Escape from Russia: Percy Blackburn’s story

One of the many and varied materials held at the Glamorgan Archives in the Hughesovka Research Archive is an employment reference for John Percy Blackburn, dated 26/8 April 1918, on the headed notepaper of the New Russia Company Limited.


To All Whom This may Concern

We beg to certify that the bearer Mr John Percy Blackburn has served the Company since 1894. From that date till 1903 he acted as assistant to the engineer in charge of the maintenance of our railway and its buildings, and was then promoted to the position of responsible chief of that department. In his capacity he also did survey work and built several branch lines of railroad. Subsequently Mr Blackburn took charge of our entire railway service, a position he has filled with ability.

Mr Blackburn is leaving us on account of the troublesome state of affairs in this country and the advice of the British Consul General, and we lose in him a thoroughly efficient railway manager, reliable in every respect. He leaves us with our best wishes and we can strongly recommend him for a similar position.  [HRA/D431]

The ‘troublesome state of affairs’ referred to in the letter were a product of the war raging across Russia between the Red and White Armies following the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917.  As with many foreign nationals in Russia at this time, Percy Blackburn had been advised to leave the country. However, while most headed for Petrograd and the border with Finland, as the most immediate escape route, Percy headed north to join the British Forces at Murmansk. His story is told through the family records of the Blackburn family held in the Hughesovka Research Archive (HRA/D431) and also though Percy’s military records held at the National Archives in Kew (WO374/6847).

John Percy Blackburn (known as Percy) was born in Blackburn in July 1878 but was brought up in Russia at Hughesovka (now Donetsk). His father, Joseph Blackburn, was a foundry moulder and one of the many men who, attracted by the wages and, no doubt, the prospect of adventure, joined John Hughes’ New Russia Company.  Hughes, an iron master and engineer from South Wales, had been commissioned by the Russian Government, in 1869, to build an iron foundry in the Donbass region of southern Russia (now the Donetsk area of the Ukraine). Joseph Blackburn and most of his family returned to Britain after the Russian revolution of 1905 and set up home in Chorlton on Medlock near Manchester. Percy, however, had married Mary Steel the year before, on 2 April 1904, at the English Church in Hughesovka. Like Percy, Mary came from family that had settled and worked at Hughesovka for decades. As with most of the foreign workforce at Hughesovka, Percy was a skilled man and a valued employee. By and large, the New Russia Company bought in its skilled men, often from South Wales. Percy, however, was part of the first generation to be raised in Hughesovka. He served his apprenticeship as a land surveyor in Russia and by the age of 22 years he was a surveyor working on the development and maintenance of the railway system that played a key role in providing the New Russia Company with raw materials and exporting the iron and steel made in its furnaces. It must have been a difficult decision to stay on in 1905, but Mary came from a large family and most of the Steels had also opted to stay. Many years later, Mary told her family that Percy was convinced that Russia was a land of opportunity and that the New Russia Company would continue to play its part in building a new modern economy.

Bertie, the first of Percy and Mary’s five sons and two daughters, was born in Hughesovka in 1905. Many years later one of Percy’s sons, William, described the affluent lifestyle that the family enjoyed:

The house we lived in was fairly large with extensive grounds. It had separate quarters for coachman, yardman and female help, stables for three horses and loft above to store the horse carriages or sledges whatever the season was. A huge garden with endless rose trees for my mother because she used to make a special jam from the rose leaves. There were two kitchens one attached to the house for winter use and the other across the yard for summer.

Big double gates gave the only entry from the road which, turning left, took us to the works and/or the town. …. And facing our gates just endless open space. I am near certain that the football ground was not far from this area…. 

I and my brothers went to the English School and I remember going with my father to see the foundations for a new school the year we left.

All of this was to change in 1917 when, with the war going badly and the economy on the verge of collapse, the Tsar abdicated and the reins of government were passed to the Liberal Government led by Alexander Kerensky. If those in Hughesovka thought that this might bring an element of stability, Kerensky’s decision to continue the war led to further upheavals. By the summer of 1917 there was a very real prospect of revolution, with the Government’s control of the capital challenged by the Petrograd Soviet and Lenin’s return to Russia in April 1917. Faced with the prospect of a break down in law and order many of the British families in Hughesovka took the decision to leave Russia.

Percy’s two eldest boys were at school in England, but it must have been a daunting task for Mary, with the help of her mother Tabitha, to plan and make the journey back to Britain. They left Hughesovka, on 19 Sept with the three boys, Harold aged 8, William aged 7 and Joey who was only 3 months old. The journey to England, via Riga, would normally have taken about a week but, due to the war, the only route open was through St Petersburg, Finland, Sweden and Norway. They eventually arrived in Aberdeen on the 2nd of November. It was a journey of over 6 weeks and during the first leg to Petrograd they would have had to thread their way through a war torn transport network, short of food and money and in constant danger of arrest or robbery.

The story of their journey, as told by Mary Steel and her son William to Mary’s granddaughter, is set out in the records of the Hughesovka Research Archive (HRA/D431). As William noted, his grandmother, Tabitha Steel, regretted that they had left Hughesovka in such a hurry.

I always remember her complaining ‘til she died that she should have brought a bag of gold sovereigns that in the haste of departure she left behind. My mother, in later years, told me that she had to use a great many of them to oil the wheels of our departure. I still possess one sovereign and a silver rouble. Father lost almost everything; his faith in the future of Russia caused him to invest heavily but I suppose the revolution caught his too quickly.

The family set up home in Corn Street, Chorlton-on-Medlock, next door to Mary’s brother in law. Percy, however, had elected to stay behind, as William later recalled:

…in the vain hope of saving something of his future and possessions and in the end had to flee to save his own life. It was two years before we saw him again.

