Aberfan: Remembering a National Disaster 50 Years On.

Remember Me Co-Investigator Professor Malcolm Lillie offers a very personal reflection on the ongoing pain and remembrance of a national disaster.

I was three and a half years old growing up in a small housing estate to the east of Newport in South Wales when the Aberfan disaster shook Wales to its core.  Like Aberfan our community was very close-knit, and whilst most of our family and friends worked at Llanwern steelworks (originally the Spencer Works), or its associated industries, as opposed to in the mining industry, the shock and sense of loss is palpable even today – 50 years after the events of the 21st October 1966 – when a colliery tip (the No. 7 tip) collapsed, after becoming saturated by heavy rainfall, sending a wave of slurry down to engulf the Pantglas Junior School, eighteen houses on Moy Road, and a nearby farm.

The announcement (BBC Wales News 7th October 2016) that Sir Karl Jenkins was to stage a Cantata Memoria to mark the 50th anniversary of the disaster brought childhood memories back, not obviously from the age of three and a half, but from subsequent years when the South Wales Argus and other media reproduced the harrowing images of the day that 116 children and 28 adults were killed at Aberfan.

The grief and emotion that hits me every time I read about Aberfan is painful in the extreme and I cannot even begin to imagine how devastating the event was at the time. What is apparent though is that anyone of my generation will feel the same way when seeing the memorials to this disaster and we can take some comfort in knowing that our communities come together at such times and ensure that an incredible level of support is given to those who suffer during events like this.

Reading the 1966 news reports of the incident there are stories of good fortune amongst the bad, as is the case with the 50 children who were travelling from the neighbouring village of Mount Pleasant, but were held up by the same fog that delayed the rescue efforts. The tragedy occurred at 9.15, just as lessons were about to start at Pantglas, and the pupils were mostly in their classrooms – it was the last day before half-term. The scale of the disaster was unprecedented and it was the efforts of local miners alongside the rescue services that enabled some of the victims to be rescued alive from the mud and debris that had engulfed the school.

The Minister of State for Wales, George Thomas, voiced a concern that was to worry subsequent generations, in pointing out that whilst a generation of children had been wiped out at Aberfan, there were numerous similar locations in Wales where a ‘perfect storm’ of factors could create a similar disaster.

Unbelievably, perhaps, despite the fact that at an inquiry into the disaster – the Inquiry of Tribunal – found that the then National Coal Board (NCB) was wholly to blame for the disaster, the NCB and the Treasury refused to accept full financial responsibility. As a consequence the Aberfan Disaster Fund had to contribute £150,000 towards the removal of the remaining tip that towered over the village.  As the images of the disaster were seen around the world, people from far and wide contributed over £1.75m pounds to the disaster fund, however, it was not until 1997 that Ron Davies, as Secretary of State for Wales, prompted the repayment of the £150,000 that the fund paid towards the clean-up operation.

At the 40th anniversary of the disaster the First Minister for Wales, Rhodri Morgan, attended a public memorial at St. Mary’s church in Merthyr Tydfil. More importantly representatives of the Aberfan Memorial Committee, which included both parents who had lost their children in the disaster and some of the survivors, also attended.

 As one father, Cliff Minett, who lost two of his three children in the disaster pointed out “it doesn’t matter if it’s one year or 40 years on – the pain is just the same”.

In other news reports from 20th October 2006 there is a discussion of the iconic image of a policeman carrying a survivor, schoolgirl Susan Robertson (nee Maybank), from the scene of devastation. The photograph was taken by Mel Parry who at just 18 years of age ended up taking some of the earliest images of the immediate aftermath of the disaster. He was working for the South Wales Echo at the time, and whilst he is reported as saying that he cannot recall taking the photograph a darkroom assistant at the Echo, Mel Parry, spotted the scene in a general shot of the activity that morning. That image went around the world. Susan was actually rescued from one of the classrooms that had been engulfed in the slide.

Reading the memories and accounts of the people of Aberfan 50 years on is just as upsetting now as it was hearing the accounts as a child growing up in South Wales, despite the fact that I was not directly impacted upon by the events at Aberfan, I still experience a huge range of emotions seeing and hearing the accounts at each anniversary of the disaster.

In memorialising Aberfan it is perhaps worth remembering that the entire country grieves with the survivors and remembers the 144 victims of a disaster and that it still wrenches at our hearts – the sense of loss is unimaginable and we cannot know the suffering of the survivors but we can assure them that we will never forget them or the victims of this disaster.

Arches overlooking Aberfan’s  Bryntaf Cemetery, where many of the dead were buried in a joint funeral on 27 October 1966. Photo: Stephen McKay

Professor Malcolm Lillie leads the Deep Time Study on the Remember Me project. Malcolm has been an archaeologist for 30 years. He currently integrates two specialist areas, the study of earlier prehistoric human remains and the study of wetlands into his research activities. Since 1999 Malcolm has undertaken studies of human remains from Britain, Ukraine, the Czech Republic, Turkey and other regions of Europe, which are aimed at understanding social structures, diet and pathology in archaeological populations. Death and Memorialisation are fundamental aspects of his work in human remains analysis and the current project offers an opportunity for this area for research to be refined in an exciting new direction by linking the attitudes of the past directly into the recent historic and modern contexts.

Feature image copyright Stephen McKay used under creative commons licence


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