Remembering Aberfan – a personal recollection

IT was a miserable and wet Monday morning on 24 October 1966 as 300 young children were told by their class teachers to go “quickly and quietly” to the school hall for a Special Assembly.

The autumn wind and driving rain swept across the playground of this seaside primary school in Hove, as I joined my friends in the wide windowed hall.

Over the weekend our parents and flickering images on our black and white televisions made us all aware of the terrible event that had occurred three days earlier, and some 214 miles away, in the Merthyr Vale in South Wales.

On that day, 21 October 1966, a colliery spoil tip collapsed and slid down a mountainside into the mining village of Aberfan.

It engulfed Pantglas Junior School and around 20 houses. In total 144 people were killed… and 116 of them were children.

Children who were innocently attending school, just like we were in a wet but safe Sussex town.

We listened intently as our headteacher, Mr Whiting, recounted the terror of Aberfan and announced that over the course of the week the school would collect money and foodstuff to send to the families of the bereaved.

We sang hymns and after a full hour most of us left the school hall with tears reddening our small eyes.

We did not know Aberfan, but now we could find the village on a map and offer childlike solidarity with the children who were lost.

And as the years rolled by I, like thousands of others, learned more about Aberfan and the tragedy that unfolded on that grim October day, 50 years ago.

My own solidarity was hardened when I worked as a teacher in a similar mining village of Darton in South Yorkshire in the early 1980s and witnessed at first hand the grim reality and dangers of deep pit mining.

Many of my pupils left school to cut coal.

My solidarity hardened still further when in the late 1980s I was hospitalised with lung cancer in Llandough, near Cardiff.

Many of my fellow patients in the ward and at the radiotherapy clinic were former miners from the south Wales valleys and sufferers from pneumoconiosis and consequential lung cancer.

I listened at first hand to their stories of life in the pits and the betrayal of their futures and communities, first by the National Coal Board (NCB) and later by Thatcher and her minions.

So now I look back with clearer eyes and stronger solidarity at the reality of what happened in 1966.

It took just five minutes for the coal tip above Aberfan to slide down the mountain and engulf Pantglas Junior School.

The pupils were just beginning their first lessons of the day when the rushing landslide of mud and debris flooded into their classrooms.

The Aberfan disaster was not just the single most appalling event in modern British history, it also represented a multiple betrayal of a whole community.

If the deaths of 116 children and 28 adults had been the result of a tragic accident due to natural forces – what insurance companies refer to as an Act of God – it would still have been a shocking tragedy.

But the criminal negligence of the NCB in failing to remove the tip that collapsed, coupled with the callous post-disaster treatment of the community by political leaders, made the loss of life even more heart-breaking.

Unlike the Hillsborough Disaster or miscarriage of justice cases that took years of persistent campaigning before the truth was recognised, the negligent conduct of the NCB was quickly exposed.

When he was appointed to chair the tribunal inquiry that investigated the disaster, Lord Justice Edmund Davies stressed that he would not be party to a whitewash – and he was true to his word.

It said: “Blame for the disaster rests upon the NCB.

“This blame is shared among the NCB headquarters, the South Western Divisional Board, and certain individuals.

“There was a total absence of tipping policy and this was the basic cause of the disaster.”

It criticised the lack of legislation regulating the safety of tips or guidance from the Inspectorate of Mines.

And it said the “legal liability of the NCB to pay compensation… is incontestable and uncontested”.

Its conclusion was: “The Aberfan Disaster is a terrifying tale of bungling ineptitude by many men charged with tasks for which they were totally unfitted, of failure to heed clear warnings, and of total lack of direction from above.”

But what made the negligence even worse is that from the time the tips began to accumulate there were compelling signs that they posed a significant danger.

In the years before the Aberfan disaster, complaints had been made to the NCB by local residents and by the local Merthyr Tydfil Borough Council.

On July 24, 1963 – more than three years before the disaster – a letter was sent by DCW Jones, the council’s Borough and Waterworks Engineer, to Tom Ritchie, the District Public Works Superintendent.

The letter was headed Danger from Coal Slurry being tipped at the rear of the Pantglas School.

It stated: “The NCB appear to be taking slurry similar to that which was deposited and gave so much trouble in the quarry at Merthyr Vale, up on to the existing tip at the rear of the Pantglas Schools.