Percy’s granddaughter takes up the story drawing on his diaries. Although their families were safe in Britain, it was clear that life in Hughesovka was becoming increasing difficult for Percy and the remaining foreign employees of the New Russia Company. Following the Bolshevik revolution in 1917, the New Russia Company’s days were limited as the state increasingly took control of industry. While there was still a need for the skills that the British workforce possessed, there was also a growing suspicion of foreigners fuelled by the news of British backed armed intervention attempting to topple the Bolshevik government.

After handing to the authorities his rifles and other weapons kept for his own safety and hunting he finally, on 8 March 1918, handed in to the police his Smith and Wesson revolver, No 87033, and commenced to prepare for his move from Hughesovka. He had money in various companies, but the Bolshevik Government were now in supreme power in Russia and everything fully controlled by them and careful watch being kept on foreigners, their business and assets.

The result was that when grandad attempted to realise on his assets they just closed in and he was able to draw 10,000 roubles at the time the currency was 10 roubles to the pound.

40,000 roubles was held back for investigation, as they put it, also property, land and personal holdings. Notes in his diary show covering expenses for the journey. He had decided to make his way to Murmansk.

He left Hughesovka 10 April 1918 and made his way to Moscow to see the British Consulate General to make his claim on assets left behind and obtain passport coverage and he stayed there for six days whilst all was clarified.

The list below sets out the preparations that Percy made in April for 1918 for his journey to Moscow. It is likely that the large sum earmarked for ‘tips and small debts’ included a significant sum to buy ‘the goodwill’ of local officials.

Passport stamps – 4 roubles

Passport photo – 22 roubles

1 pair of braces – 18 roubles

1 portmanter (sic) – 18 roubles

1 Handbag – 20 roubles

Photo with friend – 20 roubles

Tobacco for road (quarter pound) – 9 roubles

Shirts and collars – 45 roubles

2 pairs Gloves (size 6) – 9 roubles

Bread – 20 roubles

Eggs – 10 roubles

Tips and small debts paid – 103 roubles

Percy’s is an unusual story. While the vast majority of the foreign workforce in Hughesovka elected to return home, Percy was clearly intent on joining the British Armed Forces with the North Russia Expeditionary Force based at the northern port of Murmansk. This may have been prompted by a determination to ‘do his bit’ given that his brother in Manchester had joined the Army. It is more likely, however, that he had still not given up on Russia and planned to stay for as long as possible to see how the situation unfolded.

The North Russia Expeditionary Force had been established by the Allies initially to protect the Russian ports used to supply the Russian army fighting on the Eastern Front. When the Bolsheviks, following the Treaty of Brest Litovsk, withdrew Russia from the war the Expeditionary Force was bolstered with British and American troops, ostensibly, to protect the munitions and supplies at Archangel and Murmansk.  However, while its remit appeared primarily defensive, the Force was used, increasingly, to support the White Armies in Northern Russia in their campaigns against the Red Army.

Percy’s story can be pieced together not only from the Hughesovka Research Archive but also from his military records held at the National Archives in Kew. It is not clear how Percy, at that time 40 years old and with no military experience, was first received by the British Forces at Murmansk on arrival in May 1918. His family think that, initially, he was employed as an interpreter and this fits with his rank of Acting Sergeant in the Middlesex Regiment. By July 1918, however, it was clear that his skills in the management of railway networks had been recognised. In a letter to the War Office, dated 17 July 1918, Major General Maynard, Commanding the Allied Land Forces, Murmansk asked that Percy be given a commission as an officer:

I have the honour to inform you that Mr J Blackburn who is an experienced railway engineer having many years experience in Russia is staying out here to supervise the Russian Railway Service.

General Poole has recommended Mr Blackburn to have a Temporary Commission as a Second Lieutenant and I beg to request that covering authority may be given for this appointment with effect from 1 July 1918, which is essential for the fulfilment of his duty. [WO374/6847]

However, there were clearly concerns that Percy had not undergone military training and it took 2 months for the War Office to agree, reluctantly, to this arrangement with Percy receiving a temporary commission as a 2nd Lieutenant with the Railway Operating Division, Allied Forces Murman, Russia:

It is no doubt irregular but the circumstances are so peculiar that you may be inclined to agree that covering authority might be granted in this case [WO374/6847]

Given the reliance in a fast moving war on transporting troops and supplies large distances, Percy’s knowledge and skills would have been invaluable. Within months he had become known to others and the War Office received a request from the Russo-Asiatic Company, in December 1918, that Percy be released from the Army to work for the company on the railway network in Siberia. Unfortunately it was evident by then that the work and the conditions had taken a toll on Percy’s health. By October 1918 he was back in Britain in hospital, initially at Manchester 2nd Military Hospital and later at John Leigh’s Hospital in Altrincham recovering from scurvy and ‘neurasthenia’ – a condition usually associated with chronic fatigue brought on by physical and mental exhaustion. Although the Blackburn family believe that he did return to Russia for a short period, his military records contain details of a series of medical boards held in Manchester in the first half of 1919 at which he was assessed as unfit for active service. With the North Russia Expeditionary Force already being wound down, Percy was discharged from the Army in the second half of 1919.

On leaving the Army Percy rejoined his family in Chorlton on Medlock. Despite his impressive references from the New Russia Company, like many who returned from Hughesovka, he found it difficult to find work in the immediate post war period with the downturn in the economy. In addition, it would have been increasingly obvious that there was little or no prospect of retuning to Russia. His granddaughter recalled:

Grandad Blackburn was not able to get work in England. Eventually, and sadly, he did work as a checker on the docks. It must have been awfully hard for him to do this type of work after the life he enjoyed in Russia and the work he did over there.

Although Mary Blackburn lived until 1961, Percy died on 16th November 1926 at the age of 48. Perhaps a fitting testimony to his achievements lies in a reference provided by his Commanding Officer in North Russia:

Mr J P Blackburn joined the North Russia expeditionary Force in Murmansk in May 1918 actuated by a desire to help his country. He was employed in the railways and did not most excellent work for 6 months until invalided home. I saw much of his work and was impressed not only with his technical knowledge but also with the zeal and energy with which he carried out his duties. He is full of initiative and works with considerable tact. He has gained the esteem and respect of the members of the NREF.

