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Death on Glyn Clydach curve

This excellently researched article by Phil John reminds us that the dangers of coal mining weren’t limited to underground.

At the beginning of the 20th century the village of Bryncoch, near Neath, was centred on a main road and a few adjacent streets. The main enterprise in the area at this time was coal mining and just outside the village was the site of a large colliery (Bryncoch RFC now play their rugby on playing fields that were once the site of the Main Colliery’s No. 1 Pit.) Originally the site of a Quaker-owned pit sunk by the eminent engineer William Kirkhouse, No.1 Pit has been known by different names over the centuries. In common with most mining endeavours of its time the site had a shocking safety record, the worst accident occurring in 1859 when 26 colliers lost their lives when water inundated the mine.

The Main Colliery Company Limited succeeded a previous operating company in June 1899 and, among other colliery properties, it took on the ownership of the Main Colliery at Dyffryn, Bryncoch. On Thursday 20 September 1906 a collision between a Main Colliery Company locomotive and trolley cost the lives of three men. Five other men escaped with nothing more than bruises while two more were injured, one severely. The bodies of the men killed were found in a “shocking condition”; even so their mutilated bodies were returned to their homes. The men that were killed in this dreadful accident were John Nicholls, of New Rd, Skewen, aged 37, a labourer married with children; Thomas Brown, of 13 Woodman Place, Skewen, aged 59, a labourer married with a grown-up family, and John Dunn, of Ashton's Lodging House, Neath, aged 67, a labourer and single man.

It was not that colliery rules were overlooked that let the men down, it was the customs and practices which the men were familiar with that were to seal their fate. It was the custom and practice that when the last locomotive left transporting miners home the points at Dyffryn were turned into Dyffryn siding. With the points so turned any trucks that might ‘run wild’ from the pit head would go into the siding and not down the steep incline which led to Skewen. Another practice was to use a trolley at the end of a shift to take any remaining men down the incline to Skewen after the last steam engine had left.

On the day in question the regular colliery foreman was absent and an acting engine-driver was in charge of the locomotive. Charles Dobbs, a platelayer, was in charge in the absence of the regular foreman and William Lewis was the acting engine-driver. Not knowing if the locomotive was coming back to the pit Dobbs sent an employee by the name of Phillips to find out. When Phillips returned he said he didn’t know as John Williams, the engine stoker (who was also the points-man) didn’t know if it was coming back. Phillips put a trolley on the rails on the road for Skewen anyway. The points at Dyffryn siding situated near the Vicarage would tell them if the engine was coming back that night. At the end of the shift Dobbs and nine others got into the trolley to go home, the points having indicated to the men that the engine was not coming up again that night. Meanwhile, at the Skewen end, Lewis was preparing to return to No.1 Pit where a mechanical engineer had been left behind. As the trolley approached a section of the colliery’s railway line known as the ‘Glyn Clydach Curve’ Dobbs saw the engine coming and called out “The engine's coming - for God's sake, jump off." The ten men were so cramped in the trolley, however, that they could not all jump at once. The three men that died were in different parts of the trolley which was pushed forty yards backwards from the crash point. John Dunn, who had only started working for the Company that day, was run over by the locomotive and had his head nearly severed from his body. Thomas Brown also suffered a severe head wound but the injuries to Brown and John Nicholls were mainly to the lower part of the body.

Present at the inquest held at Skewen Police Station were Mr Howel Cuthbertson, Coroner; Mr J. Dyer Lewis, His Majesty's Inspector of Mines and Mr White, Assistant Inspector. Mr Matthew Arnold appeared for the relatives and Mr Vaughan Price, General Manager, represented the Main Colliery Company. Charles Dobbs was the first witness called. He confirmed that they [the labourers] finished work about five o’clock and got into the trolley to go down to Skewen. There were no written rules in connection with the working of the trolley. Dobbs estimated the engine was about 50 yards away when he first saw it. He applied the trolley brake and shouted to the men to jump off. The next witness, who survived the collision unscathed, stated that he thought the trolley was travelling at about six or seven miles an hour. The engine was coming up fast, steam was up but he didn’t know whether the steam was full on or not. The Coroner confirmed that the witness did not hear an engine whistle before the crash. When called Phillips confirmed he was sent by Dobbs to see if the engine was coming back. As he wasn’t sure if it was or not they would check the points at Dyffryn sidings. He had also tried to stop the trolley with the brake-sticks before he jumped. William Lewis, the engine-driver, stated that his mate turned the points at Dyffryn sidings but that it was not necessarily an indication that the engine was not coming back. He would not have come back had it not been for a request to transport home a mechanical engineer. Lewis was of the opinion that the train was travelling about six or seven miles per hour and that the trolley was only four yards away when he saw it, shut off the steam and applied the engine brake. Mr White questioned Lewis and queried why, if he [Lewis] had applied the brake and the engine pulled up in twice its own length, then why had the trolley been pushed nearly forty yards [twenty-five yards of which were on the rails] and smashed to pieces? Lewis did not answer. Mr White then asked Lewis why it was that he saw the trolley so much later than his mate. Again, Lewis did not answer. When asked by Mr White if he should have blown the whistle when approaching the curve Lewis replied that it was not the custom to do so. The Coroner’s Inquest delivered a verdict of Accidental Death with a recommendation to keep the engine’s whistle blowing when negotiating curves. 

Dunn, Brown and Nicholls were buried at the same time in Skewen’s parish church, St John’s. A newspaper reported that “The funerals were more largely attended than any other in the locality since the internment of the Cwrt Herbert [another of the company’s collieries where fatalities had occurred] victims.”  Mrs Susan Nicholls, widow of John Henry Nicholls, failed in her claim for £200 compensation from the Main Colliery Company, the adjudicating Judge ruling that “the evidence did not support the allegations of negligence” on the part of the Main Colliery Company.

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