On Friday 21st October 1966, 240 children aged 7-10 arrived at Pantglas Junior School, in Aberfan, near Merthyr Tydfil, South Wales. Imagine for yourself the innocent joy of them singing the hymn All Things Bright and Beautiful at the school assembly at 9 o’clock, after which they traipsed into their classrooms.
Then at 9.15am, Hell was unleashed. The mountainous mining tip that overshadowed the village disintegrated, slid down the mountainside and swept at incredible speed across farms, the canal, railway embankment and into the heart of the village, including the Junior school. The 1.4 million cubic feet of murderous muck gave no time for warnings or escape that morning. It buried the school building until only the roof was visible; poured into the classrooms and killed 109 of the children, and 5 teachers, through crushed skulls, multiple crush injuries, and, in particular, asphyxiation. In a matter of seconds a generation died.
A GENERATION WIPED OUT
A total of 144 people from the village of Aberfan died these terrible deaths, 116 of them children. They were buried as completely as the victims in Pompeii, in 79 AD. But there was one huge difference: the Aberfan Disaster could and should have been prevented, but multiple warnings were ignored by those in power at various levels – a fact the same powers subsequently tried to hide from millions of people shocked and grief-stricken at what was the UK’s first televised disaster. Aberfan wasn’t the product of the Earth’s natural geology erupting in the form of the Mount Vesuvius volcano; it was an entirely man-made disaster, on a devastating scale.
At the subsequent public inquest, the father of one of the dead children angrily demanded that the death certificates should record “Buried alive by the National Coal Board. That is what I want to see on record. That is the feeling of those present. Those are the words we want to go on the certificate.”
‘BURIED ALIVE BY THE NATIONAL COAL BOARD’
On that fateful morning, mothers chatting along the road – after dropping their kids at school minutes before – dashed back to literally claw with their bare hands at the slimy, thick debris that engulfed the school, in a desperate bid to rescue their sons and daughters. Hundreds of miners from the Merthyr Vale pit were among the first on the scene, several of them openly weeping as they dug desperately in search of their own children. Miners from the neighbouring Taff Bargoed Valley were joined by about 2,000 emergency service workers and volunteers in a frantic rescue mission. But mostly in vain. Some children were rescued, but none after 11am. The efforts of volunteers and emergency service workers morphed into a search for the dead. It took a week to recover the bodies. Over 3,000 attended the mass funeral.
Mining communities like Aberfan lived with death, but this time Death came to claim their children. Virtually every single street in Aberfan village lost some or several that day, as did nearby farmhouses. No wonder a study by the University of Wales a full 33 years later found that 29% of the Aberfan survivors were still suffering Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, and 46% of them had suffered PTSD at some time over the intervening decades. Survivors tell of children being guilt-ridden at surviving; adults afraid to sleep, refusing to take their prescribed sedatives if it was raining; children bed-wetting and terrified of their bedroom doors being shut; alcoholism, family breakdowns and mental breakdowns being common in the aftermath, for several subsequent years.
FROM GRIEF TO ANGER
Shortly after 21 October 1966, the collective and personal, individual sorrow turned to anger, as the causes of this terrible tragedy were discussed, and the response of the authorities emerged. And the people in power to which we refer were in particular the National Coal Board, chaired by Lord (Alfred) Robens, and the Labour government led by Prime Minister Harold Wilson.
The geological cause of the disaster was brutally plain and simple. For the 50 years prior to 1966, the waste from coal mines was piled up in tips – slag heaps – on the slopes of the Welsh valleys, layer upon layer. Seven such tips loomed over Aberfan. The murderous Tip 7 was an accumulation of loose rock, shale and mining muck piled up on porous sandstone, with underground springs beneath that. Heavy rain for several days triggered the slide, as the debris was saturated, and it slid down the slope into the village at massive speed, ten metres deep, demolishing farm cottages and houses as well as the school.
MULTIPLE WARNINGS IGNORED – FOR YEARS BEFORE
Tip slides were fairly common in the Welsh mining valleys for years before 1966. But still the mining waste was piled up, by the National Coal Board, using tipping gangs.
