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Senghenydd & its railway

Sadly, for many people the first association with Senghenydd is the 1913 mining disaster which killed 440. It remains the most deadly colliery disaster in the UK. Mining, and particularly the Universal Colliery where the disaster occurred, dominated the town. However, key to the Colliery’s production was the ability to shift coal down to the docks for export – and the railway was crucial for that. So rather than looking at mining in Senghenydd, this blog post focuses on the railway and its workers, via the trade union records our project has recently released.

1915 Ordnance Survey map showing the town of Senghenydd, its colliery and railway, in a valley.
Senghenydd in 1915.
Courtesy National Library of Scotland Maps.

We wanted to put this post together as a way into our project database – but also a way out of it! There’s huge potential in the database for railway history research, of course. There’s so much more, however – including for local history and one place studies. We’ve been thinking a bit more about local history recently, not least because it was Local and Community History Month in May, and as June’s blogging prompt from the Society of One-Place Studies is ‘One Place Transport.’ So we wanted a small scale look at how the project might contribute to wider place-based research – here goes!


Railway, Colliery & town in context

Undoubtedly the Universal Colliery and mining provided the major source of employment in Senghenydd. From a very rough-and-ready search of the 1911 Census, it seems the population at that point was around 5,700 people. The working (in paid employment) population would have been smaller, of course; at the very least there were hundreds of men living in the area and employed in mining. It’s quite challenging to work out the full numbers as a result of the number of roles and terms used when people completed the Census: we saw ‘collier’, ‘colier’, ‘hewer’, ‘miner’, and more, for example. The true figure is likely thousands of men employed by the Universal Colliery.

(As an aside, research using the Census was fascinating, and gives a small insight into people’s occupational mobility. Whilst most residents were born in Wales, we found miners from Australia, France, Germany, Ireland and the USA, as well as Scotland and plenty from England. Some came with families; others married in the area. Clearly focusing in at the level of place can show how towns that were perhaps otherwise unexceptional might still had a global population. The UK has never been isolated from the rest of the world.)

Even in locations like Senghenydd which appear to have a single industry dominating, it’s important to look beyond just that industry or employer. Very rarely was one place solely reliant upon a single industry. This was true not least because of all the ancillary roles needed to support people, via shops and facilities. Returning to the observation about occupational mobility and international reach, we also found an Italian family in Senghenydd, working in the ice cream business.

Transport was clearly essential to the movement of people and goods – and a source of employment. With the discovery of the seams mined by the Universal Colliery in the late 1880s/ early 1890s, the Rhymney Railway Company had a reason to build a branch from Cardiff up to Senghenydd. It did so, reaching Senghenydd in 1894, with extensive sidings at the colliery used to exchange loaded and empty coal wagons.


Railway work & Senghenydd

As with the mining industry, the railways employed people in a huge range of roles. This makes tracking down the precise number of railway workers challenging – certainly in 1911. We found at least 84 members of the Rhymney Railway (RR) living in Senghenydd. Drivers, firemen and loco cleaners (the starting grade for footplate crews) were the most numerous, with at least 68 men. This high proportion of engine crew to other staff probably reflects the nature of railway work here – and why it’s important to consider place. Shifting a lot of coal down to the docks needed lots of wagons and therefore lots of engines to pull them. Passenger and other goods traffic, in contrast, would have been rather less significant.

Other RR staff living in Senghenydd in 1911 included eight guards, one signalman (there were probably more we’ve not found), two porters and five platelayers (responsible for maintaining the tracks). It becomes easier to find employees of particularly companies, like the RR, in the 1921 Census, which requested people to include details of their employers. In Senghenydd this produces 80 RR staff. Surviving railway staff records – very much incomplete – show around 125 railway staff based at Senghenydd between c.1892-1934. And membership registers of the Amalgamated Society of Railway Servants (ASRS)/ National Union of Railwaymen (NUR) trade union shown 172 people joining the Senghenydd branch between 1909 and 1927.

