Picture of a judge's wigThe Judge RANTS!Picture of a judge's wig



Date: 21/10/16

"And why that day in Aberfan did autumn come so soon?"

(From the poem Aberfan by Max Boyce)

Fifty years ago today, on Friday, 21 October 1966, at about 9.15am, Number 7 Tip of Merthyr Vale Colliery at Aberfan in Glamorganshire broke apart. Over 5 million cubic feet of spoil and loose rock, partly liquified by recent heavy (but not uncharacteristically so) rain, slid down the mountainside like some demonic avalanche, demolishing a farmhouse and twenty terraced houses in Moy Road...

... before the 1.4 million cubic feet which remained slammed into the back of Pantglas Junior and Senior Schools, whose pupils were just beginning their last day's classes before the half-term break. Within minutes, 116 children were dead (along with 28 adults, either in the school or in Moy Road); almost an entire generation of a close mining community wiped out. A handful of children were pulled out by the frantic efforts of local people, digging into the wreckage of the school buildings with whatever came to hand, even if their hands were all they had. Miners and mine-rescue teams converged on the village from miles around, but all that was left for them to do was to exhume bodies; no-one - child or adult - was pulled alive from the rubble after 11am that Friday morning. Even in the comparatively short time it took to recover the corpses, the highly-corrosive chemicals in the waste meant that many could only be identified by scraps of clothing or by personal effects.

The land stood silent.

Even in this old, scarred, nation, we had long been used to the catastrophes inherent in deep-mining for coal, from Senghenydd to Gresford. But those tragedies - as bad as they were - killed 'only' the working men underground. Never could anyone imagine that a hundred-and-forty-four people - and most of them children - could be victims in the most fell of swoops of a mining-related disaster above ground. This was beyond all cognisance, beyond the comprehension of any human being.

I remember it happening. I was a little over four years of age at the time. I don't remember whether we were assembled together in school to be told. I don't think we would have been, because the news would have come out during the school day and we ourselves would be starting half-term that afternoon, so doing it the following week would not have been possible either, and would in any case have been pointless. I do recall, however, the grim, pale face of my mother and of the mothers of my nursery classmates when they came to collect us later that day. And I do remember seeing - possibly despite my parents' best efforts to shield me from it - the television news that evening. And I remember thinking how similar the buildings of Pantglas School looked to the one I had spent much of that day in.

It is a wound which has never left us as a nation and - as long as anyone is alive who recalls the day - it never shall.

The aftermath of the disaster itself further deepened the trauma, grief and anger. The London media, clearly unprepared either practically or professionally for any such story on 'their' patch (especially in a 'backward' part of it from their exalted standpoint), conducted itself for the most part with a degree of crass cloddishness which pre-dated the behaviour and demeanour of the Murdoch Sun and of the Mail by at least a decade. Only BBC Wales' Owen Edwards emerged with much kudos for his sympathetic and sensitive on-the-spot coverage.

What followed was an illustration of how the British State operated then, and how - largely unchastened by anything which may have happened in the meantime - it tends to work to this very day.

By order of resolutions in both Westminster chambers, the then Secretary of State, Cledwyn Hughes, appointed a tribunal of enquiry under the noted judge Edmund Davies - a Welshman from Aberpennar (Mountain Ash) in the valley adjacent to the one where this horror had unfolded. Before the tribunal even began its work, the Wilson government's Attorney General, the Llanelli-born Elwyn Jones, sought to impose restrictions on what the media were allowed to say about the possible causes of - and possible culpability for - the disaster. Most of the media duly complied (the sinister symbiosis between the political and media establishment that we see today clearly has strong antecedents, leaving aside the sickly and sickening culture of deference which still persisted in Britain a full two decades after its ruling élites had proven their inadequacy for the modern world).

It is clear in retrospect (and, but for that unthinking willingness to believe that our rulers were all 'jolly good chaps', would have been obvious to many at the time) that the aim of Jones' censorious behaviour was to protect the National Coal Board - the owners of Merthyr Vale colliery and its associated waste - and, most particularly, its chairman, the former Labour MP (Lord) Alfred Robens.

Robens was cordially detested for his patronising high-handedness by coal-face workers throughout his 'kingdom' (for it was in such a manner that he ran the industry); so much so that colliers hearing untoward creaks or crashes down the pit would blame it on "Robens' Ghost", usually adding the words, "The bastard!" to the epithet. He had already incurred the opprobrium of the public for not going to Aberfan until late on the Saturday after the disaster because he was 'too busy' being installed as a university chancellor in England. Moreover, he had had his company officials deliberately lie to Cledwyn Hughes by telling him (Hughes) that Robens was at Aberfan when he clearly was not. When he did bother to turn up, he gave interviews in which he stated that no-one could possibly have foreseen such a tragedy.

The tribunal - having sat for a then-record 76 days and heard two-and-a-half million words of evidence (including that of Robens, whose testimony was so contradictory that even his own legal counsel had to beg the panel to ignore all of it; and who only conceded that the NCB was in any way to blame in the last few days of the enquiry, thus rendering all that time and effort superfluous) - published its report in early August of 1967 (when Parliament was - conveniently - in recess). The panel was clear and damning in its verdict: the collapse of Number 7 Tip onto Aberfan and the killing of 116 children in their classrooms was entirely the fault of the Coal Board. Many times in the eight years since Number 7 had first been raised, the Board - both locally and beyond - had been warned that it was being placed on top of known water springs ('known' to such a degree that they were shown on Ordnance Survey maps of the area, and 'known' by the fact that the children of Aberfan used to play in the pools created by them). Many times complaints had been made of the drains around Pantglas School being clogged up with the slurry being washed off the tip by rain. A number of times in the years just before Number 7 fully cut loose, numerous smaller slips had been recorded. As ever (then as, or so it seems, now), local knowledge, experience and expertise were dismissed by the politicised bureaucracy and little tin gods of the industry.