In Aberfan, there’d been tip slides as far back as 1943, and again in 1963. But still the NCB piled the debris high up above the village.
And warnings of the potential danger to life and limb had been made, several times, in the years before October 1966 – in particular by villagers themselves. As mentioned already, a tip slide had occurred as recently as 1963 – though the NCB bosses were to subsequently deny this stark fact, visible to the naked eye, at the government’s Inquiry in the wake of the 1966 Disaster!
Even before that physical warning, villagers had raised concerns about the safety of the tip with the NCB in September 1960. The NCB replied that it posed no dangers.
In fact, after the disaster, researchers discovered letters from villagers warning explicitly of a disaster, not just in the immediate years before it happened, but back in the 1950s!
In 1964 the local councillor warned that the tip atop the mountain ridge above the village could threaten, specifically, the school. The NCB ignored the warnings.
A PREVENTABLE DISASTER ALLOWED TO HAPPEN
In 1965, a petition against the tip was raised by mothers in the village, and presented to Merthyr County Borough Council by the school head-teacher, Ann Jennings. A year later she and half the school’s children perished beneath the mayhem unleashed from the mountainside.
Working class people warned of the potential dangers, but the authorities ignored them, with the local Council’s concerns never getting to anybody above the level of local NCB engineers. No action was taken. No inspections were even conducted. A preventable disaster was allowed to happen, wiping out a generation in this Valley of Death.
But what was the response of those in power after the event, after their failure to act had allowed 144 villagers to die?
LORD ROBENS LORDED IT OVER THE NCB
Lord Robens ruled the National Coal Board like a personal fiefdom. He’d been a full time official for the shopworkers’ trade union, Usdaw, in 1935, before graduating to being a Labour MP and then Minister of Power in Clement Attlee’s 1945-51 Labour government.
In 1960, Robens was approached by Tory Prime Minister Harold MacMillan to take the reigns as chairman of the nationalized NCB. Robens expressed fear that he might never be able to balance the books – though we have no evidence he bothered to point out the nationalized coal industry was crippled by gargantuan compensation handed out to the rapacious private mine-owners, who had left the mines in a state of ruination prior to state ownership in 1947. In reply, Macmillan told Robens “Don’t worry, dear boy [the boy was 50!]. Blur the edges, blur the edges.”
That gives us a glimpse of the culture prevailing in nationalized industries: saddled by debt caused by obscene over-compensation to previous capitalist owners; run by remote, bureaucratic, totally unaccountable dictators like Robens; and used as cheap suppliers to the still-dominant private sector of capitalist Britain – “blurring the edges” where necessary, including on health and safety. Robens accepted MacMillan’s offer and ruled the NCB for ten years from 1960.
THE STENCH OF A COVER-UP
On Friday 21st October 1966, Robens heard of the Aberfan Disaster but went nowhere near the village until late on Saturday. He chose instead to attend the ceremony and party in Guildford marking his investiture as Chancellor of the University of Surrey. NCB officials initially lied to the Secretary of State for Wales – the government – claiming Robens was at the scene of the carnage, on the Friday, personally directing the rescue operations.
When Robens did deign to arrive, he told TV reporters nothing could have been done to prevent the tip slide, and claimed “It was impossible to know there was a spring at the heart of the tip.”
Immediately, the villagers smelt the stench of a cover-up, a whitewash. Everyone knew about the springs; many villagers had played at them as children before the springs were buried beneath the NCB’s waste mountains, including Tip 7. And they were clearly marked on Ordnance Survey maps of the district.
Of course Robens’ calculation was that if the NCB could convincingly claim they knew nothing of the waterlogged base to the tip, and the dangers it posed, they couldn’t be blamed for 144 deaths. Cold, cruel, calculated lies by those in power.
THE DAVIES INQUIRY
Conscious of the need to respond to the public shock at the scale of death, and probably personally shaken by the scenes of devastation on his visit to Aberfan on the day, Harold Wilson and his Labour government ordered an immediate Tribunal of Inquiry, appointing Welsh barrister and Privy Councillor, Lord Justice Edmund Davies, as its chair.
