by Carolyn Jacob
Many tragically lost their lives while working in the Ynysfach Blast Furnaces, but a greater number died sheltering in the old Ironworks here.
In February 1866 the Merthyr Express had the following story entitled:- Two More Men Suffocated At Cyfarthfa – describing the blackened and shrivelled corpses of two men found in the Ynysfach Works. The men were probably drunk when they crept into a warm place near the boilers. They suffocated by inhaling the carbonic acid gas and then when steam was got up they were literally roasted.
Again on 23 July 1870 the headline was:- Shocking Death of Two Miners. On Monday morning when the engineer at the Ynysfach Works was going his rounds to examine the boilers, he saw two men lying in one of the gas-holes. They were perfectly roasted, and probably did not survive long after entering the place of their doom. They came from Aberdare on Saturday night, no doubt for the purpose of a spree, ‘as they were seen in China’ late on Sunday night, and having spent all their money, were glad to get a lay down anywhere. The mystery is how they got into the works, as they are surrounded by a wall several feet high. In June 1874 there was a shocking accident which resulted in the immediate death of two men and the burning of two others so severely that they were not expected to live.
At the beginning of the Twentieth century the homeless, destitute and generally disreputable elements of the town of Merthyr Tydfil made their home in the Ynysfach Coke Ovens. This was their refuge but many died here too. After the Ynysfach Works closed in 1879 this area became infamous as a ‘den of debauchery’ where the ‘wild-ones’ of Merthyr Tydfil slept rough. The police steered well clear of the place and the first Chief Constable in 1908 suggested that dynamiting this whole area would help in the ‘cleaning up’ of the town. In 1900 it was reported that as many as 50 persons were to be found living around the Coke Ovens, and fatalities were common.
Ynysfach was also the main stomping ground of Redmond Coleman, the Merthyr Tydfil legend, who would fight anyone, anywhere, anytime. It was here that Redmond had his legendary fight with Tommy Lyons one Saturday night. The ‘battle’ was reputed to have lasted over three hours. If there was a grudge to be settled then the Ynysfach Coke Ovens were the place to fight it out. There are many stories, such as the time he and Danny Hegarty punched themselves into a state of exhaustion until they lay side by side on the Coke Ovens gasping curses at each other. Redmond Coleman is reputed to have said that he would never leave Merthyr but always haunt the Coke Ovens.
However, the White Lady of Ynysfach is the best known of all the various ghosts of Ynysfach. The Merthyr Historian Volume Eight contains the story of the Ynysfach Murder by Eira Smith, and establishes the notoriety of the area around the Iron Bridge and Ynysfach. The police regarded the area as being a den of thieves, robbers and prostitutes. Such an ‘unfortunate’ was Mary Ann Rees, who was murdered by her younger lover. In 1908 after plying her trade in the town, Mary then returned to her friends by the Coke Ovens with food and drink. However, after eating his fill, her younger boyfriend, William Foy, decided to go into town by himself and, suspecting that he was chasing after a younger woman, Mary ran after him. She was later found down a disused furnace with her neck broken.
Did her boyfriend deliberately push her down the disused furnace or did she just accidently fall with or without a quick push? The local police claimed that when they came across Foy he was in a distressed state and told them that he had committed a murder and killed Mary Ann.
In May 1909 William Foy was hung in Swansea gaol for her murder. He wrote a moving letter from prison begging for forgiveness. It is still said today that Mary Ann Rees is the White Lady of Ynysfach who haunts the area around Merthyr College. There have been a number of sightings of the White Lady and there are some who strongly believe in her existence. She is imagined as a sad lady in a long white dress, but there are no stories of her causing any harm to any human being.
In the late 1980s the caretaker of Merthyr College looked back at the building from the car park after locking up and saw a distressed lady looking out of the window. He rushed back thinking she must be very anxious after being locked in an empty building and re-entered the building. However, although he searched and searched this white faced, worried looking lady was never found and did not seem to have existed. The volunteers of the Engine House have come across a number of strange incidents, especially in the basement area, where a vague female figure has been seen or someone pushing past them has been sensed or felt. Paranormal investigator Colin Hyde claims to have questioned her and discovered that she thinks that her death had accidental causes. Mary Ann Rees is therefore a sad figure, who has no thought of exacting any form of revenge.
Many thanks to Carolyn Jacob for the above article.