Tony Peters, Glamorgan Archives Volunteer


Escape from Russia, 1917: The Cartwrights’ Story

Glamorgan Archives holds a copy of a passport issued by the British Consul-General in Odessa to Gwladys Cartwright from Dowlais.


DX726/22/1: British passport issued to Mrs Gwladys Ann Cartwright at Odessa, Nov 1915, and renewed, Jun 1917

The passport, like most official documents, is very plain and requests and requires that:

… in the Name of His Majesty all those whom it may concern to allow Mrs Gwladys Anne Cartwright, a British Subject, accompanied by her daughter Ella Cecil and son Edward Morgan to pass without let or hindrance and to afford her every assistance and protection to which she may stand in need. [DX726/22]

On closer inspection, however, it is clear that the passport tells the story of the Cartwright family’s dramatic escape in 1917 from war-torn Russia, almost exactly 100 years ago, as the country was engulfed by revolution.

The passport is held within the Hughesovka Research Archive. The Archive details the lives and fortunes of the men and families who left south Wales, in the latter years of the 19th century and the first decade of the 20th century, to work in the coal, iron and steel industries at what was known, at the time, as Hughesovka and now Donetsk in the Ukraine. The core of the collection surrounds the story of John Hughes from Merthyr Tydfil who was invited by the Russian Government in 1869 to set up an iron foundry in southern Russia. Hughes was an experienced engineer and iron master and the Russian Government appreciated that it needed his expertise and management skills to capitalise on the raw materials – iron ore, coal and water power – to be found in the Donbass region of Russia. For his part, Hughes saw the opportunity to build a business empire in the form of the New Russia Company, established with his four sons. He also recognised that he needed skilled men, well versed in the coal, iron and newly emerging steel industries. He therefore recruited extensively from across south Wales. Contracts were issued, initially, for a three year term and many took up his offer to work at Hughesovka, the town at the centre of the New Russia Company’s operations and named after John Hughes. With their passage paid to Hughesovka many men were lured by the money and the prospect of adventure. Although conditions were harsh, with freezing winters and hot arid summers, the men were well paid and looked after by the Company. As the business became established whole families moved and settled in Hughesovka. In 1896 a census of Welsh settlers in Hughesovka confirmed that there were some 22 families in the area [D433/6/1]. The Research Archive tells their stories through photographs, letters, business papers and official documents. It is supplemented in many areas by reminiscences provided by family members, often many years later and collated at the time the Archive was established.

The Cartwrights were one of the many families that travelled from south Wales to work for the New Russia Company in Hughesovka. Percy Cartwright was the son of a printer from Dowlais. A talented scholar, his name appeared frequently in local newspapers as a prize winner in exams and competitions run by the local Sunday School at the Elizabeth Street Methodist Chapel in Dowlais. He was a keen sportsman and a committee man at both the Dowlais cricket club, the Lilywhites and the local football club. Rather than follow his father into the printing trade Percy had a talent for science. By 1901, at the age of 22, he was the scientific adviser at the local steel works. Young, ambitious and with skills in steel making, Percy was exactly the sort of man that the New Russia Company required in Hughesovka. Percy left for Hughesovka in 1903 and worked for the New Russia Company as a Metallurgical Chemist, initially as the Company’s Assistant Chemist and subsequently as Chief Chemist.


HRA/DX726/2: Percy Cartwright standing in his laboratory, c.1912

He was to live in Hughesovka for the next 14 years, returning to south Wales in 1911 to marry Gwladys Morgan a 26 year old school teacher.


HRA/DX726/5: Gwladys Ann Cartwright in the window of her house holding the family dog, Midge, Sep 1912

Gwladys, also from Dowlais, lived close to the Cartwright family. Her father, Tom, was the local grocer and the family attended the Elizabeth Street Chapel. Their first child, a daughter named Ella, was born in Hughesovka two years later in 1913.


HRA/DX726/13: Ella Cecil Cartwright in garden at Hughesovka during winter, c.1916

The Hughesovka Research Archive holds an excellent set of photographs that provide an insight into the manufacturing facilities in the region, the town of Hughesovka itself, built to house the workforce and the lives of those that travelled from south Wales to work for the New Russia Company. The Company was, in many respects, an exemplary employer for its time, with provision made for housing, hospitals and schools. However, life for many of the local workforce was still primitive and the town suffered from disease and regular epidemics. Although not immune to all of this, the photographs show that the Cartwrights and other families from Wales would have enjoyed a very privileged lifestyle with the provision of a large company house with an extensive garden, servants and horse drawn carriages for the summer and sleighs for the winter [DX726/1-17, 19-21].


HRA/DX726/20/1: Percy and Gwladys Cartwright in horse and carriage with driver, Oct 1913

In a note attached to a photograph of the carriage Gwladys comments that she is disappointed that Andre, her driver, has not yet acquired his leather apron and, as a result, …he does not look quite tidy. In the summer months Gwladys and Ella escaped the town with many other families for holidays by the seaside. There was a thriving social life with the community coming together for frequent sporting and social events. They also retained close ties with family and friends in Wales with reports from Hughesovka often appearing in the Welsh newspapers. For example, Percy had a talent for amateur dramatics and there are accounts in the Western Mail, in 1914, of plays staged in Hughesovka with Percy in the lead role. In May 1914 the paper reported:

Whilst the Welsh national drama is “holding the boards” at the New Theatre, Cardiff it is interesting to note that at Hughesoffka in South Russia where the great iron and steel works funded by the late Mr John Hughes still exist, a number of British plays have been presented within the last few weeks by, amongst others, several players who hail from Wales and are now resident on Russian soil. One of these, The Parent’s Progress, an amusing comedy went exceedingly well, and the chief part “Samuel Hoskins” was admirably sustained by Mr Percy Cartwright of Dowlais.… [Western Mail, 11 May 1914]

However, all of this was to change in 1917. By 1914 the number of foreign nationals in Hughesovka had fallen considerably, although many were still employed by the New Russia Company in key technical and management positions. Following the outbreak of war a number of the young men had left to travel back to Britain to enlist, but life for many of those in Hughesovka continued although, increasingly, the factories were charged with the production of munitions and steel to fuel the Russian war effort. By 1917, however, after 3 years of heavy losses of men and territory, the war was going badly for the Russian Army with a morale rapidly disintegrating and the economy on the verge of collapse. Matters were brought to a head early in the year with disorder and riots in the capital Petrograd (formerly St Petersburg) fuelled by severe food shortages. The Tsar, appreciating that he could no longer rely on the Army, abdicated and power was passed to a Provisional Government of liberal Duma politicians led by Alexander Kerensky.

