Contemporary Newspaper Report of the 1880 Explosion.
Yet another colliery explosion, and this one within a few miles of Newport, Verily, we are doomed to received many harrowing lessons as to the perils which attend the miners vocation.
The scene of calamity, which is now our painful duty to record is a pit known as The New Pit near Cross Keys, Risca, and situated about seven miles from Newport.
Here, at half-past one yesterday (Thursday) morning an explosion of Fire damp took place, hurrying, as there is grave reason to fear, not less than 120 poor fellows into eternity.
The works belong to the London and South Wales Colliery Company, an undertaking in which Messrs Watts, Milburn & Co,. Shipowners etc. London, are the principle shareholders; Mr. Watts acting as Managing Director.
The undertaking which, so far at least, as the question of employment is concerned, is a boon to the neighbourhood is among the largest of it’s kind, about 700 hands being employed, the coal output was about 1,000 tons per day.
A severe thunderstorm was prevailing at the time of the explosion.
The Colliery bears the name of the Risca New Pit, and it was worked by two shafts, each being 285 yards deep and 17 feet six inches in diameter. The colliery is ventilated by one of the best fans known – Guibal’s – 40 feet in diameter. The pit being opened for about three years.
The Colliers left their work at the usual hour on Wednesday night, when everything seemed to be in a state of perfect safety. At 10.30 pm. The Night Fireman, named Isopp, reported the mine exceptionally free from gas, and every part in good order.
Then the Repairers – men who look after the timbering and mason work whilst the colliers are at home, went down to the number of 119 men and boys, who would have worked until six o’clock am on Thursday morning. For some hours the repairers proceeded with their allotted tasks without interruption, and nothing transpired to alarm those on the surface until about half past one o’clock when the sound of an explosion was heard. Above ground it’s effects were most felt at the upcast shaft where the engine working the ventilating fan is situated, and the engine driver had a most remarkable escape. The staging around this shaft was destroyed, and the engine-room completely wrecked, though composed of brick-work and embedded in Portland cement, and therefore, of great strength. Fortunately, for the driver of the engine he had quit his station a moment or two before the gas in the mine had fired, and so escaped instant death, for the platform on which he had stood whilst at his post, was shattered to pieces.
The fan itself had suffered serious damage and could not be kept in motion. The ventilation of the pit was therefore being stopped. A circumstance, which prevented any attempt being made to descend the downcast shaft for a considerable time. By eight o’clock however, ventilation was restored, and a band of brave explorers, consisting of Evan Evans, underground-Manager, Thomas Purnell, Overman, John Davies and Stephen Crook, Firemen, together with John Loader and David Kenvin made a successful effort to enter the workings. Almost immediately they found the body of Bowden the Hitcher who had gone to work but a very few moments before the explosion.
The first party of explorers was immediately followed by Mr. Llewelyn, General Manager of the colliery, and 17 men. They remained underground for five hours without communicating with the surface, and fears were entertained for their safety. But, at length, the party returned safely to the bank with the lamentable tidings that there were no hopes of saving life, and that 119 men lay below them at sleep which knows no waking. They further reported that 69 horses had perished in numerous falls.
A large crowd had assembled in the neighbourhood of the colliery. The Police (under the command of Supt. McIntosh, Pontypool, and Supt. Foll, Tredegar), drew a cordon however around the pit, and but a few persons were permitted inside the barriers. The mass, which increased in volume as the day advanced, was a very orderly throng, though apparently not much impressed with the disaster. As usual, the nearest public house did a “roaring trade”, every room being crowded with thirsty customers. Here and there may be seen a weeping woman, accompanied by her little ones.
The mining inspectors were under the impression that the gas was fire near to the upcast shaft. The pit is worked by safety lamps, and the lamp-man declares that all those given out by him on the Wednesday night shift were in good order.
