DAVID JOHN MICHAEL 1882-1960
By Dilys Fraser nee Michael
David John Michael was my grandfather, he was for me one of the most important people in my upbringing. Although he left school at the age of 12, he continued his education at night school after a long shift in the local coal mine (The Marine Colliery, Cwm). He was the most erudite man I ever knew and he was my first singing teacher. (In my family singing is a way of life). David always sang the romantic male lead in the local amateur opera company. His mother Ann had toured America with Madam Novello Davies, and his sister Kate was an opera singer.
Last August when my husband and I celebrated our Golden Wedding, my cousin Margaret, who lived all her life within a few miles of our grandparents, (I did not) told me about a pile of family papers she had, they eventually reached me in December. Among them was the major part of a preliminary report that David John prepared regarding his part in the rescue operations after the explosion at the pit on March 1st 1927. In all the years I spent with my grandparents they never talked about it, we knew of the disaster almost by osmosis, but only now have I been able to piece together the full story.
David John had started work at the Marine colliery when he was 12. His father had been a “sinker” i.e. he had dug it and many others. But eventually David and then David John both became Certificated Undermanagers.
The Marine colliery was one of the most modern pits, but after the general strike of 1926 much of the machinery was in need of servicing. This was ongoing. The pit had two shafts leading to two almost separate areas called No1 and No2. David John was in charge of No1 area.
At 1. 30 am on the 1st of March 1927 David John was awoken by his door bell ringing. On opening it he was informed that he was needed at once as something terrible had happened at the east side of No1 Pit. He dressed and arrived at the colliery at 2.15 am. (I wonder how he did this as he lived well over a mile from the colliery entrance and in torrential rain).
David John at once went with a party to collect his lamp (A Davy Lamp) and was told they could not go down No1 pit so they went down No 2 Pit where the manager Mr McVicar was already. There follows much evidence of search parties going up and down both shafts, looking for men and the site and cause of the explosion. At one time he was informed that a group of survivors had reached the Pit head, so David John went to interview them even though several needed urgent medical attention. One was his uncle, he did not say who he was, but now having accessed the report of the inquiry I found that one of the group was William Michael, who had become very distressed underground by the Carbon Monoxide gas, his mates helped him to the shaft, and safety. William, b, 1865, was the uncle, a younger brother of David and John, (a bricklayer who had lined the pit shafts) I had not been able to find him for many years so at least we now know that he was still alive.
Although the miners and underground workers were all equipped with electric lamps the search parties, all lead by senior officials had only Davy Lamps to see by. Not every search party had a canary so some of them were also overcome by gas. There was a generator for the compressed air, and signals to the surface were powered by Léclanché cells.
The searches took the groups, including the two local Doctors, through a maze of tunnels and levels, at varying depths below 404 yards down, the lowest level was known as Old Coal. The explosion was later found to have taken place in Black Vein Seam at 350 yards down. Both these seams were accessed directly from No1 pit. The other seams including Elled and Big Vein were accessed from No 2 pit, but underground they could be accessed interchangeably and were continuous with other mines, these seams ran the whole length of the Ebbw Valley. Big Black was 5 feet thick with a roof of Carboniferous limestone. This was a huge system of tunnels and cross tunnels running for hundreds of yards, they found some miners alive but injured, they were given first aid and Oxygen. They found one group who were totally oblivious of the mayhem going on around them. They found doors blown off their hinges, they immediately replaced them, they were aware that air was blowing swiftly through the system; this was from the compressed air pipes which were shattered. In some places their paths were blocked by heavy falls of rock, and David John was able (With his knowledge of the pit) to direct the parties to the area another way. Eventually they began to find many casualties, in one place a dead pony and his driver, in another a man dead with his mouth over the compressed air pipe, and then another group, some dead and others barely alive. My grandfather gave instructions for the removal of all the men.
Finally after climbing over several rock falls they came to the place where the explosion had occurred, there were many dead, all were badly burned and many had broken limbs or necks. What puzzled the inquiry was why one of the miners had the wrong lamp.
As my grandfather’s preliminary notes are incomplete we can only go as far as the notes go. We do not know how long he was underground; we do know he went up and down several times. It took until March 11th to get all the bodies out. But I have now accessed a summary of the inquiry held at Tredegar town Hall. The cause of the explosion could not be fully ascertained but the most likely explanation was that a heavy fall of rock released Carbon Monoxide and Methane (My Grandfather uses CO and CH4) and a rogue spark would have ignited the methane.
The casualty list was 52 miners killed plus several ponies and at least two Canaries and a Linnet.
Now that we have discovered all this about our grandfather both my brothers and cousins and myself are so proud of him. David John Michael served at that Pit until he retired, he was Undermanager for thirty three years. When he retired the King awarded him an MBE.
David John’s father David and uncle John dug The Marine Pit in 1888, it started producing coal about 1889, it finally closed in 1989, the last pit in the Ebbw valley.
David John died in June 1960, a few weeks before I was married to James Fraser.