If, however, the families in Hughesovka thought that this might lead to an improvement in their situation they were sorely disappointed. Kerensky’s decision to continue the war was unpopular and increasingly the Provisional Government competed for power with the Petrograd Soviet. The flames of revolution were further fanned in April by the return to Russia of the Bolshevik leader Lenin.

Faced with the breakdown of government and, in many areas, law and order, the families in Hughesovka would have felt increasingly isolated and threatened. As relatively wealthy individuals and symbols of foreign ownership they were a target for both revolutionaries and brigands. The Cartwrights and many others began to consider their options. Leaving behind their lifestyle and most of their possessions would have been a difficult decision but, by the summer of 1917, their options were severely limited. Many families, including the Steels and Calderwoods, had already left or were hurriedly preparing to leave. Leah Steel, who returned with her parents to London in July 1917, recalled that, prior to leaving, …. in our area mobs of people roamed around claiming everything as their own, but they never took away or claimed anything from our home [DX664/1]. It may well have been the news of the first Bolshevik uprising that was the deciding factor in the Cartwright’s decision to quit Hughesovka. There was, however, an added complication. Gwladys was expecting their second child, Edward Morgan, who was born in the summer of 1917. In addition, Gwladys’ passport had been granted for a 2 year period in 1915 and was due to expire in the latter half of 1917. Even though she must have been heavily pregnant we can see from the documentation that she took the precaution of renewing her passport at the British Consulate in Odessa in June 1917 and only weeks after her son’s birth, Edward’s name was added to her passport on 7 August.

By August the die had been cast and the Cartwrights faced a lengthy and dangerous journey back to Britain soon after the baby’s birth. Those travelling from Britain to Hughesovka had used either the southern sea route through the Mediterranean and the Black Sea to Odessa or the overland route by train through Holland, Germany and Poland. Both routes were now closed by the fighting. The only option left was to travel north to Petrograd and from there through Finland, Sweden and Norway before crossing the North Sea back to Britain.

Leaving Hughesovka, probably on the last day of August, the first leg of the journey would have been by train to Petrograd, a journey of some 900 miles. Transport had largely been requisitioned for the military and this would have been, at best, an uncomfortable journey of many days, with the family snatching whatever space they could find in train corridors and carriages. The Cartwrights would have had no option but to travel light with little by way of clothes and possessions and carrying as much food as possible. Travelling by train across a war torn country they would have faced interminable delays and the constant threat of arrest and robbery. Mary Ann Steel, who made the same journey several weeks later, with her mother and three sons, insisted on taking her mother’s samovar on the journey. As the family recalled she was determined that they would be able to … boil their own water and brew tea on all the railway platforms upon which they were turned out along the way [D431]. From Gwladys’ passport we know that they were in Petrograd by the second week of September. At this point they must have been exhausted but, to add to their troubles, the city was now the centre of the revolution. Although Kerensky had resisted a coup by the Army, control of the city was slipping away increasingly to the Petrograd Soviet and the Bolsheviks. It was only weeks before the Bolshevik revolution and the Cartwrights would have seen the chaos in the streets with skirmishes between armed factions. In addition, food was at a premium and they would have had to queue each day to secure bread and the bare essentials.

Fortunately for the Cartwrights, by 12 September, the British Consulate was able to arrange passage for the family across the nearby border into Finland and from there onward across Sweden to Norway. The Swedish consul in Petrograd granted the family a travel visa, on 11 September, at a cost of one US dollar or 4 shillings and 5 pence. The destination on their passport was given as “home” and the length of stay as “indefinite”. The visas were valid for only 10 days and it is little surprise that the Cartwrights left Petrograd immediately on receiving the necessary travel documents. There must have been immense relief at reaching neutral territory and, in particular, for Gwladys and her young baby and daughter. Their journey was, however, far from over. The family would have travelled through Finland by train to Tornio and, two days after securing their visas in Petrograd, on September 14, they crossed the border, at Haparanda, into Sweden. Crossing Sweden they finally arrived in Norway. The Cartwright papers contain a postcard of a hotel by a lake in Vossvangen where the families waited, at last in relative comfort, for a ship, with Royal Naval protection, to take them from Bergen to Aberdeen. The family arrived in Aberdeen on the 7 October, many weeks after starting their journey from Hughesovka. Like most of those who left Hughesovka in 1917 they were never to return to Russia. The Bolshevik revolution, only weeks later, effectively meant the end for the New Russia Company with Hughesovka renamed Stalino in 1924.

The Cartwrights returned to south Wales. Like many of those who had prospered in Hughesovka, Percy found it difficult in the post era, with rising unemployment, to find similar work. However, from letters held in the Hughesovka Research Archive, Percy did resume his career working for the Powell Duffryn Steam Coal Company [DX727/4] while living in Bargoed. No doubt he carried his love of amateur dramatics with him throughout his life. It is difficult to see, however, how any play could be any more dramatic than the tale that the family from Dowlais could tell of life on the Russian steppe and their flight from revolutionary Russia.

Tony Peters, Glamorgan Archives Volunteer

Hughesovka: A Welsh Enterprise in Imperial Russia

John Hughes, an engineer from Merthyr Tydfil, went to Imperial Russia in the 1870s. On the wide empty plains – the steppes – of the southern Ukraine, he set up an ironworks which developed into a huge industrial complex. Around the works grew up a town: Hughesovka.


