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.

PS

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

Ural

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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.