Morfa: In Memory of Lives Lost


Morfa Colliery was sunk on Margam Moors (now situated within the town of Port Talbot, South Wales) between 1847 and 1849 by Messrs. Vivian & Sons to feed their copperworks at Taibach. It was known as a 'gassy' mine and there were six explosions there between its opening and closure in 1913.

188 men, maybe more, died at Morfa during those years and a memorial to them has been erected, near to the original site of the mine, within the TATA Steel plant in Port Talbot. 

I wrote the following poem for a memorial service held on site on 8th March, 2019.



Mrs Peppin

John Peppin, b.1857, was one of 87 men killed in the Morfa Colliery Explosion on 10th March 1890. His body was not found until December 1894, one of the last to be recovered. Around 15 men were never located and remain entombed in the old mine workings.   

Mary Ann Peppin’s hat, shawl and jacket, which she wore to her husband’s funeral on 15th December 1894, are held in a collection at the National Museum of Wales.

It is an unearthly thing to bury a man almost five years dead.
You swing from cold grief to release, from the ache you still carry
in your blood and bones to the comfort of the hymn you sing
in the Chapel of Ease. It is cold today. Your two youngest girls
four and six, have stayed at home. The two boys fidget next to you
on the wooden pew, the memories of their Dad as faint as ghosts.
Your eldest stares ahead, her face as pale as your jacket’s lace trim.

And all the years between then and now spill their dread and fear
through this vault of stone and glass: the first news of the blast
hammered on your door in Brick Row, the two miles you ran
in the coal-black dark, breath nettling in your throat, to join
the other women praying and crying at the mouth of the pit.
You kept vigil for as long as you could until your breasts ached
with so much milk you ran home again to feed the baby.

You remember the candles in the windows: West End, Chapel Row,
Inkerman, the Constant, flickers of hope and pain, and Mrs Jenkins
weeping for days through the Row’s thin walls after her boy
was brought up dead. And on it went, weeks, months, and then
the years: men recovered from the seams and delivered back to earth.
The mind has curious ways. Even after they flooded the pit
some mornings you’d wake sure of seeing his sweat-streaked face.

You never did again. Not after they came on Tuesday and told you
he’d been found tucked in an air-pocket in the Cribbwr seam. 
‘In a wonderful state of preservation,’ someone said and someone else
kicked him in the leg. And not when Roderick’s brought the coffin:
you told them to be sure it was sealed.
 The vicar’s drawing to a close.
You stand and watch the bearers take your husband’s weight

upon their shoulders, and draw your children near. Poor dabs.
And not just yours. How many was it? 200 the papers said.
And 69 widows. Outside the chapel a sudden gust lifts the ribbons
on your hat, black streams of silk in the wounding winter air.
The ground is hard beneath your feet. You make yourself smile
for your children’s sake, look them in their trembling eyes and think
about the men still waiting to be found. ‘Your Dad’s home,’ you say.



Comments

  1. Oh, Lynne, that is so moving. Did you read this yourself at the service?

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    1. Thank you so much, Norman. Yes, I did. As the memorial is on TATA land (erected by them), and health and safety and security is a big issue, there hasn't been a service there before but a friend of mine who is passionate about local history, and who works there, arranged this. Next year is the 130th anniversary of the biggest explosion so we hope to have something else organised and to include relatives of the men who were never recovered.

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  2. Your quiet voice, in an almost conversational tone, as if you knew her, as if you were there. Vivid, viscerally so, took my breath and made me want to look away, but couldn't. Small details that had to have been true: it was real for sure; her breasts hard with milk, the wind lifting her black satin ribbons, the 'wounding summer air.'
    Brilliant, Lynne.

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    1. Thanks so much, Kathy. Yes, a lot of the details were based on fact - the number of children they had (from the census in 1891), where they lived and the other street names, the number of children left fatherless, where he was buried. The newspaper reports from that time made for harrowing reading too.

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  3. Congratulations in bringing those details close for us. Harrowing, yes, but drawing close to the tragedy of others brings insight and empathy. Thank you.

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