The Davies Inquiry lasted 76 days, interviewing 136 people, and reported in mid-1967. NCB officials tried to block their path to the truth throughout. They even spent several days denying the tip slide in 1963 had ever happened! And Robens himself only bothered to turn up on day 70, tried to be obstructive and deny any NCB responsibility – to such a degree that the villagers’ QC, Desmond Ackner, accused him of acting as if the NCB “bore no more blameworthy connection than, say, the Gas Board.”
Under relentless, skilful cross-examination by Ackner, the lying Robens eventually admitted NCB responsibility. But for Robens’ and other NCB bosses’ attempts to lie and obstruct, most of the 76 days taken up by the Inquiry – and the immeasurable suffering it added to the bereaved – could have been avoided completely.
NCB’S ‘BUNGLING INEPTITUDE’
The Davies Inquiry rejected the charge of “callous indifference” levelled at the NCB bosses, but did lacerate Robens and the NCB for “a terrifying tale of bungling ineptitude”, with “a total lack of direction from above”.
Highlighting that NCB mining engineers only had concern for safety down the mines themselves, and not for the waste tips the mines produced, the Inquiry Report departed from the dry-as-dust language of most government Inquires. It was poetic in its description of the safety role of NCB engineers towards the tips as being “like moles being asked about the habits of birds”.
NO TIPPING PLAN
The Inquiry Report blasted the NCB for creating the geological conditions that led to the disaster – by repeatedly ignoring previous warnings; by their “disregard and failure to act” on previous smaller tip slides, with not even any surveys being conducted; but chaotic and unplanned additional waste being added to the slag heaps. In one phrase that summarized things, they condemned the NCB for “having no tipping plan”.
But in other regards the Davies Inquiry was mild and limited. It held nine NCB senior officials partly responsible, but did not recommend any demotions or sackings, let alone prosecutions. And not a single one of them, not even Robens, suffered any sanctions for their gross negligence, leading to the slaughter of innocents in Aberfan. Indeed, as we’ll see shortly, Robens enjoyed promotion to even higher places later.
SICKENING DANCE OF DECEIT
Government documents subsequently released under the 30 year rule exposed a sickening cynicism in the actions of NCB chief Robens and Wilson’s Labour government – through the auspices of Labour Minister of Power, Richard Marsh – in the wake of the damning Davies Inquiry. They danced a carefully choreographed deceit of the public, and in particular the grieving Aberfan villagers.
Wielding his power as a Privy Councillor (by the way, a position he shared with Lord Justice Davies, chair of the Inquiry!), Lord Robens demanded to see a pre-publication copy of the Davies Report. This gave Robens ten days to prepare his strategy, to avoid any consequences to his power and privileges, despite the Report being what Harold Wilson called “devastating” in its condemnation of the NCB Board and of Robens for his misleading statements.
Robens used the time to enlist support for his NCB role within the NUM, the miners’ union, speaking round pits by arrangement between the NCB and NUM, making very popular denunciations of nuclear power – which, naturally, garnered him support amongst coal miners whose jobs were threatened by the growing nuclear energy option.
ROBENS’ BOGUS RESIGNATION
A month later, in discussions with government Minister Richard Marsh, Robens helped draft the wording of a letter of reply… from Marsh to Robens!
This was a letter noting, but declining, an offer of resignation by Robens as NCB chairman. Robens even insisted on removal of a sentence in Marsh’s first draft, which blamed the entire NCB Board. Robens demanded this so that he could deflect all blame from himself and the top dogs surrounding him, instead putting the entire blame for the Aberfan slaughter on the chargehand of the local tipping gang!
It was only after government Minister Richard Marsh meekly accepted Robens’ dictated version of the wording of what was allegedly Marsh’s letter – declining Robens’ offer to resign as NCB chair – that Robens then submitted his letter of resignation!
They danced this cynical duet of deceit in order to keep Robens in his mighty position as Coal Board boss, despite the growing loss of trust in both the NCB and government among the people of Aberfan and their allies. Why?