HRA/DX627/1: Portrait of John Hughes, founder of Hughesovka

John Hughes was born in Merthyr Tydfil about 1815. He was the son of an engineer at the Cyfarthfa Ironworks, and started his own career at Cyfarthfa before moving to the Ebbw Vale works, and then on to the Uskside Engineering Works in Newport.  By the mid-1860s, John Hughes was a member of the Board of Millwall Engineering and Shipbuilding Company in London, with a world-wide reputation as an engineer.

Hughes came to the attention of the Imperial Russian government, which was anxious to develop its railways and heavy engineering industries. In 1868, he took up a concession from the government and bought land and mineral rights in the Donbass (then southern Russia, now the Ukraine).  To finance his project, in 1869 Hughes set up the New Russia Company Ltd., with a capital of £300,000. In 1870 he travelled to the Ukraine to set up the works on the empty steppe.

John Hughes had married Elizabeth Lewis of Newport in 1844, and they had eight children. Four of Hughes’ sons – John James, Arthur David, Ivor Edward and Albert Llewellyn – were closely involved in the running of the works. When John Hughes died in St. Petersburg in 1889, they took over, sharing the responsibilities between them.


HRA/DXGC239/3: John Hughes with family and Russian friends

John Hughes set up his works on the wide empty steppes of what is now southern Ukraine, but was then part of the Russian Empire. The area was rich in coal and iron ore deposits, but isolated and not industrially developed. Hughes had to start from scratch in 1870, but by the beginning of 1872 the first blast furnace was in production producing iron, and by September 1873 iron rails were being produced.  More blast furnaces followed as the works developed, and open hearth furnaces were built in the 1880s to produce steel. By the end of the 1890s, the works was the largest in the Russian Empire, employing 8,000 workers in 1896 and 12,000 in 1904.


HRA/DX878/1: New Russia Company works, blast furnaces and workmen, post-1892

Hughes established the works as a self-contained industrial complex. The raw materials for the iron and steel production came from the company’s coal and iron ore mines and limestone quarries; brickworks were set up to supply building materials; repair shops and chemical laboratories serviced the enterprise.  In 1919, the works was taken over by the state; it continued in operation and the area remained a major industrial centre.

When Hughes was establishing the works he needed skilled workers, and he recruited many of these in Wales. Some stayed only for a few years, but others settled in Hughesovka, bringing out their wives and families. Over the years, although a Russian workforce was trained by the Company, it continued to employ skilled workers from the United Kingdom. A thriving expatriate community was established, with a school for the British children, an Anglican church, and an English club.


HRA/DX628/10/4/1: Teachers and pupils at the English school, 1911. Leeza Wiskin, who taught English at the school, stands left back.

The town of Hughesovka grew up beside the works, with housing provided by the Company to house the British and some of the local workers.  The British workers lived in a separate sector, some in substantial houses.  By the first decade of the 20th century, the population of Hughesovka was around 50,000, most of them working for or dependent on the works.


HRA/DX587/21: David Waters, originally from Swansea, and his children, all born in Hughesovka, c.1900

Some families stayed in Hughesovka for several generations, their children marrying there and bringing up their own families in the close-knit community.  Life could be difficult, with very cold winters and hot summers, and public health problems such as cholera and typhus, but the British families generally enjoyed a good standard of living.  In 1896, there were 22 Welsh families living in Hughesovka.


HRA/DX694/12/1: Photograph of the wedding of Elizabeth Mary James and Charles Henry Perry, in Odessa, 1894. The bride was born in Hughesovka to Welsh parents, and the bridegroom came to Russia as a child with his family. Elizabeth and Charles went on to have 10 children, all born in the Ukraine.

Then in 1917 came the Russian revolution. Most of the British families left Hughesovka and returned home.  The works was taken over by the state and Hughesovka was renamed Stalino, and later on Donetsk.

Glamorgan Archives has collected together a large number of records relating to Hughesovka in the Hughesovka Research Archive (HRA).  The HRA is a collection of material brought together from a number of different sources, all relating to one theme. It contains papers and photographs deposited by descendents of Hughesovka families, copies of material acquired by the Archives, and material concerning the Hugheosvka-related activities of the Archives.  The collection illustrates the achievements of one group of the highly skilled Welsh emigrants who founded and developed industries around the world. It is a useful comparator to other Welsh enterprises abroad – the Welsh colony in Patagonia for example – and an indication of the strength of Welsh industrial enterprise.

The main strength of the collection lies in the light it throws on the members of the expatriate community in Hughesovka, but it also contains material relating to the career of John Hughes, to the New Russia Company and to the works, including some technical information. It is particularly strong in photographic material, including numerous photographs of the town and works, and of the British families.


HRA/DX726/20/1: Photograph of Percy and Gwladys Cartwright in their carriage, 1913. On the back, Gwladys wrote ‘André has not had the leather apron for himself yet, so does not look quite tidy. Our next conveyance will have to be a new sledge.’

You can see the Table of Contents of the catalogue of the Hughesovka Research Archive on the Glamorgan Archives website. Note that the table shows main headings only. A complete catalogue can be consulted on the Glamorgan Archives catalogue Canfod.

‘A most agreeable and enjoyable day’: The Cardiff Naturalists Society’s Field Trip to Tintern Abbey, June 1873

Any suggestion that the early meetings of the Cardiff Naturalists Society were all conducted behind closed doors in St Mary’s Street, while the society pored over their microscopes and listened to learned speakers, are quickly scotched by the Society’s records held at Glamorgan Archives. From the outset the Society organised a series of Field Trips each year across south Wales. The records contain summaries and plans of a number of such trips. The picture that emerges is of an enjoyable but a very full day for all concerned. The records for 6 June 1873 set out the arrangements for the First Field Meeting of 1873 on 17 June to Tintern Abbey, described as “One of the most romantic ruins in Britain.”


