Aberfan is a village four miles south of Merthyr Tydfil in Wales, England. The village is chiefly known because of the catastrophic collapse of a coal mining sludge spill that occurred there in 1966, known as the Aberfan Disaster, which killed 144 people, including 116 children.
For approximately 50 years up to 1966, millions of cubic metres of excavated mining debris from the National Coal Board's Merthyr Vale Colliery was deposited on the side of Merthyr Mountain, directly above the village of Aberfan. Huge piles of loose rock and mining slag, known as tips, had been built up over a layer of highly porous sandstone that contained numerous underground springs, and several tips had been built up directly over these springs. Although local authorities had raised specific concerns in 1963 about slag being tipped on the mountain above the village primary school, these were largely ignored by the NCB's area management.
Early on the morning of Friday 21 October 1966, after several days of heavy rain, a subsidence of about 3-6 metres occurred on the upper flank of coal waste tip No. 7. At 9:15am more than 150,000 cubic metres of water-saturated debris broke away and flowed downhill at high speed. It was sunny on the mountain but still foggy in the village, with visibility only about fifty metres. The tipping gang working on the mountain saw the landslide start, but were unable to raise the alarm because their telephone cable had been repeatedly stolen – although the official inquiry into the disaster later established that the slip happened so fast that a telephone warning would not have saved any lives.
The front part of the mass became liquefied and moved down the slope at high speed as a series of viscous surges. 120,000 cubic metres of debris were deposited on the lower slopes of the mountain, but a mass of over 40,000 cubic metres of debris smashed into the village in a slurry 12 metres (40 feet) deep.
The slide destroyed a farm and twenty terraced houses along Moy Road and slammed into the northern side of the Pantglas Junior School and part of the separate senior school, demolishing most of the structures and filling the classrooms with thick mud and rubble up to 10 metres (30 feet) deep. Mud and water from the slide flooded many other houses in the vicinity, forcing many villagers to evacuate their homes.
The pupils of Pantglas Junior School had arrived only minutes earlier for the last day before the half-term holiday. They had just left the assembly hall, where they had been singing "All Things Bright and Beautiful", when a great noise was heard outside. Had they left for their classrooms a few minutes later from the assembly, the loss of life would have been significantly reduced, as the children would not have reached their classrooms when the landslide hit: the classrooms were on the side of the building nearest the landslide.
Nobody in the village was able to see it, but everyone could hear the roar of the approaching landslide. Some at the school thought it was a jet about to crash and one teacher ordered his class to hide under their desks. Gaynor Minett, then an eight-year-old at the school, later recalled:
"It was a tremendous rumbling sound and all the school went dead. You could hear a pin drop. Everyone just froze in their seats. I just managed to get up and I reached the end of my desk when the sound got louder and nearer, until I could see the black out of the window. I can't remember any more but I woke up to find that a horrible nightmare had just begun in front of my eyes."
After the landslide there was total silence. George Williams, who was trapped in the wreckage, remembered:
"In that silence you couldn't hear a bird or a child."
After the main landslide stopped, frantic parents rushed to the scene and began digging through the rubble, some clawing at the debris with their bare hands, trying to uncover buried children. Police from Merthyr Tydfil arrived soon after and took charge of the search-and-rescue operations; as news spread hundreds of people drove to Aberfan to try and help but their efforts were largely in vain. A large amount of water and mud was still flowing down the slope, and the growing crowd of untrained volunteers further hampered the work of the trained rescue teams who were arriving. A few children were pulled out alive in the first hour, but no survivors were found after 11am that day.
By the next day (Saturday) some 2000 emergency services workers and volunteers were on the scene, some of whom had worked continuously for more than 24 hours. Rescue work had to be temporarily halted during the day when water began pouring down the slope again, and because of the vast quantity and consistency of the slag it was nearly a week before all the bodies were recovered.
Bethania Chapel, 250 metres from the disaster site, was used as the temporary mortuary and missing persons bureau from 21 October until 4 November 1966 and its vestry was used to house Red Cross volunteers and St John Ambulance stretcher-bearers. The smaller Aberfan Calvinistic Chapel was used as a second mortuary from 22-29 October and became the final resting-place for the victims before their funerals.
Two doctors were charged with certifying the deaths and examining the bodies; the causes of death were typically found to be asphyxia, fractured skull or multiple crush injuries. A team of 400 embalmers arrived in Aberfan on Sunday and under police supervision they cleaned and prepared over 100 bodies and placed them in coffins obtained from South Wales, the English Midlands, Bristol and even Northern Ireland. The bodies were released to the families from the morning of Monday 24 October. Because of the cramped conditions in the chapel/mortuary, parents could only be admitted one at a time to identify the bodies of their children. One mother later recalled being shown the bodies of almost every dead girl recovered from the school before identifying her own daughter.
