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The Morfa Colliery at Port Talbot in South Wales was operational from the mid-1800s until 1913, eventually closing after a long history of accidents. In 1863, thirty workers died there in an explosion. In 1870, another thirty-eight lost their lives. 1 Yet, it was the disaster of Monday 10th March 1890 which haunted the minds of the local community for many years to come.
Just after midday, when about 250 men were working below the ground, a violent explosion shook the mine. Those close to the surface were knocked back by a “very strong gust of wind”, their tongues and lips swollen by the sulphuric “afterdamp” of the blast. Those working deeper in the pit were instantly entombed. 2 Days of excavation work to rescue survivors and retrieve bodies commenced, with the two rescue parties suffering casualties in the process. Eventually, as subterranean fires raged and conditions became increasingly more dangerous, the mission was abandoned and the mine flooded. In total, eighty-seven lives were lost in the accident, with many of the bodies unable to be recovered.3
“Two sheds have been set apart, one for the dead and another amply provided with beds for the injured. A local undertaker has received practically unlimited order for coffins.”4
The loss of life was great, tragically creating sixty-eight widows and 178 fatherless children. However, in the days that followed the explosion there were whispers of thanks that the number who had perished had not been greater. Usually, some 420 men were employed in the mine, but on that Monday many had chosen to stay away, because of, it was said, fear that something terrible was about to occur.5
It was rumoured that the mine was haunted.
Tales of spooks from the colliery
One tale told by those who worked at the mine was “of a man who jumped on a journey of trams underground, and, after riding some distance, jumped off and melted away in the darkness of the mine.” The man was recognised as one who died long ago. He was said to be a ghost. 6
Philip Williams, a survivor of the accident, described to the local newspaper a couple of days after the explosion how he had encountered another ghost dressed in “oilskin” in the mine. Extraordinarily, it had accompanied him as he was coming up in the cage. 7
Sightings of a “ghostly” red dog
It was also said that a peculiar “red dog” appeared at the mine sometime before, seemingly acting as a dark omen of what was to come. “It daily made its appearance in one of the working places, and then just as mysteriously disappeared.” Despite suggestions that it may have been a living dog, those who encountered it were adamant that it was not of this earth – “it was a ghostly dog, and an omen of evil.” 8
Strange noises heard in the mine
Strange noises were also said to be commonplace in the two weeks before the explosion.
In particular, in a part of the pit known as the Nine Feet Deep, trams had been heard dashing down the incline, and falls seemed to be taking place. When, however, the area was examined all was found to be in order. 9
On another occasion, fourteen days before the accident, two men working in the pit were left shaken when the door above them clapped shut, seemingly of its own accord. No one had been sent there that day and neither of them could understand it. 10
One miner is said to have been so frightened by inexplicable noises that three weeks before the explosion he refused to go underground, saying that he heard similar noises when the explosion of 1870 occurred. The strange sounds led him to believe that a similar disaster could not be far off again – a presentience which was tragically proven to be correct.11
Miners fear that a disaster is imminent
The frequency of reports of “uncanny sounds and flesh-creeping premonitions” even inspired some men to leave the mine altogether. Isaac Hopkins, the manager of another coal mine in the area, disclosed to the local newspaper that a number of his men had come to work at his mine from Morfa, stating that they had left their old job because the pit was dreadfully haunted. 12
Amongst those who remained at Morfa, supernatural fears prevailed so strongly that, during an inquiry into the accident the following month, it was revealed that a “special examination” had been made of the mine only a few days before the explosion. The reasons for the examination, were the persistent complaints of spirits in the pit. The men hoped that a special examination would get rid of them. Nothing untoward was found during the examination. 13
In fact, the mine at Morfa had a reputation for stringent safety checks, by the standard of the times. Foremen frequently searched the mine for dangerous levels of gas.
“David Aubray, [a] fireman, said that he went into the pit on the 9th of March, the evening preceding the explosion. During his [two hour] examination he found no gas, fog, nor any indication of danger.” 14
Later inquiries into the accident struggled to decide on an explanation as to what had caused the explosion that day. Eventually, it was concluded that it was most likely shot-firing, carried out in accordance with current regulations, that had been responsible for the explosion. 15
Tales told by survivors, and those who had left the mine, argued that, whatever the cause, the explosion had been presaged, with warnings sent by unseen, paranormal forces.
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