The Importance Of The Thomas Chapel Colliery Disaster

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…”

Scene of trial: Shire Hall (pale green building), Haverfordwest

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.

Sources

Carmarthen Journal

Pembrokeshire Record Office: Haverfordwest Gaol records

The National Archives: Pembrokeshire Assize records

Notes

If you are interested in the details of the deceased take a look at the following site:

http://www.genuki.org.uk/big/wal/PEM/Pemcoaldeaths.html

Above image of Shire Hall: copyright “Cerdiwen” and licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic License.

6 thoughts on “The Importance Of The Thomas Chapel Colliery Disaster

  1. Henry Lewis one of the men killed at Thomas Chapel was my 3x great grandfather, his daughter my 2xgreat grandmother was born just 16 days after his death and his wife Ann never re-married remaining all her life in Kingsmoor Begelly.

    Thanks Jon its good to see you publishing you have such a wealth of knowledge that it enrichs all our efforts to understand the past and the circumstances of our forebears.

    I learnt alot from your article I hope to learn more from what comes next!

    • Barry

      Three of the men, including your Henry Lewis, were buried on the same day, 22/6/1838, in Begelly. A depressing time no doubt.

      Thanks for your comments, Barry. There are various people around who have more knowledge about certain aspects of the history of the area than I do and I hope they will contribute as well as this gets off the ground.

      Jon

  2. Great piece of historical information – as it appears the amount of information regarding this community back in the 1800’s is very limited.

    James Thomas the gentleman who took the case to court – is my GGGgrandfather! I am so proud of him!!

  3. Just received Pricilla’s birth cert today as sure the Henry that was killed was her father – she too died young – and was married to my relation – a James. I have a full family history if you are interested please contact me.

  4. Barry hope you come back and read the boards. I think your father is Evan – my grandad Weldons brother. Get in touch if you can via email.

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