Remembering the Cambrian: Trimming the coalface for Christmas
Continuing our series by John Geraint, author of ‘The Great Welsh Auntie Novel’, and one of Wales’s most experienced documentary-makers. ‘John On The Rhondda’ is based on John Geraint’s popular Rhondda Radio talks and podcasts.
When did you ‘trim up’ this Christmas? In the last couple of years, all of my friends have been putting their decorations up earlier and earlier. We seem to need that extra bit of cheer just as soon as we can get it, don’t we?
As I was putting the lights on my tree, I was thinking about a letter that I’ve kept safe for forty years now, a letter from a listener. You see, the best thing about working in the media is when the audience responds.
These days, it’s phone calls or texts, sometimes an email. Back then, we used to get handwritten letters, and this one in particular… well, you’ll see for yourself why I’ve treasured it ever since, even though it’s got a bitter twist in the tail…
The letter came from a proud Rhondda miner, Mr William Coombes of the Terraces in Llwynypia. He’d written in to BBC Radio Wales, where I began my career, because that December we’d asked listeners to share their stories of Christmas past.
The prettiest sight
This is how he began:
“Never a Christmas comes without one special memory for me of a strange and wonderful moment deep underground. There were some great characters underground in those days. I worked with them for 38 years and I don’t think we will see their likes again.”
Mr Coombes went on to describe one shift with his fellow miners.
“We were at the coalface when the shout came ‘Grub up!’ We only had 20 minutes, so out came the Tommy Boxes with our bread and cheese. One of the boys was eating a raw onion that stank the place out. Anyway, Christmas was only a week away, and I said, for a joke, ‘What about trimming the coalface?’
“Most of them had a good laugh, but the joke stuck with me and my butty, Josh Wilkins. As we walked out at the end of the shift, we decided that however much they laughed at us, we would bring down all the decorations we could get.
“Christmas Eve came, and my butty and me went down the pit with the trimmings. It was the afternoon shift and when the other fellows knew what we were up to, they all agreed to get the work done early.
“We all put our backs into it, jobs like prop drawing and clearing the coal from the face. Everything went according to plan and the time came to trim the coal face. We had the old electric lamps at that time.
“We hung them on wooden supports and put coloured paper through the lamp glasses. Then we dangled the trimmings from one pit prop to another. In the darkness of the mine, the effect was wonderful.
“It was the prettiest sight I’ve ever seen. And to finish it all off we sat down and sang carols. It was something I shall never forget. That Christmas Eve had a magic touch about it.”
And then, right at the bottom of the page, William Coombes wrote one final line – simple, heart-breaking, devastating. Because yes, the pit where all this happened was the Cambrian Colliery in Clydach Vale.
“Ten years later,” said Mr Coombes, “in 1965, many of my pals were killed in an explosion at the colliery.”
Yes, on May 17th, 1965, thirty-one men died in an explosion underground at the Cambrian. It was the day the Mines Rescue team from Dinas sped up Court Street, too late.
The day that Wern Street was filled with the sirens of ambulances. The day when women waited silently for news at the pithead. The day when hope failed for so many, and night came with no comfort.
I have a memory of that day. I was just seven years old in 1965, playing at School Dinner Time out the back of our house on Tylacelyn Road in Penygraig. I heard a bang, and went in and asked my mother about it.
I was at least a mile, as the crow flies, away from the pit. Could I really have heard the explosion? As a grown up, it’s always seemed unlikely to me.
But after I spoke about this in an episode of ‘John On The Rhondda’ last year, others who were safe above ground in mid-Rhondda that afternoon got in touch to tell me that they’d heard it too.
The colliers of Cambrian – like miners all over Wales back in the day – knew the deadly danger they faced on a daily basis. Their Annwn, their Hades, was choked with firedamp and its deadly cousins. Blackdamp, whitedamp, stinkdamp, afterdamp.
A gassy underworld primed, at any moment, to explode onto the surface of our lives, exactly as it did at the Cambrian Colliery. But they were also sustained by the camaraderie they forged underground, the solidarity of comrades at work.
Most were determined that their sons would never have to toil down there; but many too – like my own grandfather – swore that, if they could have their time again, they’d choose exactly the same working life.
William Coombes and his butties celebrated Christmas in a unique, magical way.
As we think of them this Christmas, let’s not forget the true price of coal; but in this season of joy and goodwill to all, let’s think too of the warmth they created, not just in the mineral they dug, but amongst themselves, for their families, and for the wider society – how their ingenuity and intelligence, and their determination to build a better world, could transform the grimmest of circumstances into something shining with hope for the future.
‘John On The Rhondda’ is broadcast at about 3.15pm as part of David Arthur’s Wednesday Afternoon Show on Rhondda Radio
All episodes of the ‘John On The Rhondda’ podcast are available here
John Geraint’s debut in fiction, ‘The Great Welsh Auntie Novel’, is available from all good bookshops, or directly from Cambria Books
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