The final death toll was 144. In addition to five of their teachers, 116 of the dead were children between the ages of 7 and 10 – almost half of the children at the Pantglas Junior School. Most of the victims were interred at the Bryntaf Cemetery in Aberfan in a joint funeral held on 27 October 1966, attended by more than 2000 people.
Actions of Lord Robens
The chairman of the National Coal Board (NCB) at the time of the disaster was Alfred Robens, Baron Robens of Woldingham. Robens had been a senior union official in the 1930s and then served as a Labour MP, briefly becoming Minister of Power in the dying days of the Clement Atlee Labour government. His actions immediately after the Aberfan disaster and in the years that followed have been the subject of considerable criticism.
When word of the Aberfan disaster reached him, Robens did not immediately go to the scene; he instead went ahead with his investiture as chancellor of the University of Surrey, and did not arrive at the village until the evening of the following day (Saturday). NCB officers covered up for Robens when contacted by the Secretary of State for Wales, falsely claiming that Robens was personally directing relief work when in fact he was not present.
When he eventually reached Aberfan, Robens told a TV reporter that nothing could have been done to prevent the slide, attributing it to 'natural unknown springs' beneath the tip, a statement which the locals knew to be false – the NCB had in fact been tipping on top of springs that were clearly marked on maps of the neighbourhood, and where villagers had played as children.
Robens' actions in the period after the disaster (see below) further damaged his reputation – he refused to allow Coal Board funds to be used for the removal of the remaining tips above Aberfan, instead appropriating a substantial sum from the public disaster relief fund to pay for the work.
The Davies Inquiry
On 26 October 1966, after resolutions by both Houses of Parliament, the Secretary of State for Wales appointed a Tribunal to inquire into the causes of and circumstances relating to the Aberfan disaster, chaired by respected Welsh barrister and Privy Councillor Lord Justice Edmund Davies. Before the tribunal began, the UK Attorney General imposed restrictions on speculation in the media about the causes of the disaster.
The Tribunal sat for 76 days – the longest inquiry of its type in British history up to that time – interviewing 136 witnesses, examining 300 exhibits and hearing 2,500,000 words of evidence, which ranged from the history of mining in the area to the region's geological conditions.
Lord Robens made a dramatic appearance the final days of the Tribunal to give evidence, at which point he conceded that the National Coal Board had been at fault; had this admission been made at the outset, much of the Tribunal's inquiry would have been unnecessary.
The Tribunal retired to consider its verdict on 28 April 1967. Its damning report, published on 3 August, found that the blame for the disaster rested entirely with the National Coal Board, and that the basic cause was the NCB's "total absence of tipping policy".
The report also noted that the NCB was "... following in the footsteps of their predecessors. They were not guided either by Her Majesty's Inspectorate of Mines and Quarries or by legislation" and also found that there was "no legislation dealing with the safety of tips in force in this or any country, except in part of West Germany and in South Africa."
- " ...the Aberfan Disaster is a terrifying tale of bungling ineptitude by many men charged with tasks for which they were totally unfitted, of failure to heed clear warnings, and of total lack of direction from above. Not villains but decent men, led astray by foolishness or by ignorance or by both in combination, are responsible for what happened at Aberfan".
- "Blame for the disaster rests upon the National Coal Board. This is shared, though in varying degrees, among the NCB headquarters, the South Western Divisional Board, and certain individuals ... The legal liability of the NCB to pay compensation of the personal injuries, fatal or otherwise, and damage to property, is incontestable and uncontested."
The specific cause of the collapse was found to have been a build-up of water in the pile; when a small slip occurred, the disturbance caused the saturated, fine material of the tip to liquefy and flow down the mountain.
In 1958, the tip had been sited on a known stream (as shown on earlier Ordinance Survey maps) and had previously suffered several minor slips. Its instability was known both to colliery management and to tip workers but very little was done about it. Merthyr Tydfil Borough Council and the National Union of Mineworkers (Great Britain) were cleared of any wrongdoing.
The Tribunal found that repeated warnings about the dangerous condition of the tip had been ignored, and that colliery engineers at all levels had concentrated only on conditions underground. In one passage, the Report noted:
"We found that many witnesses ... had been oblivious of what lay before their eyes. It did not enter their consciousness. They were like moles being asked about the habits of birds."
