Merthyr Historian vol. 28

The Merthyr Tydfil Historical Society are pleased to announce the publication of volume 28 of the Merthyr Historian.

The book will be officially launched on 11 December 2017 at The Redhouse (the Old Town Hall) in Y Faenor Room (The Gallery) at 2.30pm.
Details of the latest volume are below.
Volume 28
Christine Trevett & Huw Williams, Editors
Published 2017 – ISBN 978-0-9929810-2-0
An Editorial Statement
1. Ars Gratia Artis: Popular Culture and the Making of Modern Merthyr Tydfil by Huw Williams
2. Rediscovering J.O. Francis (1882-1956) The Distinguished Merthyr-born Playwright by Mary Owen
3. Pilgrimage of a Vagabond: The Harry H. W. Southey Story by Christopher Parry
4. More Than Just a Bed-cover, More Than Just a Dress by Christine Trevett
5. Disestablishment of the Church in Wales: An Anniversary by David Lee
6. Isaac Craigfryn Hughes of Quakers Yard: Colliery, Culture and the Common Man by Christine Trevett
7. William Warde Fowler: From Gwaelod y Garth House to Ancient Rome by Christine Trevett
8. The Royal Crescent Allotments 1917-2017 by Hywel Mathews
9. George Jones (Talfyrydd): A Forgotten Local Historian by Brynley Roberts
10. The Taff in Poetry and Paint: An Appreciation of “A Fold in the River by Philip Gross and Valerie Coffin Price” by the Editors
11. Biography of Contributors

Railway Accident at Merthyr Station

143 years ago today, on the afternoon of Saturday 16 May 1874, a scheduled passenger train left Brecon for Merthyr at 1.50pm, and following a few unavoidable delays arrived just after 3.25pm, eight minutes late, at the Great Western Railway Station at Merthyr Tydfil. The train was just reaching the end of the inner platform when it was hit by great force from behind by twenty-one fully-laden coal trucks.

At approximately 3.00pm that afternoon, a coal train of twenty-four fully-laden trucks had left the same platform at the Station heading for Swansea. At that time it was the policy of the Great Western Railway Company to work mineral trains going up the incline to the Aberdare Tunnel with an extra engine at the rear or at the front of the train to help propel the train up the incline. On this day, the train that had left Merthyr station was in one of these latter configurations.

On such occasions, it was the duty of the guards to be at separate positions at each end of the train to help operate the brakes with the brake-man. For some reason, the guard on this particular train was travelling with his colleague in the engine at the front, leaving the brake-man alone in the rear van. Shortly after the train had entered the Aberdare Tunnel, a coupling somewhere near the front of the train broke. The guards were alerted to this by the fact that the front part of the train suddenly accelerated. Having brought the train to a standstill the guards ran back along the track to find that more than half the train – twenty-one trucks in all had become detached from the train and had run back along the line on which they had just travelled. Between the Great Western Station and the Aberdare Tunnel, the railway line rises over three-quarters of a mile in a series of inclines ranging between 1 in 45 and 1 in 70 gradients, so this, coupled with the weight of the loads being carried, meant that the runaway trucks were accelerating the whole time along the track. The train was travelling at such a speed that the signalman at the Cyfarthfa Crossing and another signalman at the Rhydycar Junction, just half a mile from the station, were powerless to do anything to stop the train’s progress or to warn those at the Great Western Station.

Within minutes the trucks hit the passenger train. It is estimated that they were, by this time, travelling in excess of 40 miles an hour. They hit the passenger train with a force of approximately 300 tons of deadweight travelling at a mile a minute, and the sound of the crash was heard over a 300 yard radius. The force of the impact smashed the passenger coaches and forced the locomotive engine ‘The Elephant’ through the buffers at the end of the track, across the platform at the end of it, through the front of the station and into the road beyond before finally crashing into the high retaining wall at John Street, penetrating the wall to a depth of about four feet and damaging the foundations of the Grosvenor Hotel in John Street.

The first carriage on the train, immediately behind the engine tender, took the main force of the concussion that travelled along the train, and it was reduced to splinters, the only portion left for identification being the framework which was embedded beneath the guard’s van. Fortunately there were no passengers in this carriage – it is obvious that if there had been anyone in the carriage they would have been killed outright. Next was a composite (a mixed first and second class) carriage which came to rest on top of the guard’s van, amazingly the only damage this carriage sustained was broken windows and doors, and passengers in this carriage sustained only minor injuries, two further third-class carriages followed this, but the final third-class carriage which took the main brunt of the collision was almost totally demolished. It was in this carriage that most of the injuries occurred.

In all 52 people were badly injured, most people suffering from fractures and cuts and bruises. A large number of people also suffered from the effects of shock. The most serious injuries were sustained by the recently married Mrs Stephens of Pontypridd who suffered serious fractures to both legs, resulting in them both being amputated below the knee.

Miss Sarah Davies of Coed-cae Court, Twynyrodyn, also sustained fractures to both legs and needed one of her legs amputated below the knee. Mrs Elizabeth Morgan, aged 30, of Cefn Coed, also had both legs fractured and needed one leg amputated below the knee. Unfortunately, despite the best efforts of the doctors, Mrs Morgan’s injuries were far worse than originally thought, and she died of her injuries a week after the accident. It is miraculous that this was the only fatality. The driver of the train, David Humphreys, along with the stoker and the guard, managed to jump from the engine just as it crashed through the end of the station and sustained only minor injuries.

An artist’s impression of the crash from 1874

If you want to find out more, a fuller account of the crash appears in Merthyr Historian volume 26.

The Gruesome Ghosts of Ynysfach – a special Halloween Tale

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.

Mary Ann Rees

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.