THE NEWPORT DOCKS DISASTER 1909

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The Newport Docks Disaster occurred on 2 July 1909 at 5.20 in the afternoon when, during construction of the new South Lock, supporting timbers in the West Wall excavation trench collapsed and buried 46 workers.

The trench gave way during the building of the extension work to the Alexandra Docks, in Newport, Monmouthshire. It was being carried out in the area of the South Docks by Messrs Easton Gibbs and Son. The structure of timbers collapsed without warning and swept away huge cranes and machinery. Over 500 men were soon at the scene attempting to reach the men trapped below.

One of the survivors said "There was a sudden overflow. It was as if the earth had opened and swallowed up everything, cranes, wagons, everything. I jumped for the concrete mixer so saved my life..... "

P.C.’s D. Moyle (Borough Police) and R. Manns (Dock Police)* who were the first on the spot after the accident were actually buried up to their knees in running sand. A report states "They brought out the first two men dead, suffocated by sand, and were the means of rescuing two other men and restoring them by artificial respiration, enabling them to be removed to safety. They were mentioned individually in the newspapers at the time. Mr Ferris, the contractor’s engineer, who also gave evidence at the Board of Trade Inquiry worked from the time of the accident till noon on Saturday in rescuing the injured, and with D. Buckley and C. L. Abbott of A.D.C. Engineer’s staff, special attention was given to the rescue of Percy Doughton, who was operated on in the trench."

It goes on "the amputation was completed by Dr’s Hamilton, Cook and Crinks, under heroic circumstances, straw had to be thrown in a sudden gap to prevent a sand rush while they were down in the trench, performing the operation. Abbott then accompanied the man to the hospital, but he died on the way, and finally to the mortuary with the body having been on duty over 15 hours."

Tom Toya Lewis

A 14-year-old newspaper delivery boy, was among the crowd which gathered at the scene. He volunteered to descend through a narrow opening to try to free a workman called Fred Bardill. Despite the instability of the wreckage around him, Tom worked for two hours, head down and 10 metres below ground, with hand tools to try to release Fred. He had freed one of Fred’s hands before there was a further slide of earth and officials insisted he return to the surface. Fred was released the following day.

Tom received the Albert Medal, Britain’s highest award for peacetime gallantry, from King Edward VII at Buckingham Palace in December 1909. A newspaper reported that Tom seemed “somewhat abashed by the splendour of his surroundings”. His father said he was a “rare young rascal, and if any spree was going on he was certain to be at the head of it”. The photo on the right shows him with his medal.
A Wetherspoon's pub on Commercial Street is named "The Tom Toya Lewis" after the young hero.

A local fund-raising effort secured several hundred pounds to send him to Rosyth naval base, Scotland, as an engineering apprentice. The Carnegie Hero Fund contributed £50.

The bronze medal of the Order was awarded for gallantry in saving or attempting to save life on land at imminent risk to the following men: James Andrews, Charles Crogan, George Bradford, Anthony Kinsella and Walter Willis, in the employ of Messrs Easton Gibb and Son, and John Aldridge, dock gateman,: Daniel McCarthy, dock constable: and George Osbourne, an inspector, in the employ of the Alexandra (Newport and South Wales) Docks and Railway Co. for conspicuous bravery on the occasion of Newport Docks Disaster, and an official notification of the fact has been sent to Viscount Tredegar, who signed the petition on their behalf.

Sadly Thomas Ratcliffe, a ganger on the day of the Newport Dock Disaster in 1909 had responsibility for trench that day  and he was “made a scapegoat” in the official report. He survived the immediate collapse but died, of pneumonia,  before he could give evidence in his defence at the inquest.

Following the completion of the South Dock, Newport was able to provide a co-ordinated Docks system capable of handling both coal and general cargo. Larger vessels used the South Dock with its direct access to the Bristol Channel while smaller vessels used the North Dock, Town Dock and the River Wharves which had to be navigated via the River Usk.

The story of the Dock Disaster is also explained here