The Aberfan disaster 50 years on

Pictured: Aberfan cemetery (photo by William via flickr)
Osian reflects on the tragic Aberfan disaster and considers the effect the industrial revolution had on the Welsh people.

by Osian Morgan

It was a damp, dark morning in Aberfan, a typical coal-mining village in the South Wales Valleys, on the 21st of October, 1966. At 9:15a.m, the children of Pantglas Junior School had just returned to their classrooms after their morning assembly, on what was their last day of school before half term. Little did they know that within 5 minutes their school would be buried in coal, as an avalanche of wet slurry would tumble down the mountain overshadowing the school, wiping out a farm and several houses on its way. For 116 schoolchildren, and 28 adults, this tragic event would be their final memory.

In the Valleys, it was not unusual for the mining debris from the mines to be dumped on the mountain sides in coal tips, which is precisely what happened in Aberfan. Below one of these coal tips, however, were two underground springs. The days leading up to the 21st of October, a day that would wipe out an entire generation of the Aberfan community, had seen heavy rain. As a result of that heavy rainfall, the underground streams expanded, and the coal tip destabilised, resulting in roughly 150,000 cubic meters of water saturated debris flowing down the mountainside at speeds of 40mph.

But who was to blame? Many believed that this horrific incident was a result of the negligence of the National Coal Board, who carelessly piled the debris above two underground springs. A few months after the event, an inquiry was launched, which deemed the Coal Board responsible for the disastrous event.

A few weeks ago, I was visiting my Grandfather, who lives ­­quite close to Aberfan, so I decided to visit the village, to see for myself the location of this devastating event. As I stood there, in the very same spot where a school once stood, and where 116 children were mercilessly buried alive, I looked around at the village of Aberfan. This village was created and brought to life for one reason; coal.

Coal has played an immeasurable role in the industrial, economic, social and demographic history of Wales. Coal gave employment to hundreds of thousands of Welshmen. Coal put Wales on the map as a modern and industrial nation. But as I stood in the cemetery in Aberfan, staring at row upon row of graves that contained within them child-sized coffins, I wondered to myself; was it all worth it?

The industrial revolution may have had a positive impact on Wales as a nation, but did it justify the suffering of the Welsh people, such as the suffering and sacrifice of the community of Aberfan? Aberfan was not the only community to suffer, the history of the industrialisation in Wales is plagued with disasters, such as the Senghenydd disaster of 1913, where 439 men were killed in an explosion in a coal mine. In addition to disasters like this, dozens of men were killed on a daily basis because of roof falls and gas leaks in the mines.

And as for the miners who didn’t suffer immediate, barbaric deaths, working in the coal mines meant working long hours of relentlessly tough, physical work. Children would start working at ages as young as 5. Outside of work, the miners’ living conditions were equally poor. The overcrowded streets of the Valleys were generally dirty and disease-ridden. In Merthyr Tydfil the age expectancy was less than 18 years, unjustifiably lower than the British average of 50 at the time.

The economic benefits of the coal industry in Wales were astounding. At one point Wales produced 57 million tons of coal a year, roughly a quarter of the world’s coal production. However, was it the people of Wales, the hundreds of thousands of coal-mining Welshmen, that benefited most from the economic value of Welsh coal? The wages of the miners themselves were relatively low, with the majority of the profits from the labour of the miners heading directly to the collieries’ owners.

Considering the value of the coal that once lay beneath the surface, should the people of the Valleys not be reaping the benefits of that wealth today? Should they not be benefiting economically from the labour of their ancestors? Instead, figures in 2012 showed that the Valleys were amidst the poorest areas in the UK. The attainment of educational qualifications are lower than the British average in the Valleys, and the unemployment rates are considerably higher than the Welsh average.

I do understand however, that the Valleys are not an exception to the rule, and that there are dozens of post-industrial communities across Britain suffering from poverty. However, on a personal level, I hold the Valleys close to my heart. The majority of my family originate from there – my grandfather worked in a coal mine – and I feel a strong sense of connection with the place. The people of the Valleys are proud people, who I am honoured to associate myself with, and it pains me to think that they, as well as the people of Wales in general, have not reaped the benefits of their contribution to the industrial revolution.

I’m not suggesting for one second that the industrial revolution was entirely negative for the Welsh, I recognise its importance to Wales, and I’m proud to call the post-industrial Wales my home. However, as I travelled through the Valleys a few weeks ago, I struggled to see the economic benefits of the hundreds of millions of pounds of coal that were mined here by its people. I struggled to see the prosperous, wealthy Valleys that could have, and should have been. I struggled to see the people of the Valleys benefiting from the fruits of their ancestors’ labour. In all honesty, I struggled to see how the people of Wales had benefited at all from the Industrial Revolution.

The tragedy of Aberfan stands out as a horrific event, in a difficult and laborious chapter of the history of Wales. I can only hope that the next chapter of the history of this beautiful country, will be a better one, a fairer one, and that the people of the Valleys, and the people of Wales as a whole, will one day live in the prosperity that they deserve.