South Wales, Iron and Coal – Donetsk and Aberfan

Rhondda Valley Wales

“The Naming of Cats is a difficult matter,
It isn’t just one of your holiday games;
You may think at first I’m as mad as a hatter
When I tell you, a cat must have three different names.” – T.S.Eliot

Leaving Vaynor my pal had another interesting story for me about a Welsh industrialist, a man called John Hughes who actually was a Welshman rather than an English industrialist, born in Merthyr Tydfil, Wales, where his father was head engineer at the Crawshay’s Cyfarthfa Ironworks.

He was so successful that by the 1840s he had made his reputation and his fortune by patenting a number of inventions in armaments and armour plating.  By the age of twenty-eight he owned a shipyard and eight years later a foundry in nearby Newport.  During the 1850s he won worldwide recognition for the iron cladding of wooden warships for the British Admiralty.

cyfarthfa_ironworks-by-penry_williams_1825

Now we are coming to the best part of the story –  In 1868 Hughes received a commission from the Imperial Russian Government of Alexander II for the plating of a Russian naval fortress and a concession to develop a metal works industry in the Country.  No mean feat I imagine, there must have been a lot of competition from nearby Prussia with Otto Von Bismarck’s industrialisation policy of Blut und Eissen.

Hughes formed the New Russia Company Ltd. and in the summer of 1870, at the age of fifty-five, he moved with his family to live in Russia. He sailed with eight ships, with not only all the equipment necessary to establish a metal works but also much of the skilled labour, a group of about a hundred hand-picked specialist iron workers and miners  from South Wales.

donetsk

He quickly identified a suitable site for development in the Ukraine and started to build a modern metal works that had eight blast furnaces – a huge financial investment for that time. During the 1870s collieries were constructed, iron ore mines were sunk and brick-works and other facilities including a railway infrastructure were established to make the works a self-sufficient industrial development.

The factory complex gave its name to a new town – Yuzovska or in English (Welsh if you prefer) Hughesovka  and Hughes personally provided a hospital, schools, bath houses, tea rooms, a fire brigade and an Anglican church. The land around the metal works quickly grew to become an industrial and cultural centre in the region and by the start of the First-World-War the works were the largest in the Russian Empire, producing three-quarters of all Russian iron.

donetsk

Just a few years later the Bolshevik Revolution Reds chased the Hughes family out of Russia but during the Soviet period the steel industry was expanded. In 1924, it was renamed Stalino and It was renamed again in 1961 as Donetsk, the city today remains an important centre for coal mining and the steel industry.

I have always been fascinated with the way that in Russia they just rename places on a whim.  St Petersburg to Leningrad and back again, Tsaritsyn to Volgograd to Stalingrad and back to Volgograd.  The city of Rybinsk, two hundred miles north of Moscow has had nine name changes in the last two hundred years.  If we did this sort of thing in the UK then Grantham in Lincolnshire would be Thatcherville and Tredegar in Wales would be Kinnockstown.

After bypassing the once great town of Merthyr Tydfil (still the tenth largest in Wales) we entered the second Rhonnda Valley, Rhondda Fach and headed south towards the town of Ferndale where, after missing it the first time, we took a narrow mountain road towards the village of Llanwonno.

Now I had been to two Rhonddas this year, Ronda in Andalusia in Spain and now the two Rhondda Valleys in South Wales – three Rhonddas in fact!

On the way we stopped several times to look down into the valley below and reflect on mining history of the towns in the valleys of South Wales.  One time we stopped near an old spoil heap built dangerously high above the houses below and this was especially significant because we were close now to the fiftieth anniversary of the nearby Aberfan disaster.

On October 21st 1966 there was a terrible tragedy in South Wales when after days of heavy rain a primary school was engulfed with waste from a coal tip that had become dangerously unstable and eventually collapsed.

As the mountain slipped and the earth roared can you imagine anything so terrifying?  I don’t think that I can.  Like an earthquake perhaps as buildings are demolished or a volcanic eruption and a stream of deadly lava but instead of molten ash a stream of cold wet coal dust.  The slurry slid down Merthyr Mountain behind the village at about nine o’clock just as the school was starting the business of the day, killing one hundred and sixteen children and twenty-eight adults.  A whole generation swept away in a matter of seconds.

