As the last deep mines in Britain close, here’s a poignant story from Pete
Lingford Mine was situated on the outskirts of Llansaintffraid, Powys, near Elan Village, employing some eight hundred and fifty men. The mine was opened by Glyn Bryn-Awel, businessman, landowner and Liberal MP in 1867 and was their first deep mine with some of the richest coal seams ever found in Wales. Now a drift, had been sunk with faces heading out in the opposite direction towards Newtown.
The majority of coal travelled by rail to power stations in England. A small amount to households, including concessionary supplies for the miners. This being a good incentive to work at the pit, not that there were many other options left open to them. Industries in the area were few and far between. One or two collieries nearby had already been forced to close. Maggie Thatcher was truly the snake in the woodpile where that was concerned. The workforce feared for their jobs with good reason. She was determined to pay the miners back for what they had done to Ted Heath’s government and for causing the ‘Three Day Week’. Never in a million years would she ever give in to Arthur Scargill, even if it meant bankrupting the whole bloody country to satisfy her outrageous ego.
The local Miners Welfare was usually a hive of activity full of laughter, banter and jokes, but now with the threat of pit closures the atmosphere was very downbeat. Men huddled round tables with their pints discussing what the future held for them. Gareth Jones an NUM official did his best to allay their fears. “It won’t come to that, you’ll see. Scargill will win the day for us. That he will”. Adding. “I know Arthur said the Tories will shut all the pits, but believe me, it won’t come to that”.
He had no sooner got his words out, when Daffyd Secombe their union secretary grabbed the microphone on stage. “Listen up lads I have a very important announcement to make”. There was a spontaneous hush in the hall. He looked extremely glum and upset. “I have just received news from management that our pit will be going into the ‘Review Proceedure’ as from Monday”. Gasps of horror reverberated around the room. If Thatcher had walked in at that moment, she would not have got out alive. They would have torn her limb from limb.
That night twenty-three miners collected their tallies from the Time Office and made their way to the Lamp Cabin. Once there, they collected both cap lamps and self rescuers. The odd cigarette was hidden in strategic places around the building to be collected seven or so hours later to light up on their way to the Pithead Baths.
Arriving at the entrance to the Drift, they handed over one of the two brass tallies issued at the Time Office. Their moral was very low, some even debating whether they should be there at all. “We ought to be out on bloody strike. It it were a Yorkshire pit they’d be out for sure”. Grumbled Taffy Williams a Ripper.
Soon they were into carriages that would transport them down the gradient to the Pit Bottom. Yet another paddy awaited to take them up to the face, just over a mile away.
No sooner had they set off when singing in unison began. A most welcome relief. First it was ‘Bless This House’, then ‘We’ll Keep a Welcome’, followed by ‘God Bless the Prince of Wales’ and finally, ‘Land of my Fathers’.
The previous week saw this team break a longstanding output record. The manager Francis Thomas was quoted as saying. “I am extremely pleased with my lads. They always work as a team and are conscientious to a man”. He then added. “If anyone deserved to break the record, these lads did. They are the best”. Feelings within the workforce was that this record would be increased before the month was out.
Now that was the last thing on their minds. Yes. As you can imagine, moral had taken a massive dive. Work proceeded as usual up until snap time and well inside the target required to break the record. A lot of joking and small talk was taking place when the oldest and most experienced of the workforce, Richard Evan Jenkins suddenly cried out. “Quiet…Listen…For God’s sake listen!”
Everyone in the immediate area stopped eating and turned to look at him as a couple of rats scuttled past, followed by another three of their mates. A sharp cracking sound echoed along the face.
Jenkins was on his feet like a gazelle. “Get out or we’re all dead!”. He yelled.
His workmates didn’t need telling twice. Just like him, they too scrambled to their feet following in his wake.
Unfortunately, those further along the face were not so lucky. The roof came crashing down, burying sixteen of the team.
Before Jenkins and the other six could vacate the face, the roof in front collapsed. They were now well and truly trapped.
