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Maerdy  

A notebook written by Eos Davies a precentor of Siloa Welsh Congregational Church in Maerdy, in the early years of the twentieth century, gives us an excellent insight into the early years of Maerdy as it evolved into a thriving mining township. He explains that Maerdy derived its name from the large farmhouse situated there on the banks of the River Fechan. It was at this farmhouse that neighbouring farmers and shepherds would meet to transact business and attend court for the district. This farmhouse was therefore called the stewards' or mayors' house or Maerdy in welsh. It was at this house that the first recorded religious services were held in 1877, a joint service of the Calvinistic Methodists and Congregationalists. Some indication of the size of this farmhouse can be gleaned from the fact the service was held in the parlour of the house, a space capable of holding sixty worshippers.

Maerdy Station circa 1910

In 1874 Mordecai Jones of Brecon and Nantmelyn purchased the farmhouse and lands with the intention of sinking a pit and constructing a railway to link up with the Taff Vale Railway, and in December 1876 the Abergorky vein of coal was struck in the pits' no.1 shaft. The output from this vein was one hundred tons a day, and Maerdy soon became what Eos Davies described as an 'Eldorado'. Subsequently the mines were leased to Locket's Merthyr Company and the pits' output increased from nearly 30,000 tons in 1879 to over 160,000 tons by 1884. In 1877 Maerdy consisted of the farmhouse, a few huts for the workers at the mine and just 48 houses.

Left: Maerdy Station circa 1910

By 1880 the influx of workers to the area and their families led to the Rhondda School Board deciding that Maerdy needed its own school. The Maerdy mixed day school was subsequently opened in that year. The opening ceremony for which included a two hundred strong children's choir and tea and cake for all the children, provided by Mr. William Thomas general director of the colliery. To cater for the leisure needs of the workers a coffee tavern and reading room was opened in 1881. Later in 1905 the Maerdy Workmen's Institute was built on the same ground that the Tavern had stood on. This Institute was to play a central role in the cultural and leisure life of the community of Maerdy for many decades. A list taken from the Committee Minutes of the Institute, of the organisations that used the Hall between 1918 and 1922 , gives us an insight into the role the hall played in Maerdy society and also into the array of clubs and societies that existed in the area at that time. The site was a gift from the landlords of the Maerdy estate to the workmen of the Maerdy collieries, and the entire Institute cost £9,000 to build and furnish. The building was on three floors and consisted of, in the basement a lesser hall, billiards room and offices. On the first floor cloakroom, ladies reading room, men's reading room, library, refreshment room, and offices, and on the upper floor a large hall capable of holding 1,000 people. This original building subsequently burned down in 1922 killing its then treasurer Mr. John Jones whose body was found in the caretakers' cottage adjoining the main building. A little over two years later in 1925 the Institute was reopened, the local miners having raised £20,000 for it's rebuilding.
Thus from its beginnings as a tiny rural hamlet Maerdy, by 1909 had become a thriving mining community of 880 houses, and a population exceeding six and a half thousand. It had its own school, chapels and a wealth of social and cultural societies catering to the needs of a busy industrial township.

 

 
Maerdy Colliery  
The economic development in the Rhondda Fach came much later than that in the larger of the two Rhondda Valleys. Thus while the Rhondda Fawr was already building up to be the economic giant of the South Wales coal industry, the Rhondda Fawr remained in large part a purely pastoral district. The main reasons for this being, the paucity of the bituminous coal reserves in this part of the Valley as well as its isolated and difficult geography. It was the increasing demand for steam coal that eventually led to the transformation of this valley into a densely populated industrial district in the space of some fifty years.
Therefore it was not until the 1870's, over sixty years after Walter Coffin had sunk his first pit at Dinas, that speculator's attentions were drawn to Maerdy. The history of Maerdy pit began when Mordecai Jones of Brecon bought the mineral rights to the Maerdy Estate from Crawshay Bailey for £122,000 in 1873. He then formed a partnership with JR Cobb for additional capital to sink a trial pit, which was begun in 1875. This reached the Abergorki seam in December 1876, and the first coal was subsequently sent from Maerdy to Cardiff in 1877. Maerdy No.2 pit was sunk in 1876 and No.3 pit in 1893 and Maerdy No.4 in 1914. The Pits were leased to Locket's Merthyr Colliery in 1893.