COLLABORATION IN PIT CLOSURES
Robens was an archetypal Old Labour power broker and operator. He was firmly on the right-wing of the Labour Party, siding with Hugh Gaitskell against left-winger Nye Bevan, for example. But he maintained points of contact on the left and in the unions in order to wield all the more power, especially as NCB chief. This was particularly so in his collaboration with the national leader of the NUM, Welshman Will Paynter, Communist Party member and veteran of the Spanish Civil War!
Paynter helped Robens wind down the coal industry without mass strikes in opposition. So much so that during Robens’ 10-year tenure at the head of the NCB, the coal industry collapsed from 698 pits employing 583,000 miners to 292 pits with only 283,000 miners.
Government documents since released under the 30 year rule confirm Wilson’s Labour government kept Robens as head of the NCB, even despite Aberfan, because they believed he was the only man who could manage the decline of the coal industry without provoking mass industrial action. They started the process of dismantling one of the UK’s main industries; a decimation of communities completed in the 1980s by Thatcher’s Tories, after they’d wielded every arm of the state to defeat the miners’ heroic opposition.
The collaboration and cover-up between the NCB boss and Wilson’s Labour government was made possible by two key factors: the failure by a gullible and obedient press to expose their dirty work, and the complete absence of Corporate Manslaughter legislation.
This was the UK’s first televised disaster, yet where were the exposés and investigations? The mainstream media – including the newfangled BBC TV – mostly just swallowed the spin of the authorities and did a terrible disservice to the victims and their families.
The absence of a law that holds company chief executives personally responsible for deaths due to the negligence they’ve presided over is a huge gap in health and safety law – which continues to let culpable bosses off the hook, even now, 50 years on from Aberfan. No such law and sanction exists against negligent capitalist bosses, despite the issue being first raised in 1965 – because corporate lobbying of governments has blocked it being introduced. This encourages a culture of neglect, of ‘blurring the edges’ on workplace safety, in pursuit of profit.
ABERFAN: A WARNING ON SAFETY TODAY
Next time you hear some Tory or other apologist of capitalist employment methods whine about the ‘red tape’ or ‘bureaucracy’ of workplace health and safety laws – something we’re likely to hear a lot more about during and after Brexit negotiations – remember Aberfan.
Remember that back then there was literally no law governing the safety of mining tips, for instance; no HSE inspectors; “no legislation dealing with the safety of tips in force in this or any country, except part of West Germany and South Africa”, to quote the Davies Report on Aberfan. It was only 3 years after Aberfan that the government introduced the Mines and Quarries (Tips) Act 1969.
Later still – to reverse the situation where safety legislation was largely reactive, rather than imposing any general legal duty for safety on employers – the Health and Safety at Work Act 1974 was enacted. In what must be one of the sickest jokes around, this 1974 Act was the child of recommendations by a parliamentary committee set up in 1967 by Labour Minister Barbara Castle, who appointed as chairman of the committee… no, you couldn’t have guessed it… Lord Alfred Robens!!
REMOVE THE TIPS!
The cruel injustices meted out to the devastated working class people of Aberfan didn’t end with Robens being kept on as the top NCB boss, despite “the terrifying tale of bungling ineptitude” the Tribunal of Inquiry branded him and his Board with.
Alongside their demands for honest explanations of the cause of the wipe-out of a generation, of their own children, the villagers demanded outright removal of the other six tips dominating the skyline. In some part for safety reasons, but overwhelmingly to remove the constant, haunting reminder of the disaster they’d suffered; demolition of those monstrous monuments to the deaths of their children and neighbours.
The government – under the advice of the NCB and indeed the Davies Tribunal Report – declared that the remaining six slag heaps were not unsafe, didn’t need to be removed, but generously conceded an offer to landscape them! What they carefully avoided saying was that this was a vastly cheaper option than the estimated £3million cost of removal, with behind-the-scenes warnings that such a cost would lead to the closure of the Merthyr Vale pit and its jobs (although subsequent research suggests they were lying about the costs of the demolition option).
