Despite their shock and horror at the scenes of devastation, policemen and women of the Glamorgan Constabulary displayed great courage and sensitivity when responding to the Senghenydd tragedy – to this day the worst disaster in the history of British coal mining.
Throughout the 19th and 20th Centuries, successive coal mining disasters shook the communities of the South Wales valleys, resulting from poor safety procedures, out of date machinery and lack of training. However, no one could have prepared for the horror of the Senghenydd disaster in 1913 when 439 miners were killed or that the tragedy would be the second of its kind to hit the small village in just over a decade.
On Friday, 24th May 1901, 78 men had been buried alive in the "Universal Mine" at Senghenydd, near Caerphilly, the first coal mine in the Aber Valley, which had only gone into production 18 months previously. The disaster occurred at 5.30am as the night shift were leaving the pit. Three explosions, which shattered the top of the shaft, were heard 3.5 miles away, with gas and huge rockfalls at the bottom of the shaft serving to prevent rescuers from reaching the trapped men.
Twelve years later, on 14th October 1913, tragedy again came to Senghenydd when over 400 men were trapped underground by an explosion and fire which ripped through the underground tunnels just after 8am, just 2 hours into the morning shift. The explosion was so intense it was heard 11 miles away in Cardiff.
Rescuers battled for days to recover the wounded and dead. The first funeral was held 3 days later but it was not until the middle of November that all the bodies were recovered. The 439 dead included 63 teenagers and 162 young men in their twenties.
Little, if any consideration had been given to disaster planning in the Glamorganshire Constabulary at that time, and it fell on the shoulders of the local Senghenydd policemen to try to co-ordinate the rescue, casualty and mortuary arrangements in an atmosphere of shock and grief.
The managers and owners of the "Universal" pit were prosecuted as a result of this second tragedy that proved so costly in human life. Recommendations aimed at improving safety had been made following the 1901 disaster, but were never implemented. Conditions at the pit had in fact worsened as the increase in production after 1901 had led to rising numbers of workers operating in confined spaces.
In an insult to the families of the deceased, the manager of "Universal" was fined only £24, with all charges against the owners dropped. On appeal, the owners were fined a derisory £10 with costs of £5 5s.
The pit continued to be worked for another 15 years, before finally closing in 1928. A memorial was not erected in memory of its victims until 1981.