“I regard it as extremely serious, as the slurry is so fluid and the gradient so steep that it could not possibly stay in position in the winter time or during periods of heavy rain.”

Mr Jones’ second letter was to D Roberts, Area Chief Mechanical Engineer for the NCB, carried the same heading and said that the Public Works Superintendent had been in touch with the Merthyr Vale Colliery manager Mr Wynne about the tipping.

He wrote: “I am very apprehensive about this matter and this apprehension is also in the minds of the local councillors and the residents in this area.

“They have previously experienced, during periods of heavy rain, the movement of the slurry to the danger and detriment of people and property adjoining the site of the tips.

“You are no doubt well aware that the tips at Merthyr Vale tower above the Pantglas area and if they were to move a very serious position would accrue.”

But the NCB took no action.

The inquiry heard there had been five incidents at three tip sites between 1939 and 1965: at Cilfynydd Colliery near Pontypridd on December 5 1939; at Aberfan Tip Number 4 on October 27 1944; at Aberfan Tip Number 5 between 1947 and 1951; at Aberfan Tip Number 7 in November 1963; and at the redundant Ty Mawr Colliery in Rhondda on March 29 1965.

Unmentioned at the inquiry was a tip slide that occurred on November 23 1960 at Parc Colliery, on the west side of the Rhondda Valley.

The South Wales Echo and Rhondda Leader reported at the time that spoil flowed down the hillside, felling a ropeway pylon as lather of waste swirled past it, strongly suggesting a flow-slide into Nant Cwm Parc.

The severe effects included a culvert on the Nant blocked with swept-down debris, the colliery surface and railway sidings flooded by water and tip waste, the evacuation of 44 families and restoration work that took 18 months to restore the railway sidings to normal use.

On an unrecorded date in 1965 this tip failed again, with evidence suggesting that a substantial outburst of groundwater probably occurred there, emanating from a buried spring.

So, between one and six years before the Aberfan disaster, the NCB had experienced serious tip failures displaying characteristics very similar to those at Aberfan.

Almost all the senior managers and engineers at divisional level at the time of the Aberfan disaster had been in post at the time of the Parc Tip failures in 1960 and 1965.

Some 30 years after the disaster, in 1996, a paper written for the Quarterly Journal of Engineering Geology called Rapid failures of colliery spoil heaps in the South Wales Coalfield identified 21 significant incidents over a period of 67 years to 1965.

With all these precedents, it’s difficult to explain the inertia that seemed endemic in the NCB when it came to the overriding need to safeguard the lives of people living and working beneath the tips.

Such negligence that led to the loss of so many lives is impossible to excuse.

The tips were the responsibility of a nationalised industry which was supposed to be dedicated to the collective good in mining communities which themselves were founded on the finest of humane principles.

In betraying the people of Aberfan, whose lives were cruelly dismissed as insignificant and unworthy of protection, the NCB also trashed the ideal of social solidarity on which the common ownership of the mining industry was built.

Aberfan was just one example of the huge environmental and human cost that coal extracted, and which represented the other side of coal’s significance for scores of communities from Lanarkshire and Northumberland to Yorkshire, Nottinghamshire and South Wales.

The Aberfan Disaster led to a gradual but significant programme of clearing land given over to the colliery waste heaps and the tragedy played a part in the greening of the mining valleys again.

But coal has not yet been consigned to the past. Nothing has replaced the Coal mining itself might be gone but the economic impact of the failure to replace it is everywhere. Just as Aberfan was let down by the government in the 1960s, it, and mining communities across Britain, continue to feel let down by the authorities.

Earlier this year I visited the grave of Andrea, a dear friend who died in 1990 and whose family lived and worked in a neighbouring former mining village of Rassau. I also visited Aberfan.

Like my former home of Darton, both villages now hold little resemblance to the time when coal was still king. Grassing, landscaping, new housing, small industrial estates and a working class gentrification has changed the local demeanour.

Gone are the pit head wheels, gone is the black dust which clogged the air, gone is the noise of the shift claxons and gone are the coal trucks which rumbled along the lanes day and night.

They are all gone… but the memories remain.

  • A minute’s silence is being held tomorrow (Friday 21 October, 2016) to remember those killed in the Aberfan disaster.