PEOPLE POWER GETS ORGANISED
Landscaping might have been relatively inexpensive, but it was utterly, cruelly insensitive to a whole community suffering mass bereavement and trauma.
In an inspiring echo of all that is most courageous about working class people who organise and fight for justice – whether trade unionists fighting their employers through collective union action, or the likes of the Hillsborough families’ prolonged struggle for Justice for the 96 – the Aberfan people didn’t lie down and accept this treatment from the powers-that-be. They set up a Tip Removal Committee, and fought long and hard.
The ruling powers were unaccustomed to ‘ordinary’ working class people displaying such extraordinary determination, or challenging them – especially in the midst of such emotional suffering. They stonewalled the demands to dismantle the tips.
But the ruling elites also sought to block the campaigners by dirty, secret state methods – behind their public claims to be pouring out sympathy to the bereaved village. Participants described how their phones were tapped, with cars following Tip Removal Committee members everywhere they went.
DIRT IN THE WALES OFFICE!
Eventually, after being frustrated and ignored by the government for ages, a more militant wing of the committee, led by local miner Enos Sims, decided on some direct action at the Wales Office in Cardiff. They took care not to discuss their plans on the phone.
After being told ‘No’ by the government for the umpteenth time, they arranged to ‘bring the mountain to the government’, so to speak! They dumped bagfuls of slurry from the tips inside the Wales Office. It had an instant impact, with the Secretary of State for Wales suddenly urging the Wilson government to remove the six offending slag heaps, which the government announced mere days later. A victory for determined action by working class people who got themselves organised.
GOVERNMENT PLUNDERS DISASTER APPEAL FUND
Here’s the vicious sting in the Labour government’s tail, though.
Wilson’s government conceded to the Aberfan people’s relentless demand to demolish the tips; traumatic eyesores that were a daily reminder to them of loss and human disaster – caused by ruthless negligence by those in power. They paid out a £200,000 government grant towards the removal costs.
The other source of funding for the tip clearance is a permanent condemnation of the government, the NCB bosses, and indeed such seemingly benign forces as the heads of the Charity Commission. Let’s sketch the back story.
£500 FOR A CHILD’S LIFE
After the Davies Report had savaged the NCB for its “terrifying tale of bungling ineptitude” as the root cause of the 144 deaths, the NCB offered compensation to bereaved families. At first they offered an insulting £50 per fatality!
Under the outcry this triggered, they then paid out £500 per fatality – still little more than they paid in compensation for each dead animal! What price the life of a child?
In this context, the Aberfan Disaster Fund was established, relying on the solidarity and generosity of ordinary people – children included – from far and wide. A total of 90,000 people donated, with an astonishing £1.75million collected; about £30million in 2016 money.
WHERE DOES CHARITY BEGIN?
Several times, the ladies and gentlemen of the Charity Commission intervened to dictate how these funds were used – despite clearly being donated to help the devastated families and community in the small Aberfan village.
They blocked payments – which had been agreed by the Disaster Fund trustees – to parents unless their children were physically injured that terrible day; no thought for the life-long psychological damage.
They stepped in another time to demand that no payments could be issued to bereaved parents until each case was investigated to see whether the parents were close to their children, and thus likely to be suffering mentally!
You couldn’t invent such cold cruelty – by those in charge of ‘charity’.
LABOUR GOVERNMENT ROBBED FUNDS FOR THE DEAD
Another decisive intervention they made was when the government hounded the Disaster Fund trustees into paying nearly 10% of the total Fund – £150,000 – towards the cost of removing the other six tips. Tips which had been put there and left there by the NCB, supported by successive governments, despite repeated residents’ warnings of the safety risks, spanning several years.
The Charity Commission declared this larceny of funds, donated in good faith, to be entirely lawful under charity laws (it wasn’t) and helped the Wilson government plunder the Disaster Fund.
As a footnote, the Labour government of 1997 – 30 years later – returned the £150,000 to the Aberfan Disaster Fund, now mostly used to sustain the cemetery and memorials to the dead.
