Sunday, 16 October 2016

I remember the disaster at Aberfan as if it were yesterday.

From @sandycraigart

As we come up to the 50th anniversary of that terrible, terrible tragedy I thought I would put down some of my own thoughts and recollections. I grew up very close to the village of Aberfan and over the years the memories of the events of that day have come back to me at times incredibly vividly and at times incredibly painfully.  To this day I am sometimes amazed of how those memories overwhelm me sometimes for no apparent reason even though it is now a long time ago. Recently somebody asked me about my experiences and although at first I was quite happy to talk about it I quickly found it brought me close to tears.

The disaster happened on Friday 21st October 1966.  I remember it was the last Friday before the half term holidays.  I was nine years old, the same age as most of the children who were to die. I was at school that day at Caedraw about three miles away from the Pantglas school where the vast majority of the deaths were to occur. At the time I was doing a school meteorology project and I was studiously keeping a diary of the daily weather. As is often the case in The Valleys in late October we had had days and days of continual monochrome rain which was making my diary quite boring and repetitive and it was that rain that was to cause the flood of misery. The morning of the disaster was bitterly cold and misty, as a portent as to what was to follow the morning mist clung to the sides of the valleys as a shroud clings  to the furrows of the body of a corpse.

The disaster happened early in the morning just after morning prayers. In those days all schools used to have an assembly followed by prayers so it was the same for us in Caedraw as it would have been for the kids in Pantglas. I was sat at my desk near the window and I vividly remember the news hitting the town of Merthyr as if it were yesterday.  It was as if you could palpably feel the impact of the news on the town and the community. Although at that time we didn’t know what had happened we knew something had happened.  You could hear sirens going off all over the town and ambulance, fire and police all racing down the valley. In those days, before most people had telephones, there used to be an air raid type siren that was used to summon the reserve firemen. The ringing of ambulance, police and fire bells together with the drone of that air raid type fire siren is an enduring memory of mine of that fateful morning

By the time morning playtime came teachers were running about obviously agitated and we were beginning to hear that something had happened in Aberfan.  The first thing we heard was that a wall had fallen down at the school on top of some kids. It didn’t take much longer for us to hear what had happened but still at this time the extent of the disaster and the loss of life was beyond us.

For those of you who didn’t know South Wales at this time it is hard to explain how much coal tips were part of our everyday existence. They were everywhere, by the sides of schools, by the sides of churches.  They dominated the local landscape and in no way were they seen as a danger. As I had grown up in the area I thought everywhere had tips like we did.  As children tips were where we used to play, ride our bikes over them like scramblers or one of my favourite games was to slide down them on an old piece of lino or oil cloth as we used to call it at the time. Tips were such a ubiquitous part of our everyday being I reckon I was about 13 before I realised they were not part of the natural environment.
Miners helping with the rescue with the tips of Aberfan in the background

By the end of school we were very much aware that something very serious had happened in Aberfan but still the full extent of the loss of life was not clear, but at nine years old grasping the true extent of such horrors is not easy.  In those heady days when fear of everything did not stalk every corner of parenthood as it seems to do today as a nine year old I was allowed to walk the mile or so from school to my home crossing a number of busy roads unaccompanied. On my way home the roads were already filling with traffic going down to Aberfan as people sought to help in any way they could. When I got home my father had set off on foot to see if he could help, lots of people did the same that day. Miners walked over the mountain from Penrhiwceiber  to try to help as did the miners from the nearby Merthyr Vale colliery but all to no avail as nobody was pulled out alive after  11.00 just two hours after tip had engulfed the school. As a matter of fact one of the last people to be pulled out alive was Jeff Edwards who was later to become a friend of mine and mayor of Merthyr.

Jeff being rescued

That night I went out to play with my mates as usual and I remember the roads of Merthyr being completely blocked as people tried to get to the village. There was a strange sense of desperation in the air as everybody wanted to help but there was no way they could.  In the mid 1960s cars were not as plentiful as they are today so to see such a huge traffic jam, particularly in Merthyr, was unheard of.  When I got home my father had retuned and although he had been unable to help as there had already been too many people there already he was obviously shaken and very subdued.

