Hughesovka 1917: Edith Steel’s story

The stories of most of the Welsh families that worked for the New Russia Company in Hughesovka end in 1917 with their return to Britain following the fall of the Czar’s Government in the early part of the year. However, many of the foreign workforce had lived and worked in Russia for many years and their sons and daughters had married into local families in the Donbass area.  The choice in 1917 was much more complex for such families and several elected to remain in Russia. The Hughesovka Research Archive provides a glimpse into the lives of some of those who opted to remain in 1917 and tells us of their fortunes in the following decade in revolutionary Russia.

Edith Steel was the daughter of Samuel and Tabitha Steel. The Steel family was originally from Blaina in Gwent and had worked in Russia in the coal and iron industries for many years. Edith and her two sisters and two brothers were established members of the Hughesovka community. Like many others, most of the Steel family opted to leave Hughesovka in 1917 and return to Britain. Edith, however, had married a local man, Alexandre Bolotov and, by 1917, they had two sons Dnietroff (Kolka) and Alexandre (Sasha) both serving in the Russian Army. It must have been a sad day when, on 19 September 1917, Edith’s mother, her sister, Mary, and 3 nephews left Hughesovka for Petrograd on the first leg of the homeward journey. Her brother in law, Percy Blackburn, stayed on until April 1918 and would have been one of the last of the foreign employees to quit Hughesovka. After that time, with Russia torn for many years by revolution and civil war, communication with family and friends in Britain would have been difficult if not impossible.

The story is picked up 12 years later through two letters in the Hughesovka Research Archive from Edith and her son, Alexandre, written to Mary Blackburn (nee Steel). It seems that Mary had managed to get a letter to her sister, Edith. This was quite a feat for, by 1930, the Bolotov family was living in the town of Gubakha in the western Urals, over 1000 miles east of Hughesovka, which had been renamed Stalino in 1924. We are not told why the family moved from Donetsk. As a mineral rich area looking to develop its mining industries, Gubakha would have needed men skilled in mining and iron making. It may well have been a forced move, although it is possible that the family simply took advantage of the work opportunities in the area. Whatever their reasons, as with Hughesovka in the early days, life in Gubakha would have been harsh with the feel of a frontier town. It would not have been helped by a climate marked by below freezing temperatures for many months of the year.

The first letter is from Edith replying to a letter sent by her sister Mary from Manchester in October 1930. Despite their situation her concern was primarily for Mary who, in the intervening period, had lost her husband and a son and daughter. The text in the Archive is a copy taken from the original:

My dear sister Macha!

We are all very happy to receive a letter from you. From the beginning I did not want to believe when Sasha handed your letter and said look here is a letter from Macha and it came from England.

It was really very hard for you to go through all the bad things and all one after the other. First your loving husband, then your lovely daughter and finally your son. I was crying all the time when I was reading your letter.

We with Sasha also had experienced bad times. We lived through two wars, first Russian-German and then revolution. Both our sons were fighting in war. Sasha came back alive but Kolka my youngest lost his life. Later we had shortage of food and on top of it we both contracted typhus and were ill for a long time. Fortunately we had friends in Belgium and we received regular food parcels from them.

Soon after returning from war my son got married and my second joy was when they had a son, they named him Nikolas so I became happy grandmother. Then they had a daughter and named her Eda, just like me and third child Ninatchka, she is only two and half years old. She is very lovely child and she loves me very much.

My daughter in law is from the Ukraine and her name is Fany. We all live together in one flat. Financially we are very well off, my husband earns very good money. Sasha earns good money. Sasha also has very good position, he works as engineer in charge of coke furnace. The factory is situated in the Urals. My grandson Kolka goes to school and Eda is also learning reading and writing. I am going to photograph them both and send you pictures when they are ready and please, dear Macha, send me photos of all my nephews, photos of my brothers Albert and Aleksander. Tell my brothers to write to me and describe everything about themselves.

Dear Macha, do you know where is Uncle Tom and Aunty Olga Kuper? I think that they are also in England. When you write letter to London please give our regards to Aunty Febi.

