Looking North East from Beech Terrace on the valley of the Ebbw was like gazing down on the black landscape of Blake’s ‘Jerusalem’, somehow shoe-horned into the valley, in-between the green and pleasant hills . Below the tree-line, fringed by the endless rows of identical terrace houses, there were the gas works, the tin-plate works, the chemical works, the smelting works and, dominating the valley, the infamous Prince of Wales Colliery, opened in about 1836 and for many decades the principle place of employment.
In 1878, a huge explosion devastated the mine. There were at least 325 men and boys underground. The explosion, underground fires and oxygen deprivation killed about 268 workers, but the true total will never be known.
Two very brave rescue teams risked danger of more explosions and other hazards and saved about 90 men. The rescuers were quite rightly awarded Albert Medals. Nonetheless the disaster made 131 women widows and 360 children lost relatives. It was one of the greatest disasters of the South Wales Coalfield.
The explosions had ignited the coal seams themselves, giving a continuous risk of further explosions, so to extinguish the fires the mine was flooded with water diverted from the canal. In two months about 35 million gallons were poured in. The mine reopened four years later and in time became prosperous, but they were still finding skeletons 25 years later.
Sadly, in the 19th century there were also accidents at the nearby collieries in Cwmcarn and Risca that claimed over 300 more lives. Together the tragedies directly affected about half of the population. The impact on the community of the valley must have been profound, and I can’t help thinking the disasters still coloured community life many generations later.
On days when the grey rain swept endlessly down the valley, it was as if the cobbles were washed with the tears of the terraces.
When I was a lad those terraces seemed unchanged, but the Prince of Wales colliery was almost derelict and in 1959 the shafts were filled and the site was cleared. Now all the heavy industry has gone and green fields again cover the valley floor. A stone memorial up on the hill in Abercarn Cemetery looks down on the changing landscape.
But are we certain is it the feasting of Islwyn that we hear far below the ground? We may forget, but the land remembers.