Soon after Mr. Llewelyn and his party came out of the pit the body of the Hitcher was brought to the bank and placed in a hastily-constructed mortuary close to hand. The poor fellows corpse was badly scorched. The watch which he carried a stopped at exactly half-past one o’clock. Between three and four o’clock it was stated that two other bodies, those of a father and son name Thomas and John Jones, Masons, had been found not far from one of the shafts. The father had been badly burned about the face and hands, whilst the son had been crushed on the head. Up until five o’clock only three bodies had been got out, Mr. Cadman said that the remainder may not be reached for a day or two until the “falls” are removed.
Sixteen bodies were recovered on Friday night, and on Friday the explorers penetrated 700 yards from the downcast shaft. Also, during the Friday night, a number of dead horses were got out, and their carcasses disposed of.
Saturday An exploring party went in about 150 yards along the main dip. The efforts of these men being concentrated on the task of clearing away the great fall which occurred on the intake and return, so as to restore the ventilation. A number of bodies were noticed underneath the falls. The supply of fresh air was not sufficient to overcome the gas which remained. Some time ago there was a great fall, the roof on the intake came crashing down. The Arch over the tunnel some 60 yards more or less from the bottom of the shaft. Other portions of the arch were squeezed at the sides to such a degree that the apex shot upwards, and the whole was in imminent danger of falling; but it was securely propped, and men were employed in clearing debris that had fallen, also in widening the tunnel (intake air-way).
This having been done, mason were employed in erecting a small wall on each side of the widened road, and on top of the wall on each side was place an immense beam with another great beam across, above the roadway. The fall was about 20 feet in length.
The bodies of four men were recovered in the course of Saturday, and during the day Mr. Watts, the Chairman of the company went amongst the bereaved administrating relief.
The inquest was opened in the afternoon at the T. A. Inn by E. B. Edwards.
No bodies were brought out on Sunday, but 21 horses were brought to the bank.
Several funerals took place on Sunday.
On Monday the bodies of 13 of the deceased were got out of the workings, some in a dreadfully mangled condition, so much so that only ten of them could be identified. Cornelius Ford, aged 16, it may be said that fate had always been against him. Some years ago when quite a youngster, he had the misfortune to lose a arm and a leg by being run over on the railway line near the coke ovens at Risca, both limbs were so badly injured that Dr. Robotham amputated them the same night. He was fitted with a wooden leg, and as he grew in stature he had to be re-fitted to suit his altered condition. Latterly he had been employed as an underground time keeper.
On Tuesday night the three remaining unknown bodies were identified, also two more bodies were brought up from the mine.
Relief meeting held at Newport. Mr. W. C. Cartwright, who had collected the money for the 1860 explosion. £7000 to £8,000, there now remained some £1,000, the weekly payments having dwindled down from £23 to £2.13s or £2.16s. Of course the surviving recipients of the old fund must be considered.
On Wednesday the men were engaged in cutting a “stout hole” for the air current. This was accomplished late last night, and soon after several more bodies were recovered.
Five more bodies were found on Thursday, and brought to the surface, and they were all placed in coffins and immediately screwed down.
Up to last evening 44 bodies had been recovered leaving 76 to be accounted for.
Money collected to date £1,778.14.1d……..July 30th, 1880.
On Saturday two more bodies were brought up, they were scorched as the other bodies had been.
During Friday night the workmen went beyond the second “stout hole” which had been cut, and got around to the end of Harvey’s level.
Mr. Robotham writes to the British Medical Journal with reference to the disaster. “I may say that the majority of those scorched would have recovered had the ventilation not been stopped”.
Having lived in Risca 40 years, and seen the results of many explosions, I have never seen such mangling of bodies, limbs twisted from their sockets, legs fractured – not from falls, they seem to have been affected by several currents of whirlwinds. The skulls were, in many cases, fractured and not a portion of the brain left.
Since Sunday three more bodies have been recovered, making 50 in all.
August 13th Risca explosion fund, the amount so far £7,200. The number of widows and children is 302.
August 27th Three more bodies have been recovered making a total of 107, leaving 13 more still in the pit.