The Children of Aberfan

A black and white aerial photograph of the disaster

The Syndicalist Workers Federation on the 1966 Aberfan disaster in Wales, in which 144 people died - 116 of them school children.

Submitted by Fozzie on June 17, 2022

The miners of Durham still sing an old song with the grim, true refrain: "There is blood, blood on the coal." In Aberfan it is the blood of children. Massive disaster has produced the same effects as other communal tragedies, widespread human sympathy and a temporary awakening of social conscience.

But this disaster has also produced a new effect, a ukase1 (literal) of the Labour Government forbidding, with threat of imprisonment and other penalties, discussion of this event. No one can remember any other government applying such a ukase to any mining or other disaster. Keep your mouth shut or it will be forcibly stopped. The months will pass by before the complete report of the inquiry is made. Time will complete the work of enforced silence, and Aberfan and the children's mass grave will be forgotten.

At the inquest, "I ask you to return a verdict of death by being buried alive by the National Coal Board." said one man who had lost his wife and two children. He and others spoke with the simple eloquence of the oppressed, but who will listen? Could the black avalanche of death have been averted? The known facts cry Yes! The facts must be silenced. Long live the NCB.

Aware of the danger

People who live in mining areas know miners, often old men, who are respected by their fellows because of their great knowledge, sometimes unlettered, of geology, who know the strata, streams and hidden places of their nether world, and even the effect of topographical features upon it. They know their land as an inshore fisherman knows his waters. But even those local people who knew not the character of the hidden earth or nature of topography were aware of the danger. Why then were the children sent to school? The Law says you must send your children to school or go to jail, and most, if not all, education authorities insist that you send them to one of their choice.

A woman councillor protested the danger at a meeting of the Merthyr Planning Committee, nearly three years ago:

"The dangers: Councillor Mrs. G. I. Williams said there were dangers arising from surface tipping. We had a lot of trouble from slurry causing flooding at Merthyr Vale. If the tip moved it could threaten the whole school'." (Merthyr Express 11.1.64).

Councillor Williams's plea was rejected by the Planning Committee and the Councils and the NCB were permitted to extend their coal tip. Councillor Williams died a few weeks before the disaster.

On October 23, 1966, the Sunday Mirror published a picture of two mothers, Mrs. Karen Symonds and Mrs. Marjorie England, handing a petition to the headmistress of the school, Miss Ann Jennings. The petition, signed by 36 parents, gave warning of danger.

"The petition complained that the children had to wade thigh high through slimy flood water from the mountain tip to get home from school."

Nothing happened

Miss Jennings gave the petition to the Director of Education; it was passed to the Merthyr Borough Council. That was in January, 1965. "Nothing happened." But on that fateful day in October. 1966 each of these mothers lost a child in the Aberfan school and Miss Jennings died trying to protect her young charges.

As long ago as December 23. 1958. the Borough Council received a letter complaining of the tip, Minute No. 2074, but nothing was done. Stephen Davies, Merthyr's Labour MP, said on October 22, 1966:

"We've been warning the NCB for years about what could happen, but they took no action. They continued to pile up slag, making the tip even higher. Now the disaster we warned could happen has happened."
"Mr. Davies says he does not want to put the Coal Board on trial," (Sunday Mirror, 23.10.66).

In addition to local lore official surveys gave sufficient warning of the dangerous practice of the previous coal owners and the present NCB, especially in respect to the water danger. On the evening of Sunday. October 23, Lord Roberts, head of the NCB appeared on TV and said they had, a few hours ago, discovered that the tip had been built upon and buried two streams. These streams were known to local miners, one of whom told the judge that he had bathed there when a boy.

Central truth

On the same Sunday morning the Sunday Times told of these streams part of which are still visible. The Ordnance Survey of 1914 shows the streams without the tip; the survey of 1957 shows the tip built over one-third of the length of the streams. In any case, everyone knows that, where there is a hill there is water at the bottom of it, at any rate in this climate.

The central truth common to all such calamities is that the workers, the local people know of the dangers. even know their remedy, but Authority claims the sole right of taking or not taking action. Authority claims to know what is best and demands obedience. When disaster falls, then Authority, large or small, disclaims responsibility or know-ledge, and complains of the apathy of the public.

So long as we do not intervene in the things that concern us, so long as we delay taking over, more and more, our own affairs. whether they be our work, our neighbourhood or the greater general issues on which our lives depend, then this condition will continue and War and Aberfan will be our lot.



  • 1a decree with the force of law, in tsarist Russia