CNN Photos

A personal connection to a 1913 catastrophe

I was born in Senghenydd, Wales, in the back bedroom of No. 10 Caerphilly Road at a time when most mothers had babies in the hospitals of bigger neighboring towns.

My early childhood was spent in a small Welsh village made up of hard men and kind women who talked about rugby and the neighbors.

I remember first seeing these photographs as a teenager. A series of 25 somber postcards, in stark black and white, taken the year before the outbreak of World War I.

More than anything else in my youth, these photographs gave historical significance to the place where I was born.

They show the aftermath of a catastrophe that occurred on October 14, 1913, and defined the small Welsh mining village.

At 10 minutes after 8 a.m., a deafening noise reverberated through the valleys, turning heads in the capital of Cardiff, 11 miles away.

In the few seconds it took to regain their senses, the villagers came to a terrifying realization; there had been another explosion at the mine.

A mining accident in 1901 had left 81 men dead. But this one was much worse.

The accident at the Universal Colliery mine stole the lives of 439 men, including eight 14-year-old boys. A community of mothers, widows and fatherless children were left to rebuild lives, find income and somehow learn to live without their loved ones.

To date, it remains the deadliest coal mining accident in British history.

Senghenydd was built in the early 1900s as men flocked into the Aber Valley, hoping to earn a living working deep underground in the coal mines. The miners and their families lived in cramped purpose-built hotels, row houses and huts. At the end of their shifts, they gathered in pubs, drinking, laughing and occasionally fighting.

In those days, around 5,000 people lived in Senghenydd. In the 100 years following, the population has remained much the same in this unglamorous, working-class community.

I can’t remember how I first heard about the disaster. It wasn’t ever a major topic of conversation in my family.

Over the years, I would try to pry information from my family, but they never said too much; any details came slowly. One day, I found out that my great-grandfather had been scheduled to work the shift that tragic morning in 1913. But he had called in sick and was left as one of the fortunate miners still alive.

The other people of “Sneggy” didn’t talk much about the disaster, either.  Maybe they didn’t know, or chose to forget– or more likely, did not want to make Senghenydd into a shrine or a victim.

But a definitive record survives: this series of 25 postcards.

The numbered photographs have only the photographer’s name and presumed address, “Benton, 138 George St., Glasgow,” handwritten on the bottom right, with accompanying short captions.

The photographer would have likely made a 10-hour journey from Scotland by train, accompanied by a cumbersome camera and large glass film plates.

I have been unable to find any more information about this mystery photographer, including other photographs he or she may have created. Now, there are no living survivors of the accident who can speak about the unknown details of the person who created this body of work. I’ve worked with a professional photo researcher who also came up empty. As far as I can tell, Benton is only survived by these postcards.

Photography is the powerful, permanent record of history. Without Benton's work, there would be no connection to what the villagers experienced, and I couldn't fully understand the place of my birth. They also inspired me to make photography my trade.

This series is moving and informative and can proudly stand alongside important photojournalism of any era. Yet the photos were made by someone who has left no photographic trace before or after Senghenydd.

I left the village in the late 1960s as a 5-year-old when my father took a job with better prospects in England. Grandma May couldn’t comprehend how her eldest daughter and first grandchild could live so far away.

In the decades since, our big Welsh-Italian clan, the Anzanis, have all moved away.

My grandfather ran an ironmongers business in the square. (You can see the building in the top left corner of postcards 21, 22 and 23.) In the ‘70s, a hypermarket emerged in nearby Caerphilly, crushing many of the local businesses. My grandfather was eventually forced to close his doors, and he and my grandmother moved away.

The place is now mostly empty, lined with uniform row houses, stirred only by the occasional pensioner rolling shopping bags, stray dog or teenagers idly passing time. What was once a thriving mining village has since turned quiet.

- Simon Barnett, Director of Photography for CNN Digital