Engineers prepared the first airlock but could not make it airtight. As volunteers bored another hole into the intervening coal, ‘a large discharge of gas put out the flames in the safety lamps.’ The miners were excruciatingly sensitive to the danger of a gas explosion-in 1856, 114 had lost their lives in the first big explosion in the Rhondda Valley, at the Cymmer Colliery. There was a strong possibility that additional pockets of explosive gas would be released if the compressed air was allowed to escape. Fear nearly overwhelmed the rescuers’ determination to go on.
But Abraham Dodd, Thomas Jones, William Thomas, Isaac Pride, and Daniel Thomas overcame their dread. Trusting the calculation that if they allowed the compressed air to escape, the water would rise only to the trapped men’s necks, the volunteers unstopped the holes. Air thundered through the breaches, laced with gas that made their safety lamps flame blue. The men behind the barrier waited in terror as the water made its cold progress up their bodies. Then it finally ceased beneath their chins.
At 1 pm on Friday, 20th April, the rescuers had cut enough of the barrier so that Abby Dodd could scramble into the black, would-be tomb. Isaac Pride made a bridge of his body so Dodd could pass the men over. First they freed young David Hughes, and the rest soon followed. The 14-year-old’s first words to his rescuers were to ask about his brother and father. Don’t worry, they told him, though they assumed — correctly — that they had both drowned. The rescuers carried the boy, but Moses Powell and George Jenkins insisted on walking. A few minutes later, the clanking of machinery announced to the crowd that someone was coming up. A tram with three grimy men emerged. One of them, Thomas Ash, called out ‘They are all safe. . . . They’ll be up soon.’
The crowd shouted and sang, and the noise spread the word through the valley as the telegraph lines sent the news to a waiting Britain. The people at the pit head stood and waited for nearly two hours for the machinery to clank again, heralding another tram coming up. Abby Dodd and Isaac Pride rose into view, along with a physician bent over the rescued boy. Then the others were brought up by twos as relief spread over the countryside.
John Thomas and David Jenkins, who had tried to swim through the murky water and spent their time in the cold darkness in wet clothes, were incoherent. All the rescued men would suffer through the ‘bends,’ the condition associated with deep-sea divers who come to the surface too quickly, but they all recovered.
Loss of life was a commonplace component of working in the mines. The year of the Tynewydd disaster, 159 men and boys lost their lives in the South Wales Coalfield. Mining deaths in Britain averaged 1,000 a year into the early 1900s. Though only five lost their lives when Tynewydd was flooded, the disaster captured the public’s attention because of the 10 days of suspense, the rescue methods employed, and the incredible courage of the men who kept digging beyond their own endurance, in the face of great danger.
Queen Victoria awarded Albert Medals to four of the five rescuers, the first ever awarded for gallantry on land. The mine owner was also a candidate for a medal — until the Queen learned he was being tried for man-slaughter in connection with the disaster. He was accused of failing to take precautions after earlier reports of water seepage, but a jury acquitted him on the grounds that he believed a geological fault would have sealed off any chance of a leak from the old pit.
Abraham Dodd was not among those cited for the medal-a strange omission. He suffered severe burns in an explosion a few weeks later. When Morien, the Welsh-speaking reporter, visited the injured man, Dodd may have had a few harsh words for mine owners and management. Criticizing those in authority was nearly unheard of, and Dodd may have inadvertently talked himself out of a medal.
The Tynewydd disaster had additional repercussions. Rescue stations formed around the country. Even more importantly, inspectors began making routine inspections to prevent disasters instead of just determining a cause in the aftermath of catastrophe.
The mines are mostly closed now, victims of their own dangers and shifting economies. But the people of the South Wales Coal Field still remember what it was like to risk their lives in the dark and dangerous labyrinths of a coalmine.