From around 1800 onwards miners had to dig deeper to get to unworked seams of coal. Locals must have feared that serious accidents would result. On the 16th June 1838 their fears came true when six coalminers drowned in an accident at the Thomas Chapel colliery. It was the worst accident to date in the local coalfield – since 1732 anyway. What was their response?
A local newspaper report hints at raised emotions:
“A dreadful accident occurred at Mr Hughes’ colliery near Begelly Pembrokeshire on Saturday last in consequence of a very thoughtless…cutting in of water; by which means 6 poor men…were drowned. The quantity of water cut in was so great as to take the constant working of persons, night and day, at two pits, with the assistance of a steam engine at a third pit, from the day the accident happened, to Thursday morning, before the colliery was sufficient freed of water to get at the bodies of the poor sufferers…”
No other report of the accident or the subsequent inquest has survived to corroborate the critical inference in the newspaper. However, a copy of the bill used in the prosecution of William Brace at the Pembrokeshire Assizes is extant. As manager of the pit, Brace was charged with the manslaughter of the six miners. Interestingly the case was brought by James Thomas (of Thorny Park, East Williamston), father of one of the deceased. Alleging that Brace had “care…control and management” of the pit, Thomas believed that Brace had failed to exercise these properly in not using the correct equipment. In his eyes, this neglect caused the deaths.
The trial was held at Haverfordwest on 11 March 1839 with twelve experienced miners from the Begelly area ready to take the stand in support of the prosecution. But the case was not tried. At this time, Assize trials were subject to a two-step process. Firstly the case was examined before a Grand Jury to decide if there was sufficient evidence to hear it. Secondly, if this was proved, the case was tried in open court as we would expect today. However, the case failed to get beyond the Grand Jury where the examination was held in camera; no records survive to explain this.
The importance of this disaster for the local coalfield was that this was a unique prosecution. No doubt James Thomas’ anger at the manner of the loss of his young son was an important catalyst in bringing it. The failure of the case would have generated the same emotion throughout the community. More serious accidents, in terms of the number of deaths, followed with 40 killed at Landshipping in February 1844 and then three months later by seven men closer to home at Broadmoor colliery. Accidents such as these were a national problem and generated a national response: from the 1840s onwards, the government started to enact legislation that slowly brought the apparent recklessness of proprietors and managers under control.
Pembrokeshire Record Office: Haverfordwest Gaol records
The National Archives: Pembrokeshire Assize records
If you are interested in the details of the deceased take a look at the following site:
Above image of Shire Hall: copyright “Cerdiwen” and licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic License.