Maerdy Colliery was long known for its militant and communist associations, and had a history of employing radicals as checkweighters, men such as Arthur Horner a well known communist who at the time of his election was serving a prison sentence for refusing to fight in the First World War. It was this militancy, particularly during the 1926 strike and lockout, which led to conflict with both the mine owners and also ultimately the rest of the South Wales Miners Federation. The Federation eventually expelled the Maerdy Lodge from the organisation in 1930. It was during this time that the South Wales Daily News first applied the term Little Moscow when describing Maerdy. A slump in the demand for steam coal in addition to the continuing antagonistic industrial relations led to the Mardy pits remaining idle in 1927.

Right: Maerdy Colliery No1 & No2 pits circa 1920

Maerdy Colliery No1 & No2 pits circa 1920
In 1932 Bwllfa and Cwmaman Collieries Ltd. took control of the Mardy Pits, closing both the No.1 and No.2 Pit. This company, part of the Welsh Associated Collieries, merged with Powell Duffryn in 1935 forming Powell Duffryn Associated Collieries Limited, this company closed the Colliery, eventually reopening it in 1938. Along with many collieries in South Wales, Mardy pit was severely affected by the suspension of the coal export trade during the Second World War, and was forced to close in 1940.
The Colliery was nationalised in 1947 and formed part of the National Coal Board's No.4 Area, South Western Division. In 1949 the National Coal Board announced a major project of reorganisation and development for Mardy Colliery, the initial costs of which were estimated as being £7 million.
The project entailed the building of a modern colliery on the site of the old No.3 and No.4 pits, to work reserves, which at the time were estimated at being 100 million tons, sufficient to last one hundred years.

The project completely transformed the derelict colliery into a state of the art mine, with new administrative offices, canteen, electrical winding-engine house, pithead baths, medical centre, and coal preparation plant on the surface. Meanwhile underground new roadways were constructed linking Mardy and Bwllfa Colliery in the Cynon Valley.
With this new investment, the future of Mardy looked guaranteed for a 'hundred years'. However economic conditions were changing and when in 1986 the output from Mardy Colliery was raised at the Tower Colliery in the Cynon Valley, the two mines effectively merging into one, many saw it as the beginning of the end of Maerdy as a working mine. As the single remaining working pit in the Rhondda this would also mean the end of over one hundred and fifty years of mining industry in the valley where once 'coal was king'.

The 1984/1985 miners strike, although coming some five years before the final closing of Mardy Colliery can be seen as signalling the final end of mining in the village of Maerdy. This bitter dispute lasted virtually a whole year and saw the once powerful National Union of Mineworkers eventually defeated. The dispute can be seen as an ideological confrontation between the Left wing policies, adhered to by the Miners' leader Arthur Scargill. Against that stood the free market philosophy of the Conservative Government led by Margaret Thatcher. The dispute centred upon the National Coal Boards' plan to make the industry profitable, in line with Government policies. These plans would entail the loss of over 65,000 mining jobs and the closure of hundreds of pits.
Thus on March 6th 1984 one of the bitterest strikes in British industrial history began, a strike that ended in defeat and virtual ruin for one of Britain's most powerful unions, The National Union of Mineworkers, a year later. During the strike Mardy, as befitting its militant heritage, was at the forefront of the dispute, providing speakers at fundraising events, sending men to all parts of the country as 'flying pickets' etc. At Mardy Colliery itself only two 'token pickets' were ever needed as no Maerdy man would cross a picket line. For the men and their families the year of the strike brought great hardships and scenes more reminiscent of the 1930's than the 1980's were seen in the valleys. The women of Maerdy formed the first of many Women's Support Groups performing a vital service for striking miners and their families. They organised food collection and distribution, spoke at public meetings, and even joined their husbands on the picket lines. When the defeated miners eventually marched back to work behind their union banners and the colliery band on the 5th March 1985, the women of the support group marched alongside them.
After the dispute many saw the writing on the wall for Mardy Colliery. Particularly when in 1986 the mine was linked underground to Tower Colliery in the Cynon Valley and the coal cut there was raised at Tower.
The remains of Maerdy Colliery 1991