Dear sister I am longing to be near you, to talk to you and find out all about you and your children and to know more about your late daughter. It is tragedy that you lost her so soon. Now we are both without daughters, daughters are so much nicer, they are more gentle and loving.

Please write to me all about your life in England. Here in Russia at present everything goes ahead, we are building factories, producing works, new buildings, life is completely different to what it was before.

Dear Macha, I would like to teach my grandchildren English language, but unfortunately I have not any books in English. Please send me English books which will help me teach them.

Please write to me more often. Give all my love to all. Your loving sister Eda Bolotova.


Macha, Sasha has holiday very year, maybe we could come and visit you in England. Tell us how to get entry to England. Write, write soon.

The tone in the letter is interesting and it may have been that the family had to take care in speaking of life in Russia. Outwardly it is upbeat on their life in Gubakha and conditions in Russia. However, there are several telling comments on the difficulties that they had endured over the past decade. The second letter is to Mary from Edith’s son, Alexandre (Sasha), dated 18 October 1930. It provides a more frank description of their situation. Alexandre also recognised that there was little possibility of the Bolotovs being allowed to leave Russia to visit Britain. The original letter is held in the Archives and the text below is taken from a translation.

Final image for posting

Dear Aunty Mary,                                                                 

We have received your letter dated 7.10.1930, it is the first one for the past 10 years.

Many changes occurred at your place in those years and I am sending our condolences on the death of grandmother, Uncle Petia and other relatives. The only thing that is good is that your sons are grown up and therefore you shall be looked after and happy, which we wish you from all our hearts.

There are many changes here as well. As you will now we have settled in the Urals.

We are all alive and well: Mother, father, wife and children: Niusia, Idunk and Kolka. We live together and the time goes fast. My son is now seven and a half years old and goes to school. Idunia shall start school in the next year. My youngest Niusia, she is two years old, is still at home happily running around the rooms.

I am working from morning until night on the coal furnaces. The father works on the building of a large coal chemical plant.

Grandmother Ida and the wife are occupied on home duties.

In the evenings we are listening to the radio and find out all the news and what is happening in the Soviet Union.

The winter is almost here. It is cold and sometimes the frost reaches -40c. Our locality is full of forests and mountains. In the forests there all kinds of creatures and animals – also some bears. In my free time which does not occur often – I take a rifle and go hunting.

You are inviting us for a visit, but it is so far and it is impossible to arrange for such a trip, one has to obtain a permit to leave.

Write often please, let’s keep contact which we lost such a long time ago.

We are sending greetings from all our family, to all our relatives so far away. We are wishing you a long and happy life and you Aunty to marry the sons and wait for grandchildren.

I am kissing you many times from my heart, your nephew Sasha.

Address:       Russia


St, Gubakha

Coal Plant

Master of the Coal Furnaces

Alexandr Alexendrovich Bolotov

PS Mother is going to write herself as soon as she can. We are going to get our photo made for you soon.

For sisters who would have enjoyed a reasonably affluent lifestyle in Hughesovka, life had clearly been very difficult in the decade since they had parted. It’s tempting to conclude that those who had left for Britain had been the lucky ones. To an extent that is probably true. However, Mary’s husband, Percy had returned from service with the British Army in Russia in poor health and, despite being a skilled man, had found it difficult to find work. Mary and Percy had six sons but it is clear they had always wanted a daughter. As Edith guessed, they must have been hit hard by the death of their daughter, Joyce, within three weeks of her birth in 1925. Further tragedy was to strike the family the following year when Percy died at the age of 48, only one day after they had lost their 9 year old son, Joey, killed in a motor accident. As a lone parent caring for her family in Manchester, life must have been difficult for Mary Blackburn. It is also difficult to imagine how her sister Edith had coped in Russia during the Civil War. The loss of a son in the war and the move to Gubakha must have been traumatic experiences. Edith was just grateful that her husband and son had work and the family was still together. It was a small matter but, hopefully, Edith and Mary were able to take comfort from once again being in contact after a break of 13 years and able to share news of the family and, no doubt, memories of their days in Hughesovka.

The material used for this account is drawn from letters held in the Hughesovka Research Archive at Glamorgan Archives.

Tony Peters, Glamorgan Archives Volunteer

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.