The Tribunal also found that the tips had never been surveyed, and right up to the time of the landslide they were continuously being added to in a chaotic and unplanned manner. The disregard of the NCB and the colliery staff for the unstable geological conditions and its failure to act after previous smaller slides were found to have been major factors that contributed to the catastrophe.
The NCB was ordered to pay compensation to the families at the rate of £500 per child. Nine senior NCB staff were named as having some degree of responsibility for the accident, but no NCB staff were ever demoted, sacked or prosecuted, and Lord Robens and the entire Board of the NCB retained their positions.
Following the publication of the Report, Lord Robens wrote to the then Minister of Power, Richard Marsh, offering his resignation. Although Robens had a combative relationship with the government and several cabinet ministers argued strongly that he should go, in September 1967 the Prime Minister Harold Wilson and Marsh rejected Robens's resignation offer.. According to Ronald Dearing, then a senior member of staff at the Ministry of Power, who briefed Marsh on the matter, the fact that Robens was "taking the coal industry through a period of painful contraction without big strikes" and the strong support for him within the coal industry and the union movement were crucial to the decision to retain him.
The traumatic effects of the disaster on the town of Aberfan were wide-ranging and profound, as the moving first-hand accounts gathered by Iain McLean and Martin Johnes indicate.. During the rescue operation, the shock and grief of parents and townspeople was exacerbated by the insensitive behaviour of the media – one unnamed rescue worker recalled hearing a press photographer tell a child to cry for her dead friends because it would make a good picture.
Anger at the National Coal Board erupted during the inquest into the death of 30 of the children. The Merthyr Express reported that that there were shouts of "murderers" as children's names were read out. When one child's name was read out and the cause of death was given as asphyxia and multiple injuries, the father said "No, sir, buried alive by the National Coal Board". The coroner replied: "I know your grief is much that you may not be realising what you are saying" but the father repeated, "I want it recorded – ‘Buried alive by the National Coal Board.’ That is what I want to see on the record. That is the feeling of those present. Those are the words we want to go on the certificate."
Aberfan's social worker later noted that many people in the village were on sedatives but did not take them when it was raining because they were afraid to go to sleep, and that surviving children did not close their bedroom doors for fear of being trapped. An Aberfan doctor reported that although an expected surge in heart attacks did not occur, the trauma of the disaster manifested itself in other ways – the birth rate went up, alcohol-related problems increased, as did health problems for those with pre-existing illnesses, and many parents suffered breakdowns over the next few years.
Many suffered from the effects of guilt, such as parents who had sent children to school who did not want to go. Tensions arose between families who had lost children and those who had not. One of the surviving school children recalled that they didn’t go out to play for a long time because families who had lost children could not bear to see them, and they themselves felt guilty about the fact that they had survived.
A study into the long-term psychological effects of the disaster was published in the British Journal of Psychiatry in 2003. It found that half the survivors of the Aberfan disaster suffered from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) at some time in their lives, that they were over three times more likely to have developed lifetime PTSD than a comparison group of individuals who had experienced other life-threatening traumas, and that 34% of survivors who took part in the study reported that they still experienced bad dreams or difficulty sleeping due to intrusive thoughts about the disaster.
The Disaster Fund
The public demonstrated their sympathy by donating money, with little idea of how it would be spent. Donations flooded in to the appeal and within a few months, nearly 90,000 contributions had been received, totalling £1,606,929. The management of this fund caused considerable controversy over the years. Many aspects of the aftermath of the Aberfan Disaster remained hidden until 1997, when the British Public Records Office released previously embargoed documents under the 30-year rule. These documents revealed new information about the machinations of Lord Robens, the NCB and the Charity Commission in the wake of the Aberfan Disaster.
At one point the Charity Commission planned to insist that before any payment was made to bereaved parents, each case should be reviewed to ascertain if the parents had been close to their children and were thus likely to be suffering mentally. At another meeting, the Commission threatened to remove the Trustees of the Disaster Fund or make a financial order against them if they went ahead with making grants to parents of children who had not been physically injured that day, and the Trustees were forced to abandon these payments.
Although the Davies Report had found that the NCB's liability was "incontestable and uncontested" and it was widely felt that the NCB should have to bear the entire cost of removing the dangerous tips above Aberfan, Robens refused to pay the full cost, thereby putting the Trustees of the Disaster Fund under "intolerable pressure". Robens then "raided" UK£150,000 from the Fund to cover the cost of removing the tips – an action which was "unquestionably unlawful" under charity law – and the Charity Commission took no action to protect the Fund from Robens' dubious appropriation of funds.