Railway workers were often relatively mobile, too. Part of this was that the railway companies at this time could allocate their staff to a new station anywhere on their network – and the staff member, with any family, would have to up sticks and move. Part of it, of course, was that for some roles – train crews – movement was an integral part of the job. On railway companies with longer distance networks, this might mean crews lodging away from home, working out on one day and back on another. This was less likely to be the case for the RR, given then network was relatively small. Curiously, though, one of the staff we have looked at in detail seems to be doing exactly this in 1911.

On the 1911 Census John Baxendale (born 1867) was listed as a boarder at a property in Cardiff. The rest of his family was listed at an address in Abertridwr (slightly to the south of Senghenydd, but within cycling or walking distance). They were all at that same address in Abertridwr in 1921, so was it just the case that John had been on a turn that meant he lodged in Cardiff overnight on the night of the 1921 Census?

So far as Senghenydd goes, then, its railway population was small – but still present. Of course, each one was an individual, with a family, and a part of the town and its community. Looking at the individual level helps us to build a more rounded picture of a particular place, and to understand its social history.


Senghenydd railway workers and their injuries

Senghenydd features in our project database via the trade union dataset, released in March. Across the c.25,000 entries so far released and covering 1889-1920, there are around 2000 for members of Welsh branches of the ASRS/NUR. Of these seven were members of the Senghenydd branch, featuring in 10 records.

In 1911, three lived in Senghenydd (Francis Huish; Frederick Butt; George Crook), John Baxendale we believe ordinarily lived in Abertridwr, along with William Lawrence, and two lived around seven or eight miles down the line towards Cardiff, in Taffs Well (Thomas Nicholas) and Tongwynlais (Frank Lynch). This again goes to demonstrate the occupational mobility within the railway industry, with staff frequently working across a wide area and not in the immediate vicinity of their home. It is possible that the four men not living in Senghenydd but belonging to that Union branch had started their working careers in Senghenydd and hence joined there, without later transferring their membership to a branch closer to home.

Two of the men were born in England – Huish and Crook. (Interestingly, it appears that George Crook’s brother, Albert, was also English but ended up working for the Rhymney Railway in Senghenydd. Did they move as children, or did one follow the other into employment later in life?) Five spoke only English, with two listing themselves as speaking both English and Welsh (Nicholas and Lynch).

Five of the records in our database related to compensation the Union secured following a non-fatal accident. This would have been paid by the railway company. Shunter William Lawrence was injured on 16 December 1910, aged 24. The Union records are relatively terse: his hip was injured in the course of his ‘ordinary duty’. He resumed work on 24 April 1911, having been awarded 10/6 per week in compensation (around £57 now).

Driver John Baxendale had his accident on 23 February 1911. He slipped from the framing of his locomotive, and his hand was run over. This suggests he was out on the framing (the part of the steam engine in front of the cab, over the wheels, on which the boiler sits) whilst the engine was moving. This would have been against the Company’s rules. However, often it was necessary to keep an engine running, something the railway worker’s professionalism and sense of pride in the job would have deemed important – even to the extent of taking risks. It was also something to which the railway companies turned a blind eye, as it ensured they could continue to keep the system operating. In the course of this accident Baxendale lost three fingers. He received £1 compensation per week (equivalent to about £108 now), resuming work on 11 August 1911. The missing fingers clearly didn’t stop him acting as a driver, as he was still working in this role on the 1921 Census.

Next to occur was driver Francis Huish, injured in May 1912 – the exact date wasn’t given for some reason. However, we know from the Board of Trade investigation into the accident that it occurred on 10 May 1912. Thinking about the working patterns of railway staff in general and in Senghenydd, here we see an example of the ways in which loco crews had to move. We know that Huish signed on for duty in Senghenydd. However, the duty he was on when the accident happened involved working a train down from Ystrad Mynach, in the next valley over, to Cardiff. The mineral train Huish was driving got out of control, and he and his fireman jumped just before it hit a brake van and another mineral train in Cardiff. Both survived and were injured, though the Union data only gives details of Huish’s injuries, so presumably his fireman wasn’t a Union member.