Dick tried to calm his men down. “Look, it’s no good panicking. That won’t get us anywhere. I suggest we turn most of our cap lamps off to save the batteries”. His voice seemed to have a calming effect. “Look. They’ll know by now on the surface that we are in trouble and will be putting rescue plans into operation. So let’s just keep calm”.
A Belt Fitter was climbing on the rubble, digging into it with his bare hands. “Come on. Let’s at least try and get out”. His frustration plain to see.
Jenkins pulled him down. “Save your energy Rees. We need all the oxygen we can get. We must preserve what little there is and what you’re doing doesn’t help”.
Eventually Jenkins had managed to persuade the other survivors round to his way of thinking.
Four and a half hours later saw them huddled together, to keep warm. Again it was Jenkins who demanded silence. “Listen…Listen… I told you they’d be down here to save us”. The sound that had come to their ears was a sound they had never heard before. It was eerie like something out of this world. It sounded slightly musical with a ‘whooshing’ of water. “It’s not rescuers!” Cried one of the men. “It’s water!….We’re all going to drown!” now panic really set in with a vengeance.
As if by magic, the wall of coal seemed to disintegrate before their eyes, leaving a three to four feet hole. The beams of light from their lamps illuminated the hole that had appeared. The coal looked perfectly dry and the sound they had heard, ceased.
A wave of calmness came over the men, when the figure of a black miner appeared on his hands and knees at the entrance. Unable to believe their good luck, a ripple of applause began as well as cheering. “Well?”. Asked the rescuer with a broad smile, exposing a mouth full of gleaming white teeth. “Are you going to follow me? Or are you happy to stay here?”. He smiled. “By the way, I’m African Jack. Together we will make it out of here”.
One by one they entered the hole. Their lamps lit up the long tunnel. It was as smooth as glass with no sign of cutter marks along its length. “Where are the other rescuers?”. Rees asked Jenkins. “He couldn’t have cut this on his own and what about a cutting machine? There’s nothing. Just nothing”.
Jenkins shrugged his shoulders. “Who cares? Let’s get out and worry about that later”.
Reaching the far end of the tunnel African Jack assisted them out of the opening one by one.
Still leading them like a shepherd leading his sheep, he led them to the first set of air-doors. Once through they realized the black African wasn’t with them anymore. Where had he gone? Had he gone back? They couldn’t have imagined him. No, that was impossible for they had all seen him. Making their way to the next set of air-doors, they were met by men from the Mines Rescue Service. There were spontaneous handshakes and hugs as well as a few tears, as information was exchanged.
Once on the surface the men were checked over in the Medical Centre before being allowed to shower in case of delayed shock or any other problems they may have incurred.
After showering they made their way down to the General Office to be interviewed by the Home Office Inspector of Mines, Mr. Ivor Cripps and other safety officials. They wanted information on what had occured and the conditions they had escaped from. Also if there was any chance that others may still be alive down there requiring rescue. The rescue team had re entered the mine but were unable to locate the tunnel which the men had described.
Ivor Cripps looked exasperated. “Nothing of this makes sense. Men and possibly bodies are still trapped behind yards and yards a solid rubble”. He glared at Jenkins. “What you want us to believe is bloody poppycock”.
Jenkins stood up. “With all due respects sir, I am a very sceptical man, but I will confirm what these men have reported. It might sound far fetched, but believe me, the black man did save our lives”. Cripps shook his head. “Well please explain why no such hole exists and no such coloured man was working in the mine”. He continued. “We’ve got men slaving away down there trying to get through to those poor sods on the other side, be they dead or alive”.
Still on his feet, Jenkins replied. “I’m sorry sir, but we can only report what actually happened”.
Although embarrassed, every man stuck resolutely to his story. Their reports all matched to the last letter.
Eighty-six hours later the breakthrough was made to reach the sixteen dead bodies, still buried a few yards further on.
Eventually the dead were located. Coffins had been solemnly transported underground for their return to the surface it wasn’t until old records from the archives were studied, that it came to light, nine decades ago to the very day of the disaster, there was an inrush of water that took the life of, amongst others, a black African miner named Jack Klambunda. His nickname was of course ‘African Jack’. The body of Klambunda was never found. The inrush of water had sadly turned him to clay.