The Members and Visitors will leave the Cardiff Station of the South Wales Railway by the 9.27am Train, to arrive at Chepstow at 11.17. Here carriages will be in waiting to convey the party to the top of Wyndcliffe.

The view from the summit of Wyndcliffe cannot be surpassed; it is nearly 900 feet above the level of the river, and from it may be viewed some of the most beautiful and extensive prospects in Great Britain, and a wonderful range over portions of nine counties.

The party will then pass down through the wood to the Moss Cottage, which will be thrown open to visitors presenting their tickets, and thence on to the new road, where the carriages will be waiting to convey the party on to the Abbey.

After dinner (at the Beaufort Arms) John Prichard, Esq., of Llandaff, Diocesan Architect, will deliver a Lecture on the Abbey, illustrated by Diagrams and an examination of the building will take place; after which Mr W Adams, the President, will read his paper on the Ancient Iron Works of the District.

The Party will leave Tintern Abbey at about 6.30pm per carriages for Chepstow Station, and arrive at Cardiff at 9.35 [Record of meeting, June 6 1873, DCNS/3/1].

At a cost of 6s 6d plus train fare it was a full day, given that the Society’s usual monthly business had to be dealt with over dinner, including consideration of 5 membership applications. However, such excursions had not always been a great success and the note stated that it was …absolutely necessary that members and their friends should intimate to the Hon Secretary … their intention to be present. The planned field trip to Aberthaw, the previous year in July, had been cancelled due to low take-up, having clashed with a meeting of the Royal Agricultural Society in Cardiff.

In the event it was a most successful trip. In the record for the day it was noted that John Prichard’s lecture had been delivered in the nave of the Abbey to …a large and appreciative audience. It was followed by a tour of the Abbey and …having spent a most agreeable and enjoyable day the party then commenced their return journey to Cardiff.

Details of several of the Society’s field trips in this period, including Tintern Abbey on 17 June 1873 and Llantrisant on 5 July 1870, can be found in the records of the Cardiff Naturalists’ Society held at Glamorgan Archives [DCNS/3/1].

Tony Peters, Glamorgan Archives Volunteer

Carry on up the Nile!’ The first public lecture programme launched by the Cardiff Naturalists Society, 27 November 1873

The Cardiff Naturalists Society was established in September 1867 and this autumn it celebrates its 150th anniversary. As just one element of the events planned by the Society, Iolo Williams will deliver a public lecture, at the National Museum of Wales, on Thursday 5 October. It is fitting that that the celebrations include such an event for the Society’s public lectures have always been seen as a valuable means of extending opportunities for the wider public to engage with and enjoy the natural sciences.

The early years of the Society can be traced through the records held at Glamorgan Archives. It is clear that, initially, the meetings of the society were seen as an opportunity for members to share their knowledge of various aspects of the natural sciences. For example, at the very first meeting, on 11 September 1867, one of the founding members, Philip Robinson, brought along his collection of British butterflies for display and examination by those attending. At the third meeting, on November 11 1867, another member, Professor Joseph Gagliardi, delivered a lecture on the different species of fish. By and large, this set the pattern for meetings in this period although, on occasions, the programme was supplemented by guest speakers.

Within a year the Society had held its first ‘Conversazione’. Using the Town Hall on St Mary’s Street, Cardiff, the Conversazione comprised of a series of exhibitions of aspects of the natural sciences drawing on collections owned by the Society and on loan from Museums. The exhibitions were supported on several occasions by public lectures delivered in the Assembly Rooms. By April 1873 this was so popular that three lectures delivered by a speaker engaged by the Society, Edmund Wheeler, FRAS, were repeated the following week. The local newspapers commended the Society and observed that the event had revived …the drooping Naturalists’ Society.

Encouraged by the success of the April 1873 Conversazione the Society announced, in November 1873, its first series of public lectures. The lectures were to be staged in the Assembly Rooms every fortnight from November through to April and would feature a range of eminent speakers. It was clear that this was announced with some trepidation given the costs involved, both for use of the hall and the fees for guest speakers. Although it was planned that each lecture would be ticketed, with an admission charge of 6d for members and 1s for non-members, there was a concern that the Society would incur a significant loss. To date most guest speakers had not charged for their services and, to assuage the concerns of members, it was agreed that a special fund be established, almost certainly underwritten by a number of committee members, to meet any costs incurred from the lecture series.

Nevertheless the programme of public lectures was announced in November in glowing terms with advertisements placed in the local newspapers detailing the speakers and topics planned. The programme was varied and wide ranging, including lectures on ‘Spectrum Analysis’, ‘The Treasures of the Deep’ and even ‘Personal Reminiscences of Wellington’. As the Society minutes for 18 November 1873 confirm, no expense was to be spared.

The Committee have now completed their arrangements for the delivery of series of popular and scientific Lectures to be given fortnightly during the present session. The lectures are provided by the Society at some considerable expense and are intended for the intellectual enjoyment of all classes.

Many of the lectures will be illustrated by beautiful drawings and dissolving views, and by the performance of brilliant and costly experiments.

The Committee solicit the special attention of the Public to this Series of Lectures which is the first attempt to supply a want long felt in Cardiff, viz the Periodical Delivery of First Class Scientific Lectures, by thoroughly able Professional Men. It is proposed in the event of this experiment proving successful, to establish a continuous Winter Series, embracing the highest Scientific and Literary talent which can be obtained.

The first lecture will be delivered by Edward H Jones, Esq, FCS, Analytical Chemist, on ‘Egypt’ and 1000 miles up the Nile, being a tour amongst the ancient Temples and ruins of Egypt and Nubia, and illustrated by paintings and photographs, shown by the aid of lime light and dissolving views [Minutes of meeting held November 18 1873, DCNS/3/1]


Much was at stake on the night of the first lecture on 27 November. The Cardiff and Merthyr Guardian reported the next day:

There was a large and fashionable audience, the room being crowded. The lectures … promise to prove as interesting as they will be intellectual and a rich treat is in store…. [Cardiff and Merthyr Guardian, 28 November 1873].

