Tag Archives: Stalingrad

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

Twin Towns

“I’ve nearly approved of the idea of twinning, because places are inevitably matched with places like them.  So if you live, say, in a stunningly beautiful medieval town… then you’ll be twinned with your exquisite European equivalent.  If you live in Warrington or St Helens then you’ll be twinned with another industrial casualty.”                                                                                                  Pete McCarthy, ‘McCarthy’s Bar’

I was interested to visit Speyer because this is the twin town of Spalding in South Holland and I had heard people talk fondly of it but had no idea of what it was like.  And what a surprise as it turned out to be, a real gem of a place with a huge cathedral and a wide main street with gaily coloured buildings and a very pleasant vibrant atmosphere.  And a very big car park, clearly sign posted (even though I did miss it the first time around, which was entirely my own fault) and with plenty of available spaces.

Speyer has been Spalding’s twin town since 1956 and I have often wondered what the process was for getting a twin town.  Perhaps it was like the draw for the third round of the FA cup when all the names go into a hat to be drawn out with each other, you know, number 36, Rugby, will be twinned with number 87, Russelheim, and so on; or perhaps it was like the UCAS University clearing house system where towns made their preferred selections and waited for performance results to see if they were successful; or perhaps it was a sort of dating service and introductory agency.  Who knows?

Anyway, the English city of Coventry started it all off and was the first ever to twin with another when it made links with Stalingrad in the Soviet Union in 1944 and is now so addicted to twinning that it has easily the most of any English town or city with a massive twenty-six twins (The capital of the Czech Republic, Prague, beats this hands down however by registering forty-six twins).  That is a lot of civic receptions and a lot of travelling expenses for the Mayor of Coventry and seems to me to be a bit greedy and unnecessary.  Perhaps even more surprising is that Sherborne in Dorset, a town of only ten thousand residents has fifteen twin towns, that is even more excessive.

Speyer has a compact centre which is dominated by the Cathedral, a number of churches that would be impressive in their own right if they were not overshadowed by the cathedral and a well restored and maintained old town gate.  In the cathedral, beneath the high altar, are the tombs of eight German emperors and kings.  This is a seriously important cathedral and the laying of the foundation stone was the decisive impetus for the development of the town in the early medieval age.  The cathedral was consecrated in 1061 but not completed until 1111.  It was the largest church of its time and, in its monumentality and significance symbolised Imperial power and Christianity and it is one of the most important Romanesque monuments from the time of the Holy Roman Empire.

What I didn’t know was that Speyer has been so important in the development of modern Christianity in Europe because in 1529 the Imperial Diet met in Speyer and agreed to reconfirm the Edict of Worms of 1521 imposing the Imperial ban on the trouble maker Martin Luther and his followers, who were causing the church all sorts of difficulties by challenging the traditions of the Catholicism.  This resolution caused great descension and the outraged imperial towns drew up a letter of protest which was delivered to the Emperor Charles V.  This Protestation at Speyer caused the separation of the Christian church and is considered to be the birth of Protestantism and from this time on the adherents of the reformation movement were called Protestants.

I thought Speyer was really very nice with big open spaces, cobbled streets and I have to say a bit like being in France which as it is only a few kilometres from the border was not really all that surprising and I had to keep reminding myself that I really was in Germany.