The cost of Wales’ heavy industrial era

Rhys David says a national memorial to those killed in industrial accidents could help draw a line under an iconic era in Welsh history

As is the way of the world, the deaths of the four miners at Gleision drift mine in the Swansea Valley earlier this month have now faded, as the news caravan moves on to other events. They will, of course, be remembered with sadness by their families and communities. Yet, like the four oil workers who died at the Chevron refinery in Milford Haven in June this year or the steel worker whose death in a molten furnace at the Corus plant in Port Talbot was the subject of an inquest in the same week as the mining tragedy, they will in the end be counted as further additions to the statistics of industrial accidents.

Even so, as the remarkable worldwide reaction to the drift mine accident demonstrates, their deaths do seem to have had a wide, even if only temporary, resonance. Though the numbers were small by historic standards, or compared for example with Six Bells (45 deaths in 1960), Cambrian colliery, Clydach  (31 deaths in 1965), and even more Aberfan (144 deaths, 116 of them children, in 1966) the Cilybebyll accident has served as a powerful reminder.

For us in Wales it has brought back memories of those previous events, and indeed of greater tragedies such as Aberfan, where 144 died in 1966, 116 of them children, and much further back the two other great disasters – Senghenydd  in 1913 (439 deaths) and Gresford in 1934 (266 deaths). It has also presented a picture to the world of the strong sense of community that exists in the still isolated geography of parts of the south Wales valleys.

More widely, however, the deaths have dramatically shown the hard working lives that are still led in some parts of Wales where some men still work in a drift mine environment that would not have been unfamiliar to their forebears 150 years ago. Indeed, it pre-dates the sinking of deep mines in the 19th Century.

The reaction has also shown how much less tolerant and phlegmatic we have become when faced with industrial injury and death. Only just over a generation ago, when 50,000 men worked in Welsh mines, there was a small but regular annual death total  in ones, twos and threes among miners as a result of roof falls, gas explosions, machinery accidents and other causes. Individual tragedies each one, they did not evoke the response seen in the past weeks to Cilybebyll but were accepted as part of the risks of the job.

The same is true of deaths in the Services. Although there has only been one year since the second world war when no British serviceman or woman has been killed in action, it is only of late that each death in our new wars has been mourned publicly, whether through the presence of sympathisers on the streets of Wootton Bassett or the naming and picturing on television news bulletins of every individual killed by sniper’s bullet or roadside bomb.

We also seek to commemorate fallen servicemen in a more long-lasting way, too. After the two great wars of the 20th Century fallen combatants were only randomly commemorated on war memorials in the centres of towns and villages, in church plaques or in books of commemoration. Many no doubt have no memorial. Every individual who has fallen in conflicts since 1948 is now listed, however, in chronological order on the stone columns of the National Memorial Arboretum near Lichfield in Staffordshire which was opened as recently as 2007. A huge 150 acre site where 50,000 trees have been planted, it now attracts more than 300,000 visitors a year.

Yet, if one – undoubtedly brave – group of individuals is remembered in this way, emphasising quite rightly how much greater value is nowadays placed on every life, why not others who risked life and limbs in dangerous occupations? Perhaps as a way of bringing the same attention  to the sacrifices many families in Wales have made in the exploitation of our mineral resources there should now be an equivalent to the Staffordshire memorial but dedicated to all those who have lost their lives in industrial accidents.

We do, of course, already have some specific monuments, including the moving one at Aberfan, and  most recently, the large steel statue of a miner looking across to Six Bells village in memory of that disaster. There are also less striking memorials on the sites of other disasters. What we lack, however, is a memorial that could act as a place of remembrance and a focus for reflection for the families of all those who have died in industrial accidents, and sadly of those in the future whose fate this will inevitably be. Nor need it be confined exclusively to mining – steel, chemicals, oil and many other industries have high risks, as indeed do many other occupations.

Such a monument could, like the services memorial take the form of an arboretum and incorporate some central buildings tracing the history of some of the big events that lie behind its creation, together with books of remembrance. Location would be crucial. It would be hard to site it in the Valleys themselves without making it too specific to one location or to the mining industry, so a location somewhere more neutral would be needed.

A central location in Wales would reflect the losses suffered in slate and mining, too, in the north but unfortunately in Wales a central location happens to be further away from centres of population than anywhere else, unlike the populous English Midlands. Given its  much greater population and industrial density, and proximity for visitors, the choice would have to be south Wales, possibly somewhere on the coast in the Vale of Glamorgan or maybe within Bute Park in Cardiff. This could offer a place of pleasant pilgrimage for those affected and not just of painful memories.

A memorial could also in a symbolic way bring to people in Wales a sense of closure as regards their historic heavy industries. Though we retain some mining and a still significant steel industry, they are generally not the dangerous places – thanks to health and safety – they once were. Accidents are now rigorously investigated and companies fined and made to pay compensation where things go wrong, with company directors facing, in theory at any rate, prison terms for serious offences.

By commemorating all those who have died in dreadful accidents in the past we might make it easier for our society to move on to the new cleaner, and knowledge intensive industries that will be the future.

Rhys David is a trustee of the IWA and writes on business and economic affairs.

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