In the event the lecture was anything but ‘a treat’. The South Wales Daily News, in a lengthy report, summarised the lecture as:

…a disconnected, unintelligible descriptive outline of a number of places situated between Southampton and the second cataract of the Nile and back through the Suez Canal.

…the precipitate manner in which the audience left the room when the curtain was drawn across the views, without even thanking Mr Jones for his trouble, will perhaps convince him that a description of scenes that might have pleased the juveniles of a school would be ill- suited to the intelligence of the adult educated persons of both sexes present.

All in all, the lecture had …caused the greatest disappointment to the vast majority of the audience [South Wales Daily News, 28 November 1873].

It must have been a severe blow to the Society and they had only days to recover before the next lecture scheduled for 3 December. There was, yet again, a large turnout in the Assembly Rooms and there was little option but to apologise for the debacle on the 27th. The Chair on the night of the 3rd December, Mr Lukis, offered the audience in the Assembly Rooms his theory that:

…the Mr Jones they had was the wrong one and must have been an imposteur as he had not turned up since that evening – not even to call on Dr Taylor for his honorarium [South Wales Daily News, 4 December 1873]

Fortunately for the Society the lecture that night on ‘The Phenomena of Sound’ was to be delivered by Edmund Wheeler whose lecture series had been so well received in April. The newspaper report the next day confirmed that …the lecture was a very able one throughout and was highly appreciated by the audience.  The lecture series was back on track.

So, as the Cardiff Naturalists Society prepares for its public lecture on Thursday 5 October no doubt there is ‘a treat’ in store for those planning to attend at the National Museum. However, reflecting on the circumstances surrounding the Society’s first public lecture series in 1873, it might just be worth double checking that they have engaged ‘the right’ Iolo Williams.

Tony Peters, Glamorgan Archives Volunteer

Fossil ferns and reed…also an antique silver ring and a specimen of white rock: The Founding of the Cardiff Naturalists’ Society in September 1867.

On the 11th September 2017 the Cardiff Naturalists’ Society celebrates its 150th anniversary. The society is the longest established wildlife organisation in the area and its anniversary is being marked with an exhibition at The Cardiff Story illustrating the Society’s rich history. The exhibition has a particular focus on the founding of the society, its role in the creation of the National Museum, scientific discoveries and prominent members.

Established, initially, to promote the study of natural history, geology and the physical sciences, the Society’s records, including its minute books, circulars and reports, are held at the Glamorgan Archives. The records provide a detailed account of both the creation of the society and its many and varied activities from 1867 to the present day.

The first reference to a ‘Society’ was in August 1867 with the note of …the preliminary meeting of the members of the projected ‘Naturalists’ Society’ held in the upper room of the Free Library… on 29 August 1867. Chaired by William Taylor, Esq, MD and attended by 11 in total, it was agreed that the Society be called the Cardiff Naturalists’ Society and that …a Committee be formed to prepare rules for the regulation of the Society. Four days later the group met again to agree the rules. Although later amended and extended the original regulations set out in the Minute book, on 2 September 1867, envisaged the object of the Society to be The practical study of Natural History, Geology and Physical Sciences and the formation of a Museum in connection with the Free Library.  The planning committee had already advertised in local newspapers for members and made a point of emphasising that …ladies be eligible for membership.

First meeting

With the agreement of the purpose and regulations the first full meeting was held on 11 September 1867. The meeting was chaired by William Adams, the first President of the Society, who was a civil and mining engineer from Rhymney. The minutes list the 24 members in attendance that day although, despite advertising for members and the commitment to open the doors to women, all were men.

Drane's gifts

What then of the Fossil ferns and reed … also an antique silver ring and specimen of white rock recorded in the minute book? The Society was established for its members to share and develop their knowledge of all aspects of the natural sciences. To this extent, while the Society had many eminent speakers and organised seminars and field trips, it was expected that members would share their knowledge, research and in some cases private collections. For example, at the first meeting several members brought, for display and examination collections of butterflies and mosses.

There was also a commitment, from the outset, to promote an interest in the natural sciences to the people of the rapidly expanding town of Cardiff. In particular, the Society aimed to develop an extensive and well stocked Museum. The early meetings of the Society used the Museum Room of the Free Library in St Mary Street, provided free of charge on the understanding that the Society would develop and expand the Museum’s collection.  The Society addressed this by using its funds to purchase books and exhibits for the Museum, and members were encouraged to add to the collection with exhibits …to be deposited in the Cardiff Museum and become the property of the Corporation of Cardiff.

The minutes for the 11 September meeting state that fossil ferns and reed, an antique silver ring and a specimen of white rock were the very first to objects to be donated to the Society’s collection and, therefore, to the Museum. Significantly they were provided by Robert Drane who, until his death in 1914, was probably the best known and remembered member of the Cardiff Naturalists’ Society in this early period. Drane, who moved to Cardiff in 1855 at the age of 22, is commemorated by a brass plaque at the site of his pharmacy in Queen Street that states:

Here lived Robert Drane FLS naturalist, antiquary and connoisseur. This tablet was erected to his memory by the Cardiff Naturalists’ Society which was founded in these premises in the year 1867. 

As the records confirm, Drane was one of the 24 inducted into the Society on 11 September and he was elected at that meeting to the Society’s Committee. In addition, he was the first life member of the Society, being the only one to take up the option, at the first meeting, of purchasing a life membership for the fee of three guineas. It interesting to note that of the 24 present only 15 paid their fees that day and the Society soon introduced further regulations to confirm that All Members whose Subscriptions are one year in arrear shall forfeit their privileges of Membership. Those who are two years in arrear shall have their names erased.