I can remember the day quite clearly because I think it was the first time in my life (I was twelve years old) that such an incident made an impact upon me and I recall watching the television news footage and the terrible despair of the community.  I visited the memorial cemetery there  in 1973 when I was living in Cardiff.

The old slag heaps have been stabilised now and planted over with trees to make them blend in but there is no really easy way to disguise them and even now they can be easily identified by the conical man-made peaks which do not sit so well with the undulating rhythm of the natural environment.

Old Slag Heap South Wales

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27 responses to “South Wales, Iron and Coal – Donetsk and Aberfan

  1. Oh Andrew what a horrific disaster! Like you I can’t imagine anything much worse.

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  2. A poignant post Andrew. Visited Aberfan 10 years ago with my late father in law. He wanted to show our girls the places he had grown up in (his family were all from the Welsh valleys and originally miners). His father had a back problem so “escaped” and the family moved to Somerset. Even now though my husband is apparently related to many people in this part of the world! I remember how stark and depressing the valleys were even though no longer mined. The valley sides were so steep albeit now grassed over – it was an eerie experience.

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  3. Interesting first part of the post, Andrew, I’ve learnt something new. As for Aberfan, I was younger than you but still remember hearing of the tragedy in school…. An absolute tragedy, and so avoidable

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  4. I don’t know if you watched the documentaries, but not a single person was sacked over Aberfan despite the negligence being grotesque and persistent after many warnings by many different people, including those doing the tipping.

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    • Immediately after the disaster The Town of Merthyr set up a Disaster Fund collecting approximately £1,750,000 by the time the fund closed a year later which was a huge amount in those days. Unbelievably, part of the fund was used to make the remainder of the waste tip safe and the Coal Board thereby avoided the costs of doing the job themselves. The Labour government paid back the £150,000 in 1997, although taking account of inflation this should have been £1.5m.

      Although the National Coal Board was found responsible for the disaster at an enquiry, Lord Robens, its Chairman, declared the cause of the slide to be the responsibility of the community and falsely claimed that nothing could have been done to prevent it. Robens never apologised or showed any sign of remorse. The NCB was ordered to pay compensation to the families at the rate of £500 per child and the Merthyr Vale Colliery was closed in 1989. In February 2007 the Welsh Assembly announced the donation of £2m to the Aberfan Disaster Memorial Fund, in part as recompense for the money requisitioned from the fund by the government in the immediate aftermath of the disaster.

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  5. I remember when Donetsk was a host city at EURO2012, but can’t recall John Motson speaking of its past. Great piece of trivia – cheers!

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  6. A very interesting observation about Russia (aka the former Soviet Union) renaming cities – obviously someone’s keeping track! I always think of Wales as a place of with a wild sea, rugged cliffs and coal mines but your story of the Aberfan disaster reminded me that I need to brush up on the ancient and not so old history of a country I look forward to visiting someday. Anita

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  7. Horrific and interesting details, Andrew. Isn’t man his own worst enemy?
    o_O

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  8. That’s quite a photo of the slurry flowing down into town, Andrew. One can only imagine the horror, even if it was short lived. I am reminded of photos of Mt. St. Helens and the mud flows. I flew over the mountain a couple of weeks after the eruption. Incredible destruction. I am also reminded how Welsh miners were recruited to work in the foothill mines where I lived in the late 1800s because of their mining skills. Their influence is still felt. Nevada City is known as the “Cornish Capital” of America. –Curt

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  9. You said you are avoiding politics in your blog, Mr. Petcher. But you most definitely not avoiding talking about history in such a away, that only proves my previous point – politics are unavoidable.

    Oh, and I knew the history of Donetsk founding, so I was prepared. Let us start with the first correction his name was John Hughes, not Thomas.

    “Hughes formed the New Russia Company Ltd. and in the summer of 1870”

    Correction – he formed Novorossiyan Company (rus. “Новороссийское общество каменноугольного, железного и рельсового производств”). Not “New” Russian. Novorossiya is a historical territory to the north of the Black Sea.

    “He quickly identified a suitable site for development in the Ukraine”

    Ukraine? There was no such a thing back then – neither a country, nor a territorial unit. As the name of his company implies, he established his metal works in Novorossiya territory.

    “Just a few years later the Bolshevik Revolution Reds chased the Hughes family out of Russia”

    No, they didn’t. As you probably know, the whole territory became an active military theatre between the Whites, Ukrainian Nationalists, Anarchists, Makhnovites and Reds. Sons of Hughes and the vast majority of the British personnel decided to evacuate long before they even saw any Reds, and, seeing as their government won’t re-invade newly Soviet Union, which nationalized ALL private property, decided to suck up and carry on with their lives.

