WHO WAS ABRAHAM PHILLIPS?

"The overman, Phillips, was highly respected, both by the officials of the colliery and the colliers themselves. His death was caused, it is said, in the vain effort to save the life of another."

(The Cardiff Times, 11 December 1875)

A FAMILY MAN


Born in South Wales in 1822 to John Phillips (known as Shon o’r Lan, a well-known Ivorite) and Deborah Thomas, Abraham was six years old when his family left rural Wales and moved to the rapidly industrialising valleys. Abraham was to work here as a miner all his life.

In his early twenties, he married Elizabeth Morgan. They lived in a small cottage on the Garth mountain and had seven children. When Thomas William Booker, the local coal and iron master, promoted Abraham to Overman and Underground Agent, he and Eliza moved into Ty’n-y-Coed – a detached cottage in the valley close to the Lan mine. The deeds show that Abraham signed the lease with a cross – perhaps evidence of his resentment that the document was written in English not Welsh.

Like many Victorian families, Abraham and Eliza faced personal tragedy. Their eldest son Evan (1848-72) died aged 24, their youngest Elizabeth aged 23, and a daughter Deborah (1857) at just five months, her name passed on to the next daughter. Eliza died in 1866 when Elizabeth was just two.

In 1870, Abraham married Jemima Jones, a spinster from Bedwas who had spent her life in service. They lived at Ty’n-y-Coed with Abraham’s children until his death in 1875. There is a family grave at St Catwg’s Church in Pentyrch.

Contemporary censuses record the lives of the Phillips family after Abraham’s death. Jemima returned to Bedwas, where she worked as a charwoman and lived with a widow who was also a char. Susannah (1849-1885) stayed in Gwaelod-y-Garth, marrying a miner in 1871 and taking in Elizabeth when Abraham’s death led to the break up of the family. Little is known about John (1852-?). Philip (1854-1891) married a local girl but moved to Liverpool – he came back to Ty’n-y-Coed years later and was a travelling salesman until his death. Deborah (1858-?) became a maid, but left domestic service when she married. Catherine (1862-?) moved away, apprenticed to a milliner. Elizabeth (1863-1886) is recorded in the census as a student – it seems likely that she was a student teacher at the local school.

A MINER AND AN OVERMAN


Abraham Phillips has come down in history as a controversial figure after facing an impossible situation at the Lan. On 6 December 1875, the Lan’s fireman William John found gas at the workface. As overman, Abraham had to decide whether his men should work their shift. No work meant no wages. No coal meant the Lan might close – and the village depended on the pit for survival. Abraham decided to take his men down. Gas was a common occurrence and miners were accustomed to dispersing it. But luck was against them. The gas exploded and Abraham lost his life with his men.

A GUILTY MAN


An inquest was held at Junction Hotel, Taff’s Well. William Galloway, Deputy Inspector of Mines, explained the effect of poorly maintained airways. With little air movement, pockets of gas could not be dispersed.

Galloway also explained that the weather conditions had contributed to the disaster. It had been very cold for several days, and when cold air goes down into a mine it absorbs more moisture. This meant that the coal dust in the Lan was drier than usual. The explosion disturbed the dry dust from the floor. Mixed with the low levels of gas, this formed a deadly combination. The flames spread quickly through the coal dust in the air so that men far from the initial blast were burned to death.

In spite of Galloway’s evidence, Abraham Phillips was found guilty of negligence.

The coroner recognised that blocked airways played a part in the disaster, but he put no blame on the mine owners, who had failed to maintain the Lan. He ordered that Galloway’s recommendation of damping the air was adopted.

The jury’s verdict, delivered by the local chapel minister, also recognised the role of the airways in causing the disaster: “… we find, according to the evidence, that there was a deficiency in the ventilation of the airway, and recommend greater vigilance in future.” (South Wales Daily News, 22 December 1875). The lenient verdict reflected the power of the mine owners – some of the jurors were Booker employees and they feared for their jobs.

IN MEMORY


Sixteen died in the explosion at the Lan: Abraham Phillips (overman), Thomas Llewellyn (senior), Thomas Llewellyn (junior, aged 16), William Llewellyn, David Reece (a boy), Henry Sant, William Peters, Robert Taylor, Moses Llewellyn (aged 12), Daniel Evans, John Thomas (aged 16), John Pritchard, William Morgan, his father Morgan Morgan, Evan Howell and William Harding.

The disaster was not on the scale of some mining tragedies, but it has a specific and important place in mining history. Following Galloway’s findings, mines around the world adopted his innovative approach to watering the air or spreading stone dust.