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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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].

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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

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