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Welsh History Review


Vol. 17, nos. 1-4 1994-95

Senghenydd: the universal pit village, 1890-1930. Book review.

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sake. Even if the experience in south Wales was different from this, there is a need
somewhere for individual motives and experience among the students and foot-soldiers
of the two movements to be addressed. Yet these caveats should not detract from a well-
wrought study of a fascinating subject which adds greatly to our understanding of the
culture of the labour movement.
St. Peter's College, Oxford
SENGHENYDD: THE UNIVERSAL PIT VILLAGE, 1890-1930. By Michael Lieven. Gomer
Press, Llandysul, 1994. Pp. viii, 387, illus. £ 17.50.
The word Senghenydd still has the power to chill the heart. There may not be many
people left who can remember the appalling pit disaster of 1913, in which an explosion
killed 440 miners, but for historians Senghenydd still remains a symbol of the tragedy
and destructive power of industrialization in south Wales. Michael Lieven has given his
study a clever subtitle- the universal pit village'. Senghenydd symbolizes the common
tragedy of all pit communities where 'coalmining was uncontrolled by communally
agreed social purposes'. There is a further neat twist in that Senghenydd was the site of
Sir William Lewis's Universal Colliery which, by the year of the disaster, was one of the
largest pits in the south Wales coalfield.
The strength of Lieven's study lies in his broad coverage of village life from the early
frontier settlement days of the 1890s to the complex community, characterized by a
mesh of interwoven social relationships and institutions, of the 1920s. Senghenydd is not
merely a study of labour relations between male employer(s) and male employees. Too
often in the past have detailed chronicles of sliding scales, wage cuts, lock-outs and
strikes been substituted for the broader history of whole communities and the lives of
the people in them. Lieven has avoided the prescriptive orthodoxy of labour history with
its limited definitions of labour as almost entirely male and certainly exclusively waged.
His book is the richer for this.
We are presented with a lively and very readable account of the tragedy and comedy
of everyday life. We see the infants in the local school doing drill and marching until ten
o'clock on a freezing morning because there was no fire. The headmistress records in
her log the death of 'two little scholars' from diphtheria and her day-to-day struggles to
run the school with unqualified, and sometimes insubordinate, teachers. Lieven has re-
created the street life of Senghenydd with its raucous hawkers and its shops (some
prosperous and glass-fronted and others merely single back-street rooms run by poor
widows and chronic invalids), its chapels, its public houses and boxing booths. We see
the community enjoying its leisure in sacred concerts, ambulance (first aid) classes,
lectures organized by societies and clubs and in drunken brawls which ended before the
magistrate. But our view of life in this bustling pit village is not limited to the public
sphere. Although there are chapters dealing with wider issues such as politics and the
impact of the First World War on the town, Lieven pays particular attention to the
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