|Heroes of Coal: Generations of one mining family were saved by a cry of a baby girl
Next Friday marks the 98th anniversary of Britain’s worst pit disaster. Wendy Horton speaks to the descendants of a miner who worked in Senghenydd’s Universal Colliery – and their plans to make a film to remember an incident which still haunts the South Wales coalfield
FOUR hundred and thirty nine men and boys were killed when an explosion ripped through Universal Colliery in Senghenydd near Caerphilly, on October 14, 1913.
Almost a century on, the great grandson of a miner who cheated death that day, after he slept in and was late for work, has made a docu-drama about the disaster.
Freelance documentary filmmaker Andrew Gough used his own family history to retell the events of that fateful day when his great grandfather John Walters missed the start of his shift, and the explosion which ensued, because he was kept awake all night by his baby daughter’s crying.
Andrew’s idea was then brought to life through a short 15 minute docu-drama he filmed with university colleagues Paris Palmer, Ian Morley, 23, James Earing and John Shand, both 22, earning them a first class honours in a documentary, film and TV degree.
Andrew, 21, who still lives in the close knit community of Aber Valley, said: “I grew up learning about my great grandfather John Walters as my mother Sandra regularly talked about the Senghenydd pit disaster.
“She would tell the tale about how my great grandfather missed work because he had been kept awake all night by the crying of his baby daughter which was my mother’s aunty Elizabeth.
“I was often told how lucky we all were because if it hadn’t been for such a miracle, we wouldn’t have been born.
“And as my great grandfather lived to a ripe old age of 93, that meant around 96 descendants.
“I had always wanted to do something with my family connection and the history surrounding the disaster and when our final film assignment came up, we wanted something epic so we put all our efforts into it.”
Andrew and his colleagues spent months recruiting local actors like Aled Herbert, who played the part of John Walters, Cari Barley and Pobol y Cwm’s Phillip Harries who re-enacted the family drama part of the short film.
However, the main character, baby Elizabeth, ultimately responsible for the family’s good fortune, was played by Andrew’s own niece Isabelle.
Other family members, including Andrew’s mother Sandra, and some of the village’s former miners, also played their parts by giving their own, often very emotional, accounts of living with such haunted memories.
The young film crew even drafted in help from Abergavenny Youth Theatre and a team of prosthetic makeup artists and although everyone gave their time free, the film cost around £1,500 to make.
Hours of shooting took place at Rhondda Heritage Park and the Joseph Parry Cottage in Merthyr Tydfil as well as the Reform Church in Senghenydd, which was where many of the miners’ funerals took place.
Film maker Paris Palmer, 22, who works at Zipline Creative in New Tredegar, said: “It did take a lot of people and work to turn the idea into a reality.
“When I first became involved, I had no idea about the Senghenydd disaster.
“But I thought what a great story it was about Andrew’s great grandfather.
“That’s the key with documentaries, it’s about telling stories.
“The more I got involved, the more attached I got to the story. It would be hard for anyone not to.”
Andrew and his colleagues have since posted the docu-drama, entitled Mourning of the Valley, onto the internet but are hoping to get interest from production companies who may be working on commemorating next year’s 100th anniversary.
If given the opportunity, they would like to re-shoot the film into a full length documentary suitable for broadcasting.
Andrew, who works at film company Gingenius in Cardiff, said: “Everybody who has had anything to do with it has said they enjoyed making it and the end result looks awesome.
“I think it pays justice to those involved, acts as a memorial to those who lost their lives and remembers those who survived.
“It also shows what dangerous conditions miners worked in.
“They didn’t have choice back then because that’s all the work there was in the valleys but there was a high price to pay for many.
“It was important for us to show this but also to remember such a big portion of the population which died that day.”
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