Today there is still an important part of this fund still alive and running. The Disaster Committee set up a fund to help students. This at least means that the good work of the Committee is still available for students from the village or for children whose parents were living in Aberfan at the time of the disaster.
As a result of the concerns raised by the Aberfan disaster, and in line with Finding XVII of the Davies Report, in 1969 the British government framed new legislation to remedy the absence of laws and regulations governing mine and quarry waste tips and spoil heaps. The Mines and Quarries (Tips) Act 1969 was designed "to make further provision in relation to tips associated with mines and quarries; to prevent disused tips constituting a danger to members of the public; and for purposes connected with those matters".
The new Act was an extension of the earlier The Mines and Quarries Act 1954. As the Davies Tribunal had found, this Act did not mention tips at all in its provisions – in fact, the only reference to public safety in that Act was a section dealing with fencing abandoned or disused mines and quarries to prevent people falling into them. Moreover, under the terms of the 1954 Act, the Aberfan disaster was not even required to be formally reported to HM Inspectorate of Mines and Quarries because it did not take place on colliery property and no mine workers had been injured or killed.
In 1997 the incoming Blair Labour government paid back the £150,000 to the Disaster Fund – although taking account of inflation the amount repaid should have been nearly £2 million.
In 2005 Imperial Tobacco settled out of court to end a wrongful dismissal suit brought against the company by Aberfan survivor Janice Evans, who had been employed by IT's Rizla cigarette paper factory near Pontypridd. Evans had been sacked after she refused to continue working night shifts, alleging that it had brought on flashbacks of her ordeal in 1966, when she had been buried waist-deep in the landslide while walking to school. Although Evans survived, a friend who had been walking with her was killed.
In February 2007 the Welsh Assembly announced the donation of £2 million to the Aberfan Disaster Memorial Fund, in part as recompense for the money requisitioned by the government in the immediate aftermath of the disaster.
"The Aberfan Coal Tip Tragedy" by Thom Parrott, included on the Smithsonian Folkways CD set "Best of Broadside." Also recorded by Danish folk group Paddy Doyle’s.
The Bee Gees’ single "New York Mining Disaster 1941" — despite its misleading title, aimed at selling the record in America — is a moving response to the Aberfan disaster.
"Aberfan" by David Ackles, included on his album Five and Dime.
"Palaces of Gold" by Leon Rosselson references the Aberfan tragedy. It has been recorded by, among others, Martin Carthy.
"Aberfan" by Rhys Morgan (whose father was one of the men who helped digging).
In literature Ian McEwan lets his protagonist in the novel Saturday refer to the Aberfan Disaster as the decisive reason he does not believe in Fate or God.
- "Iain McLean & Martin Johnes: The Aberfan Disaster" University of Oxford website, November 2009
- "The Aberfan Disaster" South Wales Police official website, November 2009
- Gaynor Madgewick, Aberfan: Struggling out of the darkness (Blaengarw: Valley & Vale, 1996), p.23
- "Bryntaf Cemetery, Aberfan" Merthyr Tidfil, November 2009
- Iain McLean & Martin Johnes, "Corporatism and Regulatory Failure: Government Response to the Aberfan Disaster" University of Oxford website, November 2009
- "National Recovery Guidance - Case Studies: The Aberfan Disaster" UK Resilience website, November 2009
- Iain McLean and Martin Johnes,"The Aberfan Disaster website: Tribunal summary chapter" University of Oxford Website, November 2009
- Report of the Tribunal appointed to inquire into the Disaster at Aberfan (London: HMSO, 1967) p. 11
- "Obituary: Lord Robens of Woldingham" The Guardian, June 29, 1999
- "Aberfan aftermath, Sir Ron replies: 'I believe advice was disinterested and just'" Times Higher Education Supplement, Feb. 7, 1997
- Iain McLean and Martin Johnes,The Aberfan Disaster: The last day before half-term" University of Oxford website, November 2009
- Morgan, Scourfield et al.,"The Aberfan disaster: 33-year follow-up of survivors" British Journal of British Journal of Psychiatry, 182: 532-536
- Iain McLean, "How close were you to your dead child?" Times Higher Education Supplement, February 12, 1999]
- Jacint Jordana & David Levi-Faur: The Politics of Regulation: Examining Regulatory Institutions and Instruments in the Age of Governance (Edward Elgar Publishing, 2004) ISBN 1843764644, 9781843764649, pp.54-58
- "Legislation & policy: mine waste" Minerals UK website, November 2009
- "The Aberfam Disaster Fund" University of Oxford Website, November 2009
- "'Aberfan trauma' case settled" BBC News S.E. Wales, Feb. 8, 2005