Remembering Aberfan – ‘a generation wiped out’

At this moment fifty years ago, disaster hit a mining village in Gwent, Wales, as the BBC remembers:

It took just five minutes for the coal tip above Aberfan to slide down the mountain and engulf a farm, several houses and a school.

Pupils at Pantglas Junior School were just beginning their first lessons of the day when the rushing landslide of mud and debris flooded into their classrooms.

Some children were able to escape, but 116 were killed. Another 28 adults also died. The local community was devastated by the tragedy and the whole country was shocked and saddened when the news hit the headlines.

Paul Walter writes:

You have to be a certain age to appreciate the significance of the word “Aberfan”. I was seven years old at the time, so I was at primary school, and the same age as many of the children who perished in the disaster. News of the tragedy moved the whole nation. Fund-raising was done for the Aberfan community all over the country. In my town there was a very prominent fund-raising effort. A friend of our family led this and worsened his own health because he was so concerned to “do something”.

Even now, fifty years later, tears come to my eyes as I remember what must have happened to those children, and their teachers and other adults. The register was being called, as it was in our school and all schools, at the beginning of the day. It was the children’s last day before half term, so they must have been very excited by the prospects of the holidays. Then they heard a big roar and then they were overcome by blackness. Just appalling.

Mary Reid writes:

Up in the Brecon Beacons, some miles north of Aberfan, there is a tiny chapel in the woods. A family grave is surrounded by low railings marking the wealth derived from the iron industry. On the plain slab are engraved just two words: Father forgive.

This is the grave of the Crawshay family, who owned the Cyfarthfa Ironworks located just up the valley from Aberfan, in Merthyr Tydfil. They created the 19th century iron industry in Wales, which lay at the heart of Victorian industrialisation,  and crucially it was totally dependent on coal mining in the Welsh valleys.

I often thought about that grave as I drove through Aberfan along the old valley road to my parents’ home in Merthyr. The consequences of the Crawshay’s desire for wealth and power were visible in the gash between the houses on the other side of the valley where Pantglas School had stood, and in the unnatural straight rows of graves on the hillside above.

That difficult Biblical verse about “the sins of the father being visited upon the children, and upon the children’s children, unto the third and to the fourth generation”, always seems to me to be about taking responsibility for the long term consequences of actions. Whilst the NCB was clearly culpable, the origins of the tragedy lie much further back, in the greed that put wealth creation before human well-being.

50 years ago I sat on the carpet in my student house and cried – all day. I am crying as I write this now. Consequences endure.

 

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This entry was posted in Obituaries.
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4 Comments

  • My wife was taken into hospital for the birth of my daughter as the disaster unfolded..
    Every year is a reminder of both events and the SHAMEFUL way that the community, especially the parents of lost children, were treated by those in power…..

  • Christopher Haigh 21st Oct '16 - 8:27pm

    It is difficult to understand that the local authority allowed slag heaps at the top of valley sides and along the spring line.

  • Steve Trevethan 23rd Oct '16 - 5:26pm

    The attitudes which caused the cruel and unnecessary Abervan disaster are still with us and those who promote them flourish.

    “I think the economic logic behind dumping a load of toxic waste in the lowest wage country is impeccable.” [Larry Summers]

    Mr Summers was the key decision maker in the Obama response to the 2008 Recession. He is currently doing rather well on Wall Street.
    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lawrence_Summers

    The price of protecting the weak and trusting is constant vigilance and the courage to speak truth to power.

  • Thank you Paul and Mary for your comments. It is heart breaking to see on television interviews that survivors still bear the mental scars today. I especially agree with Mary when she says : “Whilst the NCB was clearly culpable, the origins of the tragedy lie much further back, in the greed that put wealth creation before human well-being”.

    I never knew my maternal great grandfather because he died of miner’s lung at the age of 28 in Chester-le-Street leaving a widow and four young children. The Durham Miners Union saved them from the workhouse (no state welfare in 1892) but granddad had to go down the pit at the age of 12. I once saw his back covered in scars with what looked like black crayon zig-zags. The image still lingers in the mind’s eye.

    Yes…… the mine was owned by the multi-millionaire Lord Londonderry of the Vane-Tempest-Stewart family. They didn’t give a monkeys about their employees… though they did go on to provide several Tory MP’s – and a few Tory peers some of whom are still sitting in the House of Lords today.

    There was a cruel price to pay for coal. Aberfan was only one example of a terrible heritage which exploited the wage force for personal greed…. and then cast them aside when they were no longer needed.

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