It was the aftermath of the disaster which was I think to give me personally the biggest trauma and was to show the British Establishment at its very worse.  The way the people of Aberfan were treated disgusted me then as a nine year old and still does to this day.  Our so called wonderful Queen took eight days before she decided she could be bothered to visit, which left a lasting resentment among many local people to the institution of the monarchy. Almost straight away the National Coal Board tried to wriggle out of their responsibility for causing the disaster and would eventually only pay £500 compensation for the death of each child. Those whose houses were destroyed in the disaster were rehoused in caravans through the cold, cold winter and where they were left to suffer their grief at losing homes and loved ones. £150,000 from the disaster fund, which was donated by mainly working people from all over the world, was used by the NCB to remove the remains of the coal tip and the rest of the mess left by the disaster this money was finally repaid in 1997 but did not take in to account the full interest and inflation rates and many feel £1.5 Million should have been repaid this was finally repaid in 2007 by the Welsh Government.  

Just take some time to think about all of this for one minute.  Think about how much wealth the coal mines of South Wales provided for this country.  How that coal was used to build the worldwide industry and empire that The Queen and her ancestors lorded it over and in thanks for that they were told that their children’s lives were worth £500 and if you lost your home as well just get in a shed and get on with it, that’s good enough for you. The people of Wales, the UK and the rest of the world showed great compassion, solidarity and generosity to the people of Aberfan with donations, gifts and messages of support flowing in from all over the world. In contrast the British Establishment in the form of The Government, The National Coal Board and the Monarchy closed ranks to ensure that as little damage as possible was inflicted on their interests in spite of the fact of the great debt that they owed to the mining communities of South Wales. At the very least the Queen should have let the survivors live in Buckingham Palace and the National Coal Board should have given them free coal to heat it.  It was to be less than twenty years later that these same mining communities were to be deemed the “enemy within” by another Establishment figure who viewed the mining  communities of South Wales with distain.

 I sometimes think if just one percent of the wealth the was produced by the communities of South Wales that supported the development of the British Empire came back into the Valleys we wouldn’t have suffered the misery of events like Aberfan the continuing poverty and the ongoing exclusion and poverty that continues to blight this area to this day. It has been interesting in the recent reporting of the anniversary of Aberfan that it has become evident that not many younger people know of the story. Obviously it is not something taught in schools.  I believe it is possible to learn great lessons from history particularly about what a nation holds dear and what its real values are, therein lies the reason that our young people are not told the true story of Aberfan.

Cofiwch Aberfan


  1. My dad was a miner and we lived in a typical Fife mining community. We followed the reports of the Aberfan disaster with horror and with tears. A child myself, I had no real understanding of the extent or enormity of what had happened, despite the talk at home and in my primary school. We said prayers for the children of Aberfan and I remember there being a collection for them. We lived through mining disasters of our own, the fire at the Michael Colliery where my dad worked as mine rescue. Nothing to compare to what Aberfan and Welsh miners experienced. I remember all too well Thatcher and her vicious vendetta against the miners. The long term damage she did to families and communities. You are right to say that the interests of the Establishment and of the rich and powerful will always supersede the needs of the very people who procured their wealth for them and built this country. Nothing changes in that respect and Aberfan demonstrated that all too clearly. A shameful and despicable betrayal of the Welsh people.

  2. Thank you Edith for your comment. Yes the legacy of both Aberfan and the miners' strike (on which I have blogged about before) have left me in no doubt as to the fact that the lives of working people are cheap in the eyes of The Establishment. As you say all mining communities suffer from these hardships and a lasting legacy for me from that time was how people from all over the world sent donations, toys, gifts and all sorts of things to show their sympathy for the people of Aberfan. That was one important thing that helped people get through that difficult time.

  3. Great read Martin. It doesn't get any less harrowing even after all these years.

    My father told me the tale of Aberfan. He'd have been 15 at the time. He recalls huge blankets being passed around the perimeter of the pitch at Ninian Park and the crowd throwing coins into it. I'm pretty sure people were throwing money in for families and not for the Coal Board coffers. It became so heavy that more and more men were required to carry it. He later worked in Cardiff with a chap who lost his daughter in the disaster.

    I think with mining disasters it's the fear or recognition of the same happening to your community, among otehr things, that helps binds working class communities together. Whether they are steel communities like Brymbo or Port Talbot; or farming communities; or coal communities like Senghennydd or Gresford. The inherent danger of the work upon which entire communities were reliant means sympathies with people and places far away and never visited are very acute.

    My mother-in-law grew up in Gresford over twenty years after that village's mining disaster and she remembers how many people in the village grew up without a dad or uncle. It's easy to forget these days - in which for so many people the biggest risk at work they encounter is the shredder - quite how much anxiety to families was caused by simply going to work. And as you rightly point out Martin, these lives have always been cheap to the Establishment. And so they remain.

    Dal dy dir.