Sunday 21 January 2024

John Hopla - Wales and Tonypandy's Forgotten Hero.

The Taff Vale Train Disaster

On Monday 23rd January 1911, three member of the South Wales Miners Federation Executive Council, W. H. Morgan of Treherbert, Tom Harris of Pontygwaith and Tom George of Ferndale boarded the 9.10 passenger train from Treherbert on route to a South Wales Miners' Federation Executive meeting in Cardiff. Later they would travel to London to attend the three day M.F.G.B. conference at the Westminster Palace Hotel commencing the following day. They had much to ponder. The three men were among a large number of delegates from South Wales and Monmouthshire sent to attend the special conference called by the Miners Federation of Great Britain at the request of the South Wales Executive. The main item on the agenda was an appeal from the S.W.M.F for financial support in the bitter strike in Mid-Rhondda precipitated by the Ely Pit lock-out.

In Mid-Rhondda people were suffering. The district had been transformed into a virtual military camp under the command of  Major General Macready. The tactics of Cambrian Combine owner D.A. Thomas and his general manager Leonard Llewellyn were inflicting extreme hardship on their workforce. While Thomas was subsidised for his losses by the powerful Monmouthshire and South Wales Coal Owner's Association strikers children were being fed in soup kitchens. In 1910 families endured a hard winter as reported by one newspaper:
"Hunger and all the other accompanying miseries of an industrial struggle are being severely felt in Mid-Rhondda. Empty larders may be counted by the score, and although every effort is made to cope with the distress, many of the most deserving cases are difficult to get at because people are reluctant to make their necessity known, preferring to suffer in silence. The absence of coal adds very materially to their sufferings in the cold and bitter weather. All the surrounding rubbish tips have been so thoroughly cleared of any scraps of coal that might be left about, that the strikers, armed with picks, hammers and other implements, have been digging in the vicinity of tipping screens to relieve their distress. Mothers of young babes, some of the latter being but a few weeks old. gather at the homes of their more fortunate neighbours where there still remains a little fire to bathe their young."
It was often the women who suffered most having to watch their children go hungry. Little wonder there was growing animosity towards men who still continued to work. Not every miner was a member of the Federation. Many did not belong to a union while others belonged to unions specific to their specialised occupations. It was perhaps a tactical error on the part of miners agents William Abraham M.P. (Mabon) and Watts-Morgan that their support had not been secured before the strike. Younger emerging leaders like Will John and John Hopla understood the need for solidarity among the workforce. At a mass meeting of miners at the Mid-Rhondda Athletic Ground, Tonypandy early in the strike Will John had boldly declared:
"The Combine Workmen's Committee will strain every nerve to bring the fight to a successful issue, and it is our intention to stop any man from doing any work at the collieries. We intend to prevent any of the officials from Mr. Llewellyn downwards from entering the colliery yards."
The Federation in South Wales was itself under threat. At the conference C. B .Stanton of Aberdare declared:
"...the man who is at the head of this, the great engineer Mr. D. A. Thomas of the Cambrian Combine, is a man whom the workmen themselves dragged along in his carriage at election time. That man is out today to smash the Federation, and he is doing it. He has got these men out, and our funds are flowing out at a rate of  £6,000 or £7,000 a week."
 There was a desperate need of material support to help alleviate the suffering borne by the populace of Mid-Rhondda. Executive members Morgan, Harris, and George were hopeful they would return from the conference with news that the M.F.G.B had resolved to offer financial support to their South Wales comrades in the struggle for a living wage. The outcome of the conference debate did indeed prove successful and the following resolution was passed: 
"That the Miners' Federation of Great Britain contribute to the South Wales Federation the sum of £3,000 per week to be called by a levy of 3d per member per call."
But fate ensured it was a resolution the three executive members from Rhondda would never hear. Their train containing 200 passengers left Porth station at about 9.10 and continued its journey along the track between Lower Rhondda signal box and the Gyfeillion Lower box where along its length the track curved around a bend. Unsighted further down the line a coal train had stopped to enable the driver to undertake necessary maintenance. The fireman was duly dispatched to the nearest signal box to inform the signalman that their train was stationary, unaware a passenger train was headed towards them on the same track.

Having received the 'line clear' signal the passenger train approached the Gyfeillion Lower box travelling around 30 miles an hour. A slight mist hung in the air and the way ahead was partly obscured by the bend in the track. As it passed over the level crossing near the Great Western Colliery the driver Alexander Sellars shut off steam having enough to carry him the rest of the way to Pontypridd. A cry of "Whoa up", from the fireman alerted Sellars to the danger ahead. He is already in the process of applying the brakes but has no time to engage the vacuum and steam brakes or apply sand to the rails that could have mitigated the force of the impact. He and his fireman remain stoically at their post, helpless to avert the impending disaster.