Outwardly generous and just, this act by Tony Blair’s New Labour was another cruel deceit. It gained kudos for seemingly righting a wrong by Labour 30 years before. But taking inflation and loss of interest over the previous three decades into account, instead of returning £150,000 they should have been coughing up £1.5million to the people of Aberfan in 1997.
A TRAGEDY RICH IN WARNINGS AND LESSONS FOR TODAY
This unimaginable tragedy is full of stark warnings and rich lessons, even 50 years after Aberfan’s man-made disaster occurred. Much has changed since 1966, but far too much has remained the same.
Most coal mines have been shut down – as have the livelihoods of whole communities. The destruction of the coal industry, accelerated by Thatcher in the 1980s, has left industrial deserts with multiple social ills in its wake. The mining tips have therefore disappeared with the mines. They no longer hang like the shadow of death over the Welsh valleys.
But a whole succession of man-made disasters have devastated lives and families since Aberfan: the Herald of Free Enterprise ferry disaster at Zeebrugge; rail disasters at Clapham and Paddington; the Hillsborough 96… to name but a few.
CUTS COST LIVES
Cost-cutting and profiteering, with negligence on safety standards by those in power, have been common causes of all these and other human tragedies.
They’ve been entirely avoidable – and in most cases the employers, government or police chiefs had been warned of potential disasters long before they happened. Those in power put profit before people, cost-cutting before crowd safety, ignored the warnings – and then lied through their teeth after the death tolls, to hide their culpability.
CAMPAIGNS FOR TRUTH, JUSTICE & SAFETY
In this shameful exercise they’ve been overwhelmingly aided and abetted by the mainstream media – or at least big sections of it. Usually it’s taken sustained, courageous campaigns by devastated families, communities and workers’ unions to expose the truth and win justice for the victims.
In an age where the Tories and profit-addicted employers are desperate to unwind the limited advances on workplace health and safety, we should use Aberfan as a warning of what could happen if they’re not resisted and defeated.
Corporate manslaughter legislation should be extended to make company chief executives open to prosecution, as a deterrent to them cutting corners on safety for the sake of profit or public sector cuts.
DEMOCRACY AND WORKING CLASS CONTROL
And rather than leave safety measures to unelected, aloof bosses who’ve been proven to risk life and limb for the company profit-and-loss accounts, we should pursue the demand for workplace safety to be under the control of committees of elected trade union health and safety reps.
The appalling role of Lord Robens and the NCB bosses at Aberfan is a powerful lesson in what public ownership should – and should not – consist of. A socialist government should never repeat the costly outrage of obscene overcompensation of private owners. They’ve had more than enough loot already, so why reward them at the expense of saddling nationalized industries or services with a mountain of debt, as happened with the coal industry in 1947?
ELECTED BOARDS, NOT FUTURE LORD ROBENS
Furthermore, never again should any industry or service that’s taken into public ownership be run by unelected, unaccountable, disgustingly overpaid bureaucratic boards of management. Anyone who imagines that such a set-up amounts to socialism should remember two words: Aberfan, and Robens.
The terrible tale of arrogant neglect, indifference to warnings from working class communities, and subsequent lies and corruption to hide the truth, are more than a compelling case for democratic accountability at every level in any public service or industry.
Elected boards of management; day-to-day workers’ control; elected community representatives alongside workers’ elected representatives; boards of management on nothing above skilled workers’ wages and subject to immediate recall and replacement – those are some of the core features required for democratic public ownership; to ensure the interests and safety of workers and communities are protected.
COMMIT TO A SAFE AND SECURE FUTURE
It took the tragedy of Aberfan – and more to the point, the indescribable resilience and spirit of the villagers in their battle for truth and justice – to force governments into improvements on health and safety laws in subsequent years.
Unfortunately, for as long as our economy is owned by a faceless few whose entire motivation is profit maximization, so too we will have to emulate the spirit of the working class people of Aberfan in defence of the safety, livelihoods and lives of workers and their communities.
A commitment to winning such a safe and secure future – run by and for people, not profit – is the best monument we can all build to the innocents slaughtered in Aberfan 50 years ago.
Richie Venton is a leading member of the Scottish Socialist Party. See his blog here