According to the Union records, Huish was 39 at the time; though on his 1911 Census entry he was given as 43 (an unusually large difference), a reminder that we need to treat the various records with a degree of caution. In the accident he suffered severe bruises and shock – clearly, though, it could have been a lot worse. He was off work until 12 August 1912, during which time the Union secured him £1 per week compensation (around £105 now). Huish appears in two other of the Union datasets, in relation to his death in 1915, to which we’ll return.

Given the relatively large numbers of drivers based at Senghenydd, it’s perhaps little surprise that the next non-fatal accident involved another driver. On 13 July 1912 George Crook, 42, strained his side when he tried to use the regulator on his engine (the lever that controlled the steam entering a locomotive’s cylinders and hence the speed of the engine). The regulator in this case was particularly stiff. Crook returned to work on 16 September 1912, having received £1 per week compensation for the duration.

Finally for the injuries, we have fireman Frank Lynch. On 21 February 1918, 24-year old Lynch lost a finger in an accident. Again, the precise detail isn’t specified. We know that he returned to work on 29 September 1918. Whilst he was off work, he received £1.0.2 per week in compensation (around £52 now). Again, his injury didn’t stop him pursuing his career; he was still a locomotive fireman on the 1921 Census.


Senghenydd railway worker deaths

Three of our cohort of Senghenydd railway workers are included because they died: Francis Huish, Frederick Butt and Thomas Nicholas. However, none of the causes of death were accidents due to railway working. Instead, they illustrate another of the great advantages of our datasets – they include health information, the first time we’ve had this for railway workers.

Thomas Nicholas’ entry appears in the ‘Death Fund’ data. This was an automatic payment, made by the Union in the event of the death of a member from any cause – accident, ill-health or old age. We believe it was to cover immediate costs associated with bereavement. In most cases it was £5 (in 1915 prices, that would be c.£425 now). Nicholas, an engine cleaner, died of tuberculosis on 17 August 1915, aged 21.

Frederick Butt’s entry also appears in the Death Fund data. We know he joined the union in 1889, but died on 22 March 1919, aged 55. His cause of death was asthma; sadly the database is full of similar health conditions which are manageable today, but which were frequently more serious in the relatively recent past. His dependents also received the £5 death fund grant.

The final of our three deaths was Francis Huish. He appears listed in the Death Fund as having died on 1 May 1915 of carcinoma. His family received the Union’s payment of £5. There was also an inquest into Huish’s death, as there was some question as to whether or not his cancer might have been caused by his 1912 accidents. The Union represented Huish’s interests – and those of his dependents. The jury found that the cancer was unrelated to the accident. His wife and eight children managed to retain the house they were living in between the 1911 and 1921 Census, so despite their loss they had to carry on.



Within a relatively small occupational population, our project database has shown eight incidents: with one man appearing twice, there were five accidents and three cases of ill-health. This picture will be incomplete for a number of reasons, so it’s likely that the true incidence of accident and ill-health was greater. Nevertheless, this is still valuable in starting to give us an idea of the incidence of ill-health in a working population, as well as the dangers of the job. Not only so, but it demonstrates how people continued working after an occupational disability. Given there are more records to come into the project, from the Union data and from the Rhymney Railway Company, there may yet be more detail about these cases to come, and about other cases in Senghenydd.

Hopefully what we’ve also been able to do is demonstrate some wider issues, beyond ‘just’ accidents and ill-health. Some of this comes from the project dataset and some from wider contextual research and understanding. We’ve seen the occupational mobility of railway workers, and something of the railway workers’ families. We’ve also seen the relationships between the railway and Senghenydd, in the context of a place where the railway wasn’t a dominant employer. All of this gives us a better understanding of railway and place, and some of the connections between the two.


With thanks to all who answered our questions about the vagaries of the census and searching it now – particularly the advice freely offered at Ancestry Hour on Twitter (Tuesdays, 7-8pm UK, using #AncestryHour) and from Jan Murphy and Dave Annal.

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