On accepting the Presidency of the Society almost thirty years later, in 1896, Drane remarked:

This Society first opened its eyes in a little room behind a chemist’s shop in 1867 when there were but three persons present – Mr Phil Robinson, Mr R Rhys Jones and myself, and I alone of these am with you now. For these reasons, and because I am the original life member, I may, in some sort, claim to be its founder.

For Drane it was a typically elliptical and rather teasing statement. For whatever reasons, Robert Drane had not been at the planning meetings and was not one of the officers of the Society identified in the notices placed, in August 1867, in the local newspapers. Yet he was clearly identified as a key figure in the Museum Sub-committee of the Free Library established in 1864. In particular, he had taken the lead in improving and extending the range of exhibits held at the Museum. For example, the minutes record that, on 22 March 1864, Mr Drane be authorized to buy British Birds stuffed for the Museum at his direction – not exceeding £5 value.

As a key player in previous attempts to improve the Museum’s collection and, as someone with an active interest in just about all aspects of the natural sciences, Robert Drane would have been well known to those who gathered to set out the Society’s regulations, including Peter Price, a fellow member of the Museum sub-committee, and Philip Robinson of the Free Library. It is very likely, therefore, that plans for the creation of the Society were hatched at a meeting in Drane’s shop as claimed in the Queen Street plaque. There is just one fly in the pharmacist’s ointment; Drane did not move to the Queen Street premises until late in 1867 or more likely 1868. The meeting referred to was, therefore, almost certainly held at his first shop at 11 Bute Street. However, such a minor slip should not be allowed to detract from such a good story.

Within a year, membership of the Society stood at 76. The acceptance, in 1868, by the Marquess of Bute of an Honorary Membership was a particular feather in the Society’s cap and a sign of its growing influence and prestige.

Invitation to Bute

Bute's response

By 1905, when the Society was the driving force behind the recommendation to the Privy Council that the National Museum be located in Cardiff, it was the largest scientific society in Wales.

The Cardiff Naturalists’ Society, therefore, quite rightly, lays claim to having been a key agent in the promotion of the study of the natural sciences. As the Society celebrates its 150th anniversary, it would be interesting to know whether, somewhere within the collections held in Cardiff, there is still a place for the fossils, silver ring and rock donated by Robert Drane in 1867.

The story of the Society can be followed through the records held at Glamorgan Archives of both the Cardiff Naturalists’ Society, 1867-1991 (ref. DCNS) and the papers of Robert Drane (ref. DXIB).

Tony Peters, Glamorgan Archives Volunteer

The Miners’ Strike, 1984/5

As cataloguing continues on the Glamorgan’s Blood Project, the variety of material within the collection becomes more apparent, from fatal accident reports to records on the colliery closure programme. One of the latest set of records to be catalogued concerns the miners’ strike of 1984/5. The strike was a turning point in the history of the South Wales and UK Coalfields and the politics and ethics of the strike divided colleagues, friends and families.

1. DNCB64-18 Strike breaker

Front page of ‘The Miner’, Saturday 2 November 1929 showing a photograph of police escorting the only three men working at Blaengarw during a non-unionist dispute.  This photograph was used as a poster – ‘A Strike Breaker is a Traitor’ – by the NUM South Wales Area during the 1984-85 strike [DNCB/64/18]

The papers of the National Coal Board held at Glamorgan Archives can be used to demonstrate the impact of the strike on all parties: the National Coal Board itself, those on strike and those who chose to return to work before the strike ended.

The effects of the strike on the National Coal Board can be seen through papers such as memoranda concerning safety and maintenance of mines during the strike period and papers concerning financial losses during the strike. Papers relating to priorities that would need to be addressed on resumption of work, such as supply of work clothes, stocking of canteens and repair of boilers in the pithead baths, show the physical effect of the strike on individual collieries and the work needed to get back to full production levels. Circulars issued nationally and locally show the techniques that the National Coal Board were using to try to get people back to work, with circulars issued to the miners by Philip Weekes, Area Director and by individual colliery managers.


Front page of Coal News, Mar 1985. Statistics on miners returning to work used to encourage those still on strike to return to work [DNCB/67/1/17/18]

The views of striking workers can be seen through copies of correspondence with the NUM concerning strike negotiations and the National Union of Mineworkers’ terms. Pamphlets within the collection give a vivid impression of the beliefs of the striking miners, with strong, emotive language being used to present the NUM’s viewpoint, in posters such as that titled ‘A Strike Breaker is a Traitor’.


National Union of Mineworkers leaflet detailing reasons why the strike should be supported [DNCB/67/1/32]

Correspondence with the NUM also demonstrates their efforts to request amnesty for miners dismissed during the strike for strike related practices, with lists showing actions by strikers, numbers of cases that could have led to dismissal and numbers of re-instated and re-engaged miners.

The records also show the views of those not in favour of the strike, through letters sent to the NCB by individuals and colliery workers, and anti-strike pamphlets. For those who chose to return to work before the end of the strike, correspondence within the collection offers us an insight into the mental and physical abuse that some miners went through after returning to work. More than one miner describes being ‘sent to Coventry’ by his fellow workers and there are records of incidents of threats to individuals, their families and property. The treatment of these men prompted many to seek transfers to other collieries or to request voluntary redundancy.


The Working Miners’ Newsletter, published by the Democratic Working Miners of the NUM [DNCB/67/1/17/1]

Overall these papers give an insight into a tough and pivotal time in the history of the South Wales Coalfield. Viewing these papers alongside other material in the Glamorgan Archives collection, such as (but not limited to) papers of the South Wales Women’s Support Groups (DWSG); papers of Councillor Ray T Davies, treasurer for the Miners’ Strike Support Group (D316); the 1984/5 diary of William Croad, a Senior Management Official, at Lady Windsor Colliery, Ynysybwl (D1174/1); Aberdare Miners’ Relief Fund Records (D1432), and press cuttings on the strike within the South Wales Police Constabulary Records (DSWP/49/7), will enable research to be undertaken into all aspects of the strike.

Louise Clarke, Glamorgan’s Blood Project Archivist