55 years on, Aberfan still casts a shadow

By Siân Jones

At 9.15 am on 21 October 1966, the pupils of Pantglas Junior School in the Welsh mining village of Aberfan had just returned to their classrooms after singing ‘All Things Bright and Beautiful’ at morning assembly. It was supposed to be their last day of school before breaking up for the October half-term holiday.

Moments later, ‘Tip Number Seven’ – a colliery tip that loomed above the village on the nearby hillside – had collapsed, engulfing the school and nearby buildings in a bible-black avalanche of coal slurry. In a community already scarred and hardened by scores of underground accidents over the years – disasters which regularly claimed lives, maimed miners and devastated families – the death toll exacted at Aberfan that day was to be totally without precedent. 

The count – when it came – was horrific. 116 children and 28 adults had lost their lives – drowned, crushed, and suffocated by the 150,000 tonnes of coal waste that had descended onto the town. 

It is hard to overestimate the extent to which this devastating event remains seared on the consciousness of the people of Wales all these years later; even those who, like me, weren’t even born at the time.

The pictures from Aberfan are unforgettable. Parents, many of them miners themselves, digging frantically amongst the rubble of the school, desperately hoping to find their children alive. The local chapel that became a makeshift morgue for the little bodies. The mothers weeping in the streets. The white marble arches marking the mass grave where Aberfan’s precious children were laid to rest.

Bereft, bitter, bereaved, the shattered community of Aberfan struggled on in its grief for decades afterwards. Many villagers could not bear to speak about the incident for years. The failure sufficiently to censure senior executives from the National Coal Board, whom a tribunal found to be to blame for the disaster, together with the plundering of funds from the Aberfan Disaster Appeal Fund, contributed to the sense of injustice. 

What the tragedy also laid bare was the disconnect that existed between the people and those with power; notably between mining communities in Wales and the remote “authorities” in London.

Seldom is anything good derived from tragedies like Aberfan. And as today’s politicians debate our future energy mix in the run-up to COP26, the disaster may arguably have played a part in what ultimately became a process of re-evaluation for Britain’s coal mining industry; a reassessment that paved the way for the green energy revolution we are beginning to see today.

Yet despite Aberfan, over 2,400 coal tips still exist in Wales. And, despite Aberfan. there are still 300 such coal tips classified as “high risk”. Accidents are still happening, too. In 2020, during Storm Dennis, 60,000 tonnes of debris slid down the valley from the Llanwonno tip in Tylorstown – fortunately without causing injury. Meanwhile, levels of unemployment and deprivation in the Welsh Valleys remain high, with various regeneration schemes yet to deliver meaningful change. 

But the political rows continue. A spat has broken out between the Welsh Government and the UK Government over who should bear the cost of making these tips safe. The UK Government says it’s a devolved responsibility. The Welsh Government argues the tips are a legacy of the UK’s pre-devolution mining past, and that funding for their clearance should be topped up by Westminster. 

This could be said to be an adroit political trap set by the Welsh Government, and a politically dangerous moment for a UK Government keen to safeguard an increasingly fractured Union; a fact underlined this week by the Welsh Government’s launch of a new Constitutional Commission to consider options for Wales’ future.

We’ve heard a lot about the UK Government’s ‘muscular unionism’ in recent months as tensions build between the Welsh and Westminster Governments. There have been plans to place giant union flags on UK Government buildings, squabbles with the Welsh Government over the Shared Prosperity Fund, and veiled threats to override the Welsh Government’s controversial decision not to build the M4 relief road. With the Budget and Spending Review, the UK Government arguably has an opportunity to demonstrate the benefits of its robustly unionist approach. 

Nothing, tragically, can ever bring back those 116 children who left for school that morning 55 years ago and never came home.  But what the UK Government can do – if its counterpart in Cardiff Bay fails to act – is offer security to those living with the legacy of Wales’ mining heritage. It can pledge the necessary financial support to get Wales’ remaining coal tips made safe for future generations, and take action to get the Welsh Valleys prospering again.

Now that would be ‘muscular unionism’ in action. 

And it would be an example of ‘the authorities’ doing the right thing.