Five miles from the great castle of Caerphilly lies the narrow valley of Nant-yr-Aber, hailed in the 1890s as the "Rhondda of the future". The masterful coal owner, W. T. Lewis (later Lord Merthyr), established the Universal Steam Coal Company to exploit the riches of the valley, and the company reached the seven-foot coal seam in 1895. The community which grew around the pit became known as Senghennydd, the name of the medieval lordship which lay between the Taf and Rhymni rivers. By 1911, the Universal Pit at Senghennydd, with over 2,000 workers, was one of the largest collieries in the world. In 1913, the pit was the scene of Britain's worst ever colliery tragedy in which 440 miners were killed. In 1928, the pit was closed, never to reopen.
There is still a commmunity of several thousand people in Senghennydd, but it is a community whose raison d'etre had a lifespan of less than 40 years. In those years, notes Michael Lieven, the village "experienced the full industrial cycle of growth, economic depression and withering away. It stands as a symbol both of the destructive power of industrialisation uncontrolled by communally agreed social purposes and of the capacity of communities to create meaning and order from intolerable circumstances."
It is the creating of community which is the central theme of this book. Senghennydd is the fullest account ever published of the way in which migrants to the south Wales coalfield were "socialized into a mesh of expectations, ideals and assumptions". But it is not a straightforward account. The economics of coalmining are discussed and trade union activity is described, but the story that Lieven has to tell is "closer to the rhythms of apparent inconsequentiality to be found in the pages of the local newspapers". The reader is provided with a mass of detail, but it is never irrelevant detail. Like a coral reef, the edifice emerges, teeming with life, totally convincing and often deeply moving.
The centrality of drink, the tight policing of the mining communities, the hilarious behaviour of the local council, the school as a creator of community, the role of funerals - it is all here. The appalling tragedy of 1913 is magnificently evoked, but Lieven is careful to tell us that the death toll among children, even in this most disaster-struck of valleys, far exceeded that among working colliers.
There are irritations. Coal owners are treated as if they were hardly human; miners are disappointing if they are not militant; and facts that are telling in themselves are sometimes excessively pointed up.
But these are carping criticisms. The central chapters - on the life of the village, women, marriage and patriarchy and children and the home - are quite splendid. They offer an example of that rare phenomenon, a discussion that is sociologically sound but entirely free of jargon. And to cap it all, there is the conclusion, which should be required reading in an era when economic development "uncontrolled by communally agreed social purposes" is again in the ascendant.
John Davies, formerly at the department of Welsh history, University College of Wales, Aberystwyth, is a freelance writer.
Senghennydd: The Universal Pit Village 1890-1930
Author - Michael Lieven
ISBN - 1 85902 043 7
Publisher - Gomer Press
Price - £17.50
Pages - 387