    “I have always been fascinated with the way that in Russia they just rename places on a whim. ”

    On the… “whim”? There was nothing whimsical here. If you fail to understand what befell Russia throughout the previous century, what truly world-impacting events transpired on our soil, what the people did and accomplish – then, yes, it is all just a “whim” for you, who knows no the reason.

    “ If we did this sort of thing in the UK then Grantham in Lincolnshire would be Thatcherville and Tredegar in Wales would be Kinnockstown.”

    Because “Civilized West” ™ is not affected by such foolisness – of course! Nothing really changes there – never, really!

    OTOH… London used to be Londinium, York began as Eborakum and then became Jórvík. Dublin’s proper name is Baile Átha Cliath, although it began as Scandinavian town.

    While there I can’t quite remember any Ego’s-ville (i.e. a city named after a person) on the British proper territory, surely – other parts of the Empire had plenty of them: Sydney (Australia), Wellington (New Zealand) and Vancouver (Canada) to name just a few.

    As for the lack to the Thatchervilles in your country – to rename a city in someone’s honour said person must deserve that by his or her accomplishments. How much did Margaret Thatcher expand the territory of the UK? How many new towns did she found? How many new higher education facilities, schools and kindergartens, accessible by the whole of population did she create? What’s the number of new mines, factories, shipyards and other industries benefitting a huge swathes of her own people did she construct?

    If Thatcher’s years are passes for the “Moment of Pride and Glory” for you and your country, then it’s no wonder that there is nothing renamed in her honour. And if she’s the best that have happened in that many years to your land – no wonder there were no renaming.

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    • Thanks for the error spot. That was a bad mistake.
      I call it Ukraine because readers will then know roughly where I am geographically as it were just as when I write about Ephesus I call it Turkey not Asia Minor or Ionia, I talk about Berlin, not Prussia and Rome, not the Papal States. Does that make sense?

      Mostly good stuff here from you but you let your guard down and give yourself away in just one line – “How much did Margaret Thatcher expand the territory of the UK?”
      You see expansion, world domination and oppression is not as important to us in the west as it is to Russia!

      And anyway, Thatcher was about closing industry down not building more!

      Now, if you want to be offended some more then may I suggest a previous post of mine – https://anotherbagmoretravel.wordpress.com/2012/09/25/krakow-nowa-huta/

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      • “I call it Ukraine because readers will then know roughly where I am geographically as it were just as when I write about Ephesus I call it Turkey not Asia Minor or Ionia, I talk about Berlin, not Prussia and Rome, not the Papal States. Does that make sense?”

        You could, as a hint, just add the “modern” name of this or that location in parenthesis.

        “Mostly good stuff here from you but you let your guard down and give yourself away in just one line – “How much did Margaret Thatcher expand the territory of the UK?”
        You see expansion, world domination and oppression is not as important to us in the west as it is to Russia!”

        […]

        Now, after a bout of good hearty laugh, ah, can I ask something? When “you in the West” (c) were giving such ego-centric names and topographic designations like Rhodesia, Lake Victoria, Louisiana and the gregarious example of a certain city’s renaming – were you truly seeing “expansion, world domination and oppression” (c) as “not as important” (c) to you?

        I mean – seriously? You consider yourself for some sort of cuddly fluffy Western bunnies who, even today, won’t harm a fly? Do you take the entire world for fools or amnesiacs?

        “And anyway, Thatcher was about closing industry down not building more!”

        I knew that. I was sarcastic. The one who do even a quarter from my list truly deserves his or her name immortalized, especially in the people themselves feel this way.

        “Now, if you want to be offended some more then may I suggest a previous post of mine –”

        First of all – I already read that, as well as anything else Russophobic on your blog (I know how to use search engine or to click “Russia” tag). Second – I don’t want to be offended. I want for you to start thinking, really critically thinking for yourself. I want for you to answer for you words.

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      • I’m Thinking here! Always Thinking here!

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  10. I’ve yet to visit Aberfan, Andrew, but we’ll certainly make a trip there in 2017. We had a week’s worth of TV programmes about the disaster to mark the 50th anniversary. I was too young to remember it happening, but my mother spoke about it a lot.

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