The NCB was to blame: it had had no policy on tipping; those charged with particularly relevant responsibilities were unfit to discharge them; and - damningly for Robens and his fellow executives - there was no direction or leadership from the top.

It might be thought that, in the event of so damning an indictment, those deemed to be responsible would have to face their due fate: dismissal, calumny, prosecution, punishment. But this is 'old chums' Britain we're talking about, and - as now, so then - 'connections' rendered any such outcome impossible. Robens - no doubt assured beforehand that it would not be accepted - 'offered' his resignation. The Minister of Power, Richard Marsh, and Prime Minister Wilson - despite several other ministers' protests - rejected it, and Robens was to stay on at the Coal Board for another five years. Not a single member of NCB's management was dismissed or even disciplined; indeed, one of those who was deemed in the Davies Report to be particularly incompetent was promoted between the report being published and its consideration by Parliament.

If that was not sufficient an insult to the dead and their families, something even more egregious was to follow.

It was to be George Thomas, under-minister at the Welsh Office under Cledwyn Hughes, who committed the most emetically inhumane and dishonest act of any part of the British élite in relation to Aberfan.

In the aftermath of the catastrophe, the mayor of Merthyr Tudful had launched an appeal. Within a few months, donations totalling a then-massive £1.6 million pounds had been received (the equivalent of nearly £28 million today). The fund was intended to alleviate (as much as one can with mere gelt) the suffering of the families and survivors, and to try to start re-building the life of the village.

However, despite the excoriating verdict of the tribunal, Robens and the NCB saw no reason why the remaining tips above Aberfan should be removed, rather that they be 'landscaped' (which was, of course, far cheaper) as they weren't deemed by the Coal Board or the government to be dangerous (a view which was contradicted by the area's MP, the redoubtable S.O. Davies, a former miner and mining engineer). When it was finally conceded by both the Coal Board and George Thomas that removing them was necessary, if only to lessen the psychological burden on the village, Robens refused to have the NCB fund the whole costs of removal. The government duly stumped up £200 000 of taxpayers' money as part-funding for the operation.

At this point, Robens and Thomas connived at demanding a 'local contribution' (to use Thomas' appalling formulation) of no less than £150 000...from the disaster relief fund. Pushed into a corner by the Board and the government, and with further threats from the so-called 'Charity Commission' (which had already threatened the trustees with personal sanctions if they so much as dared to make payments to those who had suffered other than purely physical injuries from the disaster), the trustees had little option but to comply with what was clearly then - as has been demonstrated more clearly still since - an act of gross illegality - grand larceny, no less - on the part of all concerned.

That £150 000 was finally repaid to the fund in 1997 by the incoming Blair régime, but without any adjustment for inflation or any recognition of the interest that that amount would have attracted in the intervening years. Which meant that the fund was still being stiffed by Westminster and Whitehall. It took until February 2007 for some sense of justice to be delivered, when our Notional Assembly approved the donation of £2 million to the two successor funds (one general, one educational).

As to the Great And The Good™ who indulged in clear abuses of power and even clearer abdication of responsibility? As I said, Robens stayed at the head of the National Coal Board until 1971, and (having - bizarrely in the light of previous events - became a government advisor on health and safety legislation) went on to a lucrative career in the private sector. Elwyn Jones (who, in conformity with cliché, might have been nicknamed, 'Jones The Gag') became a Baron and was Lord Chancellor for the second Wilson and only Callaghan administrations. And dear George Thomas, the simpering, strutting Mam's Boy from the Rhondda? Well, he finally achieved everything he could ever have wanted by getting the key to the best dressing-up box in that kindergarten of kinks called 'The House Of Commons', and spending seven years delighting us with his antics and crawling up the arse (although not literally; at least, one hopes not) of every passing Windsor. Such were - and still are - the rewards for dedicated service to those who hold power in these lands.

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I know that I may cause unease in the reader by making this comparison - there are plenty of people who are prepared to take offence at such a parallel being drawn at all - but if it is possible for a small, close-knit nation to have a memorial whose significance would be on a par with that of other man-made, unconscionable acts such as Lidice or Oradour-sur-Glane, then the monuments to the dead of Aberfan may be the nearest we could ever get in terms of comparative magnitude. To view the memorial (which lies - set out in neat, classroom-sized rectangles - on the site of Pantglas school) is to be brought face-to-face with the results of the arrogance, cowardice, corruption and insolence of power; it is to be made to ask oneself how such an inhumanity could have been allowed to happen; and it is to be made to wonder how such a thing may be prevented from ever happening again. Perhaps - in line with the standard consolation offered to the victims of rebarbative behaviour by those supposedly accountable to the public today - be they departments of state, the health service or the police - lessons have been learned. But only 'perhaps'.

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THE DEAD OF ABERFAN

(from Paul Dicken's and Brian Lamb's websites):

(* - died of his injuries six days later)


Photo of part of the Aberfan Memorial

Photograph by Stephen McKay. Reproduced under the terms of the
Creative Commons CC BY-SA 2.0 license