Aberfan: 50 years since UK’s worst disaster

Landslide: ‘When I got out I couldn’t believe what I could see,’ says a teacher who survived.

On this day in 1966, a coal tip collapsed onto a village school in Wales. It killed 144 people, including 116 children. It was also completely avoidable. So why was no one punished?

Fifty years ago, in the corridor of Pant Glas Junior School, seven-year-old Karen Thomas was standing with four classmates to pay her dinner money. Without warning, glass began pouring down the hall from the headmistress’ office. The dinner lady, Nansi, ‘jumped on top of us’, recalls Karen. ‘She took the full impact.’

At 9:15am, more than 1.4 million cubic feet of coal waste had suddenly slid down a nearby mountain and engulfed the small mining village of Aberfan, South Wales. The school was completely covered — Karen and her friends were buried alive. ‘We just couldn’t hear anyone else. It was just our voices and our screams.’ Eventually, a ‘glimmer of daylight’ appeared and they were pulled from the rubble.

They were among the lucky few; 116 children were killed in their classrooms, along with 28 adults. It was one of the worst disasters in modern British history.

The public response was immense. Around £1.75m was raised to help rebuild the community. Over 50,000 letters were sent to the families. On the day itself, roads to the village were gridlocked by people trying to join the rescue team.

But as the days passed by and the scale of the disaster became clear, grief turned to anger. The slagheap had built up over years of coal mining, prompting several complaints to the National Coal Board (NCB). Yet when its chairman Lord Robens arrived at the scene, he denied any responsibility. And when a tribunal finally pinned the blame firmly on the NCB, he was not punished — he even went on to chair a government health and safety committee.

‘Imagine such a thing today,’ wrote the newsreader Huw Edwards this week. ‘Those in charge of a public body found liable for a disaster on this scale would be justly denounced, vilified and prosecuted. There would be charges of corporate manslaughter.’ Instead, the Aberfan relief fund was forced to contribute to the clean-up cost. It was a ‘terrifying tale of bungling ineptitude’, concluded the official inquiry in 1967. So why was no one ever held to account?

Buried

Edwards is right, say some: it was another time. Lord Robens had friends in high places, including in Parliament. ‘Gullible and deferential’ newspapers rarely criticised authority figures. The Health and Safety Act was not passed for another eight years. If this happened today, the response would be very different.

It is more than that, say others. This was a deeply Welsh tragedy, intimately linked to other Welsh mining disasters and a defining moment for Welsh identity. But working class communities in Wales have long been ignored by Westminster — had it happened in Eton, argued the first ever Plaid Cymru MP, justice would have been served.

You Decide

  1. Should Lord Robens have been punished for his role in the Aberfan disaster?
  2. Is Wales mistreated by the British government in London?

Activities

  1. Write a letter to the community in Aberfan to mark the anniversary.
  2. Compare the Aberfan disaster to another major tragedy in British history. What was the response from local communities and the government?

Some People Say...

“Man-made disasters are the most painful of all.”

What do you think?

Q & A

It was 50 years ago — is it still relevant?
Most Welsh coal mines were closed in the 1980s, but the industry still plays a big part in the Welsh national identity — thousands of families and communities had some connection to it, or knew people who did. It is a source of both pride and tragedy. Aberfan was not the largest disaster, but the loss of so many children means it still hurts.
Could this happen again?
Britain’s coal mines are no longer in use, although a small number of slag heaps remain. But they are unlikely to cause so much damage again. The press and MPs are also better at holding powerful people to account— earlier this year, for example, a jury blamed the South Yorkshire Police for the deaths of 96 football fans at Hillsborough in 1989.

Word Watch

Coal waste
Coal mines produce a lot of waste — think of all the soil, ash and rocks which are discarded in the search for coal. This would be dumped on ‘slag heaps’, like the one on the side of the mountain next to Aberfan. Natural spring water and rain then mixed with the waste to produce a thick sludge.
National Coal Board
This was state-owned at the time, meaning the government was in charge of the coal industry.
Lord Robens
The former Labour MP had a lot of power — he had once been tipped as a potential future prime minister.
Relief fund
The original sum of the contribution, £150,000, was repaid by the Labour government in 1997. Aberfan used it to renovate its memorial garden and fund local education. In 2007 the Welsh Assembly donated £2m (equivalent to the original contribution’s real value) to the Aberfan memorial and education charities.
Mining disasters
In the 1960s alone, 429 miners were killed in various accidents in South Wales.
Plaid Cymru
The Welsh nationalist party. Its first MP, Gwynfor Evans, entered parliament in 1966 — the same year as the Aberfan disaster.

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