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Although commonly known as ‘Senghenydd Colliery’, the actual name of the mine that operated in that village was the Universal Colliery. It was named after the company which owned and operated it: the Universal Steam Coal Company, a subsidiary of Lewis Merthyr Consolidated Collieries Ltd.


Sinking of the Universal Colliery began in 1891. Its two shafts, named Lancaster (downcast) and York (upcast), were each 650 yards deep – amongst the deepest in south Wales at that time. Development of the colliery coincided with the Boer War – consequently, its underground districts were named after key places in the war: Pretoria, Ladysmith, Mafeking, and Kimberley.

Production began at the colliery in 1896. By the turn of the century, the Universal had an output of 200,000 tons of coal per year.

A powerful gas and dust explosion occurred at the Universal on 24 May 1901, killing 81 of the 82 men who were underground at the time. The ferocity of this explosion caused tremendous damage to the colliery. It took several weeks to recover all of the bodies, many of which were unable to be identified.

At 8.10am on 14 October 1913, another powerful underground explosion ripped through the Universal Colliery. The blast killed 439 men and boys who were working underground there, with a further man subsequently dying during rescue operations at the colliery. It was – and remains – the worst coal-mining disaster in British history and also the all-time sixth-worst in world history. 

Everyone in Senghenydd lost family or friends in the 1913 disaster. It left 542 children fatherless and made widows of more than 200 women. Ninety boys and young men aged twenty or less were killed, with the youngest victims being just fourteen years old. One chapel in the village reportedly lost sixty per cent of its male members. The Senghenydd School Logbook’s note on that day succinctly encapsulated the horror and enormity of events: ‘Appalling disaster at our local colliery. The town bereaved and frantic with grief. School closed.’ 

Although Senghenydd took the brunt of the awful blow, its deadly effects were also felt further afield. A sizeable minority of the miners who were killed lived in the neighbouring village of Abertridwr and other nearby villages – and ten of them lived as comparatively far away as Cardiff. The 1911 Census shows a large number of families and individuals from every part of Wales living or lodging in Senghenydd. It also shows that many of those who were killed in the disaster had come to Senghenydd from England, and some from Ireland.

From the perspective of mining families, the official investigations into the disaster added insult to injury. The coroner’s inquest into the disaster returned a verdict of accidental death. During the inquiry several breaches of mining regulations were uncovered, the most serious of which was the inability of the ventilating fans to reverse the airflow. Legislation had required that all mines should have implemented this by 1 January 1913. It was estimated that if the current of air had been reversed, a hundred lives might have been saved.

Following the inquiry, the colliery’s manager was prosecuted for seventeen breaches of the Coal Mines Act, with the company being charged with four breaches – however, most of these charges ended up being dropped. The manager was fined a total of £24 and the company was fined £10 with £5 5s costs. As the Merthyr Pioneer newspaper reported it scathingly, ‘Miners’ Lives at 1s 1¼d each’ – the equivalent of 5½p in today’s money.

Following the disaster, the Universal Colliery went back to work at the end of November 1913.

In 1918 there were 1,491 men employed at the Universal. By 1923 there were 1,958 employed there, producing coal from five seams: the Four Feet, the Six Feet, the Nine Feet, the New, and the Two Feet Nine.

Coal production ceased at the Universal on 31 March 1928. The approximately 2,500 miners and officials working there at that time were only given one day’s notice of the colliery’s closure.

The Powell Duffryn Company later took over the colliery site. One of its shafts was kept open, for pumping and to help with the ventilation of that company’s Windsor Colliery, located nearby in Abertridwr.

The old colliery was demolished in 1963. A sawmill, which opened on part of the site in 1965, is still operational.Windsor Colliery became connected underground with Nantgarw Colliery in 1976. This allowed the Senghenydd shaft to be filled, which duly occurred in 1979.

In 2013, on the hundredth anniversary of the 1913 disaster the Welsh National Mining Memorial was unveiled on the old colliery site, to commemorate miners killed in the Senghenydd disasters and also to remember the victims of the other 150 mining disasters in Wales.

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