The engine smashes into the van of the mineral train and three packed trucks before grinding to a sudden halt against the mass of coal. It travels only twenty yards further. The rear ends of the comparatively light passenger brake-vans are forced upwards by the collision. Their steel frames cut through the five leading compartments of the coaches behind them at about seat level, and the bodies of the vans come down on the bodies of the same carriages. The coaches telescope into each other inflicting eleven fatalities. Most are killed instantly or rendered unconscious. Trapped passengers frantically try to open carriage doors that have been jammed tight by the collision. men and women fling themselves or are pulled out through windows.Engine driver Sellars, although suffering from shock, leaps down from the engine and runs to help. He is followed by his fireman J. Jones. Sellars describes the tragic scene they encounter:
 "We found a man who was wearing a tweed cap, with his head jammed between the top of a carriage and the window. As we went up he cried, 'For mercy's sake, help me out of this.' I went back and got a crowbar and we did all it was possible for us to do, but it was hopeless. There were many people standing round but they were powerless to help, for the van was gradually settling down on the carriage and the poor fellow was gradually killed. Who he was I don't know. In a compartment close by was a little boy, but I don't know what became of him. I was unable to stay on the scene all the time, for there was a good deal of inflammable stuff about the engine, and I feared the train might take fire. Had that occurred all hope for the imprisoned people would have been gone, so I considered my duty was to watch the engine."
The man in the tweed cap was Tom George the executive member from Ferndale. He was identified at the scene by Councillor William Jenkins from Cymmer. Councillor Jenkins would have changed his carriage at Porth and joined Tom George and his colleagues had he not been deep in conversation with Mr. Walters, a grocer from Treherbert.. Badly shaken by the savage jolt and the sound of metal screeching against metal to the accompaniment of frenzied screams and splintering wood he jumped out of the compartment. His first instinct was to run towards the front portion of the train where his colleagues were seated. He was confronted with a dreadful sight.
"Then, to my dismay, I saw poor Tom George's head and shoulders leaning out, limp and bleeding, through a carriage window in the second coach. There was blood oozing from his mouth and nostrils, and an ugly gash at the back of his neck. He was quite dead. The first coach, as I said, had mounted the second, and was on top of George's compartment. The body of the first coach was pressing on poor George's body."
At the inquest Jenkins was asked whether he could see inside the coach.
"Not much, there was another body inside alongside of Tom George. I am not positive, but I believe it was the body of poor Harris, of Tylorstown, another of my colleagues. From the colour of his hair I believe it was Harris. He was terribly crushed. There was another body lying on the floor of the carriage, presumably that of W. H. Morgan."
The boy engine driver Sellars had seen was Ivor Hodges, aged ten from Ferndale. He died in his mother's arms. Although badly injured about the head and face Mrs Hodges remained conscious throughout her ordeal having watched her husband die in front of her. As she was carried to the ambulance her cries of distress reduced many onlookers to tears. Another who survived, trapped by his arm in the wreckage for some considerable time, was Mr. W. Phillips the Registrar from Porth. He had been one of four occupants of the compartment, two of whom were killed. Mr. Phillips along with the other injured were transported to Cardiff Infirmary by train. The bodies of the victims were taken to the engine house where they were covered and placed in a row awaiting identification. Jack Davies, landlord of the Commercial Hotel, Ferndale, endured the agony of having to identify his little daughter of 10 years who was on her way back to her boarding school in Porthcawl.

The offical list of dead and injured read:
Councillor Tom George, Ferndale, miner's checkweigher.
Councillor W. H. Morgan, Treherbert, secretary of No 1 Lodge, Rhondda Miners and checkweigher at the Fernhill Colliery.
Councillor Tom Harris (39) 89 Madeline Street, Ponytgwaith, miner's checkweigher at No 8 Pit, Tylorstown.
Miss Margaret Davies (10), daughter of Mr Jack Davies, Commercial Hotel, Ferndale.
Mr. Thomas John Hodges, butcher, 42 High Street, Ferndale.
Master Thomas Ivor Hodges (9), his son.
Rev W. Landeck Powell, Calvinistic Methodist Minister, Caerphilly.
Miss Hannah Jenkins (16), 43 Morgan Street, Trehafod, assistant at the drapery establishment of Mr Compton Evans, Pontypridd.
Mr. Edward Thomas, horse dealer, Pontrhondda Farm, Llwynypia.
Mr. Idris I. M. Evans (18), Llynderw, Tonypandy, articled clerk to Messrs. Jones-Pughe & Davey, Pontypridd.
Mr. Lodwig Hughes, colliery engine driver of Maerdy.

The official report into the crash undertaken by Lieutenant-Colonel Druitt R.E.found the primary cause to be a signalling error, and a failure by the driver of the mineral train to operate Rule 55.