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Aberfan Disaster 1966 Case Study

The Aberfan Disaster: 21 October 1966.

40 years ago today, when I was a small boy living in South Wales, a terrible disaster unfolded on that community in the mining village of Aberfan, and on the psyche of the south welsh nation itself. In the morning of the 21st of October, at 9.15, a "slag heap" consisting of colliery waste (unwanted rock and coal) from a local mine slipped and slid down Merthyr Mountain. On its way, it destroyed twenty houses and a farm, before engulfing Pentglas Junior School. The children had just been singing the hymn "All Things Bright and Beautiful" at school assembly when a great noise was heard outside. Had they been in their classrooms, as they would have been only a few minutes later, the loss of life would have been much reduced, but among the 144 people killed were 116 children between the ages of 7 and 10. It was said that a whole generation had been wiped-out, in that close-knit mining-village world of the Welsh valleys.
At the "Tribunal of Inquiry into the Aberfan Disaster", the National Coal Board (NCB) was found responsible for the disaster itself, due to "ignorance, ineptitude and a failure of communication". It was found that the collapse of the slag-heap had been caused by a build-up of water in the pile, and that when a slip happened, the fine material of the tip liquified (thixotropy in engineering terms) causing the whole to slide down the mountain. The primary cause of the "water" was an underground spring beneath the tip. The spring was well known to locals but the NCB denied all knowledge of it. Two days of very heavy rainfall had loosened the slag from the Merthyr Vale colliery causing half a million tonnes of coal waste to callapse in the direction of the school. Parents and miners, as well as the rescue services dug frantically, some with bare hands to try and locate survivors, of whom there were but a handful. A mass funeral was held on 25 October 1966, and the children were buried in separate marked graves on the hillside.
So horrifying was the disaster than everyone wanted to do something - anything - to help. Hundreds of people (including my own father) stopped what they were doing, threw a shovel in the car and drove to Aberfan to try to aid with the rescue. Their efforts were largely futile, and these well meaning but untrained hands simply got in the way of the trained rescue teams. Nobody was rescued alive beyond 11 AM on the day it happened, and it was almost a week before all the bodies were recovered.
The Mayor of Merthyr immediately launched a disaster fund to support the village and the bereaved. Donations poured in from all over the world. I suppose that in its time its influence on international psyche was something like that of the "2004 Tsunami" in Indonesia. The final fund amounted to £1,750,000 (probably £20 million in today's money). Some of the money was donated directly to bereaved families, a sum of £50 each, and it also paid for house repairs, a new community hall, and a memorial to the dead. Since the NCB refused to accept full financial responsibility for the disaster, the fund ended up contributing £150,000 toward the cost of removing remaining tips overlooking the village.
The tragic event of Aberfan led to the "Mines and Quarries (Tips) Act (1969)" and the 1971 regulations, which hold quarry owners responsible for securing the safety of solid and liquid waste tips and providing for design, supervision, inspection, notification, keeping records and making rules for tipping procedures.
Lord Robens of Woldingham, chairman of the NCB did not rush to the scene of the disaster, but instead went to accept his appointment as Chancellor of the University of Surrey. Subsequently, he misrepresented the case of the slide to the community (which had held him in their trust and respect) and falsely claimed that nothing could have been done to prevent it. He never apologised, and bad feeling remains in Aberfan to this day.

On October 21, 1966, a coal tip on the hillside above the town of Aberfan in south Wales collapsed, creating a tidal wave of slurry that descended on to houses and a primary school below. 144 people were killed, 116 of whom were children.

Across the world, there was a sense of shock and horror; a disaster fund quickly raised £1.75m to help the community. Many also wrote letters of sympathy, some 50,000 of which survive today. The writings show how mothers who had lost children in accidents or illness and people from other coal mining communities felt particularly touched by the Welsh disaster. People with Welsh relatives, backgrounds or even just holiday memories wrote of the warmth of the nation and its people.

Media coverage at the time contributed to the idea that this was a Welsh event rather than purely local one, partly because it needed to describe where Aberfan was. But newsreels and other reports added to this by employing Welsh narrators, choral music and references to the nation’s tragic history of mining accidents.

For a few, the events had a political edge, and the disaster took place at a time when Welsh nationalism was beginning to become a serious political force. In parliament, Gwynfor Evans, Plaid Cymru’s newly-elected MP, claimed that the government’s response would have been stronger had the tip collapsed on Hampstead, in London, or Eton.

The security of Labour’s hold on south Wales and the government’s shameful marginalisation of the village’s needs after the disaster meant he was probably quite right. Indeed, the disaster played a key role in convincing some in Wales that both the nationalised coal industry and Labour governance were no longer operating in the interests of the working-class communities they were supposed to represent.

This did not mean they saw Welsh nationalism as the solution, and Evans’ claim that the disaster might not have happened at all had Wales had its own coal board was less convincing. Nonetheless, there continues to be people who see the disaster as another example of English mismanagement of Wales.

Cultural significance

More common than interpreting Aberfan through the lens of Welsh nationalism is a continuing sense that the disaster is a part of a distinct national history. Even the Welsh national football squad visited the memorial garden in October, a recognition of both their own and the disaster’s cultural significance to the Welsh nation.

Such gestures are more than simply the product of Welsh national identity. In a small and mobile nation, it is not difficult to find people whose relatives lived in Aberfan or were among the hundreds who went there to assist in the rescue operation. Similarly, there are thousands upon thousands of Welsh people with personal or family connections to the coal industry, and for them the disaster is not simply something that happened in another time and another place. It is part of their own family history.

The disaster also sums up the schizophrenic relationship Welsh society has with its coal mining heritage. At one level, there is an immense popular pride in the work miners undertook and the sacrifices they endured. There is also a recognition that it was coal that made modern Wales. Without it, communities such as Aberfan would not have existed at all. Indeed, the knowledge that it was their labour that created the waste above the village added guilt to the grief felt by some bereaved fathers.

Coal’s community price

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 the Welsh people. Mining polluted landscapes and, as a 1909 news report showed, 1966 was not even the first time a coal tip slipping had killed a child in Wales.

Nor was Aberfan even close to being the deadliest accident experienced by the industry in Wales. Communities across the coalfield suffered pit disasters; in 1913 an explosion at Senghenydd, near Caerphilly, killed as many 439 men and boys. By the 1960s safety underground had improved, but in that decade alone 429 miners were killed in accidents in south Wales. Aberfan was, of course, different to nearly all other mining accidents in Wales, befalling mostly innocent children at school not those in the pits, but the tragedy it evoked was all too familiar.

The Aberfan disaster led to a gradual but significant programme of clearing land given over 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 scale of jobs that it created and Aberfan looms close in Welsh memories because large parts of Wales have yet to find a new economic future.

Coal mining itself might be gone but the economic impact of the failure to replace it is everywhere in the south Wales valleys. Just as Aberfan was let down by the government in the 1960s, it, and mining communities across Wales, continue to feel let down by the authorities. The tragedy of coal is multifaceted and that makes Aberfan as much a part of the Welsh present as the Welsh past.

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