The Colliery continued to work in this manner until December 1990, ten months earlier than the National Coal Board had originally planned, Mardy Colliery closed for the last time. Bringing as the then lodge chairman of The National Union of Mineworkers at the time said, 'the end of the coal era in the Rhondda'. Before closing some of the friends and relatives of the miners were taken underground to see the conditions the miners worked in, and to receive a commemorative piece of Maerdy coal cut specially for the occasion from the 5ft seam. After the last shift a service was held in the canteen with carols, readings and music from the Colliery and Tylorstown Silver Band followed by a procession to the Welfare Hall where a ' wake' was held. Of the three hundred workers at the pit only seventeen chose to transfer to other collieries.

Left: The remains of Maerdy Colliery 1991

   

Maerdy Colliery Explosion- Wednesday 23rd December 1885

At approximately 2.40 p.m. on this day, a loud report was heard above ground at Maerdy Colliery and a column of smoke and dust was seen to issue from the upcast shaft. These signs, were recognisable to everyone familiar with mining at that time as indicating another in the terrible catalogue of disasters that were the dread of everyone working, or living with someone working, underground. Indeed, tragedy had come to the close-knit community of Maerdy with an explosion underground in the 'East Rhondda' district of Maerdy Colliery. The disaster claimed the lives of eighty-one men and boys, sixty-three from suffocation and eighteen from burns and violence.
The Colliery, at that time had only been open for eight years, and belonged to Lockett's Merthyr Steam Coal Company, the local director of which was Mr. William Thomas, the mine manager was Mr. Griffith Thomas, who had been in charge for the previous six years. The coal mined at Maerdy was Steam Coal, a notoriously dry and dusty coal that gives off large quantities of gas. The colliery was regarded, at that time, as one of the best ventilated in South Wales. Using a surface Waddle fan to pump air into the mine and 'blowers' inside the mine to ventilate any areas where build-ups of gas were suspected. Indeed prior to 23rd December 1885 no fatal accident had occurred from an explosion since the Colliery was opened. Underground the mine was divided into two districts, East and West, known locally as the Rhondda and Aberdare. At the time of the explosion, the Colliery employed 961 men, 200 on the night shift and 761 on the day shift. On the 23rd December at 2.40 p.m. there were therefore over 750 men underground. The explosion however was confined to the Eastern or Rhondda District, and those men working the Western or Aberdare District emerged unscathed.
Almost immediately after the explosion was heard teams of rescuers descended the pit, led by Mr. William Thomas and consisting of miners from neighbouring pits, as well as those who had been raised from the unaffected part of Maerdy Colliery itself. Many of the bodies were recovered almost immediately, but because of the difficulties penetrating to the heart of the mine, bodies were still being recovered until the Sunday following the explosion. On the Wednesday afternoon, miraculously, thirty men were recovered unscathed from the mine. Having been working a hundred and twenty yards below the site of the explosion, they had escaped its violence. The funerals for the victims were held at Ferndale and Llanwonno cemeteries, on the Saturday, Sunday and Monday following the disaster amid scenes of great distress and communal mourning.
A Report into the 'Maerdy Colliery Explosion', by A.G.C.Liddell Barrister at Law who had attended the coroners inquest held at the Maerdy Hotel on the 12th to the18th January on behalf of The Secretary of State, was presented to both Houses of Parliament. He states the verdict of the Coroner's Court as being:
'We find that an explosion of gas occurred in the Rhondda District of the Maerdy Colliery on the 23rd December 1885, whereby Daniel Williams lost his life, but how or where the gas ignited, sufficient evidence has not been produced to enable us to determine. We are, however, convinced that it did not occur from shot firing in the hard heading'. Mr. Liddell's Report was highly critical of the safety procedures in place at the Colliery at that time, which, Mr. Liddell, believed were not carried out to the specifications of The Coal Mines Regulation Act 1872. He believed that, 'as regarded matters left to the discretion of the manager, the constant care and watchfulness necessary for the safety of a colliery working so fiery and dusty a coal, had been relaxed at some points'. He points out that no barometer was kept in a conspicuous position at the entrance to the mine, and that on the day of the explosion, no barometer reading was taken. He also criticised the positioning of lamp stations, between which and the downcast shaft naked lights and unlocked lamps were allowed. These were at a considerable distance from the best-ventilated part of the mine i.e. the downcast shaft, and were in many cases close to the workings, this meant naked lights were carried through the mine, 'a dangerous state of things in a mine of a fiery and dusty nature'. He also criticises the arrangements made for the removal and watering of the coal dust that built up in the mine, an important task as large amounts of dust in the area would add to the likelihood of an explosion, and increase their ferocity. This 'important work, he states was carried out in a 'desultory way' and was not done in a 'sufficiently systematic character', he goes on to state that 'no officer or man were specially appointed to it, and no time specially fixed. The usual way in which the water was applied was by scattering it from a bucket, or applying the hand to the hole of a barrel in motion and squirting'. Additionally he heavily criticises the Colliery practices in relation to shot firing, a highly dangerous procedure underground.
The Coal Mines regulations Act, 1872 laid down regulations for when shot firing, for three months after a mine had shown a presence of gas whereby a 'blue cap on the flame of a safety lamp' showed. In these circumstances shot firing should only be undertaken if those underground were evacuated from the area of the mine where the firing was to take place. These rules were to be observed 'where practicable'. Mr. Liddell contends that for reasons of time and trouble these rules were deliberately flouted at Maerdy Colliery, where lamps showing a blue flame were constantly seen in the Colliery. Thus when daily shot firing was undertaken in Maerdy's North Western district, where 122 men were working, only the five men working in the actual heading were withdrawn a distance of fifty yards from where the shot was fired.
Describing the actual explosion itself Mr. Liddell states that the course of the blast from the explosion was approximately one mile long. After reviewing the evidence he goes on to conclude that the explosion originated in an area termed the North west dip, a branch off from the main West heading, He then relates the two theories as to the actual cause of the explosion. Both theories are based around an area where masons were building an archway in a 30-foot high cavity caused by a fall in the roof, the cavity being deemed a danger as a place where gas might accumulate. On the day of the explosion five men were working on this arch on a platform raised about six feet above the roadway, three mason and two assistants. The assistants were allowed to use a naked light of a type known as a 'Comet'. Additionally in the same area, a heading through stone was being driven towards the 4ft. coal seam by blasting with shot. This heading, Mr.Liddell states had only slight deposits of coal dust and had never shown a trace of gas.
Because of these factors Mr. Liddell argues against the first of the two theories that had been proposed for the cause of the explosion namely that:

