The Garden Pit Disaster 1844

Landshipping is an unassuming little hamlet with an unusual name, between Haverfordwest and Tenby, where a quiet narrow road eventually decides to wander alongside the peaceful estuary. Here in a layby at the old quayside, with beautiful views across the water, you will find a modest but poignant memorial to forty  dead miners.  If mining is Pembrokeshire’s lost industry then the Garden Pit catastrophe in Landshipping in 1844 is its forgotten disaster.

The Garden Pit Memorial, Landshipping

     Coal mining went on in Pembrokeshire for centuries. Indeed by 1700 coal was the area’s major export. It was high quality anthracite too. The coal-bearing rocks stretched in a narrow strip from Carmarthen Bay to St Brides Bay in the west. The mines were small but they were productive and valuable.
     Mine owners followed the seam, always, no matter where it went. After all, their wealth was based entirely on the coal and consequently mines went beneath the sea.  Garden Pit in Landshipping, Pembrokeshire opened in 1788 and soon the shaft was 67ft deep and extended out the eastern branch of the Cleddau River. Not surprisingly the pit was known as a particularly wet one but it was a productive operation for the owner, Colonel Sir Hugh Owen, producing 10,000 tons per year, which was taken away by sea from the purpose-built quay. It was the same reason why the more familiar Saundersfoot was developed – for the transportation of coal.
     But the workings around Landshipping were not deep. It was said that the workers could hear the sound of oars in boats in the estuary above them. They were working only three feet below the bed of a powerful tidal river. Conditions, of course, were dreadful. Ventilation was especially poor, but then how could it be otherwise, with all that water above?
     The Coal Mines Regulation Act had been passed by parliament in 1842 and made it illegal for women and children under ten years of age to work underground. The law however was widely ignored. It was enforced by just one inspector who covered the whole of Britain and was required to give prior notice of a visit anyway.  And Pembrokeshire was a long way from anywhere.
     The Garden Pit had a chequered history, for it was not very safe. There had been an explosion in 1830 which killed five young miners. But death doesn’t only come from fire; water can be just as deadly.
     The part of the mine which was being worked in February 1844 hadn’t been used for a while following a significant leak of salt water through the roof. However, after it had been closed for three years,  someone decided that it was safe to open up the tunnel again. On the afternoon of 14 February 1844, there were 58 miners working on the shift, hacking out coal and dragging it back to the pit shaft. They were not the happiest group of workers. They were concerned by the entry of water and left the mine, refusing to work because it was too dangerous. Their instincts were dismissed, they were re-assured and sent back.
     The first sign of trouble came at about 4pm when a tremendous rush of wind suddenly shot up the shaft, involuntarily forcing the hands and arms of those working at the surface high into the air. Down below men were blown off their feet and all lights were extinguished as the air was pushed out, for water had broken in with terrible violence. On the river itself a series of violent eddies, like whirlpools, formed in the cold winter water close to shore as it forced its way into the pit.
     A small group of miners gathered at the bottom of the shaft, pleading for help. Young boys were desperately trying to climb up the pit shaft. Horses were used to haul four men and fourteen boys up to safety in the landing tub normally used for the coal. Nobody else managed to get out. When they dropped it again, it came back containing nothing but water.
     It had happened so quickly. Forty miners were lost, over thirty of them trapped at the far end of the workings. The survivors saw that ‘a portion of the ground underneath the mud on the side of the river, a little above the low water mark, had given way and the tide rushed into the fissure so as to drown the works.’ Those working on the wrong side of the fissure, further out at the far end of the level, were cut off.
      Men descended the shaft and plumbed the water with grappling hooks but found nothing. The Carmarthen Journal said that the inundation ‘took place with the suddenness of a dream, a few moments of horror and all was over.’
     There was a reminder of the disaster the following day when an explosion happened in the middle of the river, caused by the pressure of water on air trapped deep within the mine. Large pieces of timber were thrown into the air as the ground expelled these remnants of the doomed pit.
     What indeed was the price of coal? Disaster, distress and destitution, for all the local mine workings were ultimately interconnected and all were flooded, representing a terrible loss of employment. In moments such as these lives had been cruelly ended and other lives changed forever.
     Concerts were held to raise money for the families and contributions were sent to the Pembroke Herald to aid ‘those poor creatures who, by a calamity of so dreadful a character, are thus unavoidably thrown on the sympathy of the public…sad indeed the condition of those who, by such a stroke, are at once deprived of everything.’ The Queen sent £20 to the fund and, though other contributions were by necessity much more modest, by April the amount raised was in excess of £364, the equivalent of over £20,000 today.
     I have to report that not only have the records of the inquest been lost, but also I have been unable to find any reports of any inquest or enquiry in the contemporary press. Those lost were just ordinary people, barely leaving less than a thumbprint on history and therefore, perhaps, expendable. There was no reason for a fuss; these things happen after all. Mining was a dangerous occupation, everyone knew that.   The manager of the Garden Pit who sent the miners back to work was exonerated.  However, things did not go so well for the owner Sir Hugh Owen. The loss of the mine provoked a financial crisis in the Owen family. Ty Mawr, their Big House at the heart of the estate is still visible, but the land at Landshipping was eventually sold to the Stanley family.
     This was a terrible disaster that had a huge impact on a small distant community. You will see this when you examine the details on the memorial stone. It was first erected by the villagers in 2002 and then in 2019 a new memorial was rededicated with an updated plaque. It is clear that many of the dead were related to each other.  Some surnames occur more than once, like Cole and Llewellin. Joseph Picton died with three of his sons, leaving behind a widow and five other children. James Davies died with one son, leaving a widow and five children.
     The original memorial listed seven names where the first was given only as ‘Miner’. These are believed to have been women and children, employed and killed in the pit that day in spite of the legislation; observance of the law did not seem to stretch as far as Pembrokeshire. Other names give ages as low as nine or 11. In one case a person was listed simply as “child”. Research now suggests that this was almost certainly Joseph Harts. He was four years old.
     The Garden Pit disaster was reported right across the country, from Westmoreland to London, from Cork to Essex, from Bristol to Dundee, with words like ‘dreadful,’ ‘awful,’ ‘terrible,’ destructive,’ ‘fatal,’ ‘melancholy,’ ‘catastrophe.’ But no one seems to have felt the need to question the illegality of working practises.
      In 1906 the press reported that one of three sisters who lived in a small cottage in Landshipping, Elizabeth Butland, had worked in the Garden Pit sixty two years earlier, for the going rate of 4½d a day. A man was paid 1 shilling. Two of her brothers, were killed in the disaster, trapped in a collapsing tunnel beneath a river, and you can see their names on the memorial stone – John, 17 and Thomas, 10. It is such a humbling detail.


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