This is the story of John Phillips, the story of a disaster that changes his life for ever.
The Garth mountain rises above the small Welsh mining village of Gwaelod-y-Garth where John lives with his family. It is in stark contrast to the industry that blackens the valley floor, crowding out birdsong and scarring the countryside. Life is hard in Gwaelod-y-Garth. John and the other miners – men, women and children – lead grim underground lives, seldom seeing the light of day. Their work is physically demanding and dangerous – accidents are inevitable.
John is a passionate young miner. He drinks, gambles and womanises. He has an on-off relationship with Hannah, but can’t seem to commit to anything – until he sees a child die underground and bonds with Dan, an immigrant from Ireland who bears the brunt of Welsh prejudice. Their relationship lies at the heart of this story. Haunted by the child’s cries of agony and urged on by Dan, John wants to change things, to make a difference.
He tries to unionise the Lan coal mine. His rousing speeches strike a chord with many of the men. John’s grandfather Shon agrees with him, but he clashes with his father Abraham who believes that direct action and conflict will change nothing. Abraham knows from experience the price paid for opposing the system. When his father is promoted to overman, John sees him as a traitor: he is following Booker’s orders when he should be protecting his men.
Hannah soon realises that she and John have no future, but with Philip, John’s brother, it’s different. Philip is no miner. He has left Gwaelod to work in Liverpool – and Hannah wants her future to tell a different story. No more coal, no more Lan. When she asks Philip to take her to Liverpool, it’s a new start for them both.
John has no time for the masters who rule Wales. At the Lan mine, Thomas Booker, the wealthy young pit owner, has no experience of industry. Roof falls are not repaired and he is oblivious to his workers’ safety. He has brought in Seymour, an aggressive English pit manager who hates the Welsh and is hated in return. Days before Christmas, there is a massive explosion in the Lan. Fire tears through the tunnels, roof falls block the way, and screams fill the air as panic-stricken miners try to flee. Men and children lose their lives; Abraham dies saving his men; and Dan dies in John’s arms. The effect on the village is devastating and rumours quickly spread: Abraham knew there was gas at the workface and took his men down knowing the danger. John is angry with his father – he cannot forgive him for leading men to their deaths; he cannot forgive him for Dan’s death. The full story comes out at the inquest and Abraham is charged with negligence. John and his family must find a way to cope with the fallout from this verdict. His mother Jemima faces the loss of her husband, her reputation, her livelihood and her home, but she must bring her warring family back together. It falls to her to tell Booker what she thinks of him. Jemima is a strong woman and she leaves him speechless.
Time passes. It is autumn, 1910. The streets of Tonypandy are full of striking miners. They walk forward, row after row of determined faces. John heads down a narrow street towards the raised guns of the Metropolitan Police. He is a union man under the banner fighting for a fair wage and safe working conditions. Remembering Dan, John walks forward, his arms raised, open, conciliatory as the guns fire.