1) 'That the explosion was caused through the ignition of coal dust in the N.W. dip by the 'comet' lamp used at the arches. That such coal dust was raised by the concussion of a blown out shot in the stone heading'.

2) 'That the explosion was caused by the accumulation of fire damp in the cavity above the arches, and ignited by one of the masons raising the 'comet' lamp into the gas'.

With regards to the first theory, he contends that there was no permission given on the 23rd December for the day shift to fire a shot. Also the one shot hole that had been dug had, according to expert witnesses, never been fired. Additionally the bodies of the four men working on the stone heading at that time were actually found in the heading, whereas if a shot firing had taken place they would have adjourned to a place of safety.
Regarding the second theory, he states it, as being 'the probable cause of the disaster', though he admits that there was enough reasonable doubt to prevent the coroner's jury from accepting it as fact. His support for this theory is based on a number of factors. The nature of the cavity and the space at its top being above the airway constructed for ventilation was, he claims, an ideal place for gas to accumulate. A fireman in the colliery had seen a blue flame, signifying traces of gas, on his safety lamp some three months prior to the explosion, a fact he had not reported in the daily report book. Also on the 31st December, after the explosion, a workmen's examiner found gas filling the cavity down to about six inches above the airway. This was despite extra precautions being taken to dispel gas from the cavity after the explosion. This suggested to Mr. Liddell that the previous precautions would also have been insufficient to dispel gas from building up in the cavity. The direction of the blast, as well as the unlikelihood of gas collecting in any other part of the workings in that area also supported his contention that this is where the initial blast occurred. Although the evidence was not conclusive as to what actually did happen on 23rd December, Mr.Liddell states that even if the explosion did not occur in this manner that. ' There can, I think, be no doubt that it was a dangerous error of judgement to allow the use of the 'Comet'' in the way that it was used. Whatever the actual cause of the initial explosion it was Mr. Liddell's conclusion that the amount of gas involved could not account for the ferocity of the blast that ensued. Thus he believed that however the initial blast occurred, it was the profusion of coal dust in the workings that actually propagated the explosion. Therefore he recommended to the Home Secretary that ' a regular system of watering and removal of dust in coal mines be carried out, and put under a competent officer'. In addition that, 'it would be advisable to prohibit shot firing in dusty parts of a mine without previous watering of all places to which the flame of the shot might extend'.
Early in the January following the explosion the mine was declared safe again, and the surviving miners returned to work in the mine that had so recently claimed the lives of so many of their colleagues.
A list of the 81 who perished in the disaster is included here.

   

The Lluest Wen Dam Emergency

 
In December 1969 and January 1970 a disaster of unprecedented scale nearly overwhelmed the village of Maerdy, one that if it had not been averted would have caused devastation to the entire Rhondda Fach Valley. The drama revolved around the Lluest Wen dam and reservoir, which was built in 1898 and covered an area of 20 acres and held upwards of 242 million gallons of water. The dam was situated at the top end of the Rhondda Fach above the town of Maerdy.
First indication of problems at the dam came when; on December 23rd a local man named Lynn Jones was riding his horse Sally close to the dam. The horse plunged into a hole five feet deep, six feet long and two feet wide, which had appeared beneath it. Mr. Jones ran the two miles to Maerdy Colliery for help and firemen and forestry workers took two hours to free the trapped horse. Fire officials then phoned the water board for the dam to be inspected.
Mr. D.G. Gamblin, consultant engineer for the Taf Fechan water Board subsequently reported in the January that, "after investigation...the dam might be in a critical state". A centre of operations was quickly set up at Teify House, Maerdy. Officials estimated that if the dam were to break a tidal wave of twenty feet high would sweep down the valley. Evacuation plans were drawn up and approximately 350 old and infirm residents were moved to places of safety from low-lying areas of Maerdy. Additionally seven schools were closed and their pupils transferred to schools in safer locations, also Maerdy Colliery was closed. Mr. George Thomas, the Secretary of State assured worried residents that if the dam did break there would be between two and four hours notice, enough time to evacuate the affected areas. Extra police were drafted into the area and ambulances put on standby in preparation for a full-scale evacuation, should it prove necessary. Many residents fearing the worst left their homes to relief centres, despite assurances that they would have sufficient time to do so should the need arise. Police and emergency services were on full alert and radios were continually manned in case the signal to evacuate was given.
Work to discover and rectify the fault in the dam ran into a number of problems. Engineers trying to reach the base of the valve tower ran into a man made wall in the communication tunnel, which they did not realise, was there. This blocked access to the base of the valve tower, where a possible fault was suspected.
In order to relieve pressure on the dam, plans were put into place to drain the level of the reservoir. However this also ran into problems when the weight of the contractors' vehicles, carrying pipes and pumps to the reservoir, turned the access road into an impassable quagmire. Thus a RAF helicopter was used to ferry supplies to the site and soldiers laid an alternative route along the Forestry Commission track running across the Rhigos Mountain. With the united efforts of the army, RAF, fire brigade, Water Board and others the pumping of water from the dam finally lessened the risk of it breaking and flooding the Valley. The 'all clear' finally sounded on Sunday 25th January 1970, and the residents of Maerdy, and the Rhondda Fach could finally breath a sigh of relief that the possibility of disaster had been averted.
   
   
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