“Buried alive by the National Coal Board”: the fiftieth anniversary of the Aberfan Disaster Tribunal

Thursday 3 August 2017 is the fiftieth anniversary of the publication of the report by the Tribunal of Inquiry into the Aberfan Disaster. Sarah Williams considers its relevance fifty years on.

The fiftieth anniversary of the Tribunal of Inquiry into the Aberfan Disaster is a good time to reflect on its failure to deliver justice.

At 9:15am on Friday 21 October 1966, a colliery spoil tip collapsed, and slid down the mountainside onto the mining village of Aberfan in South Wales. One eyewitness described the slurry sliding down the mountain as a “dark glistening wave”. Within minutes, it had reached the village, engulfing the two Hafod-Tanglwys-Uchaf farm cottages, a row of houses, and Pantglas Junior School. Miners came from across the nearby South Wales collieries of Merthyr Vale, Deep Navigation, and Taff Merthyr to help uncover the children buried at the school, and, by the next day, 2,000 emergency services workers and volunteers had descended on Aberfan. One miner present at the rescue attempt described the scene:

The women were already there, like stone they were, clawing at the filth – it was like a black river – some had no skin left on their hands. Miners are a tough breed, we don’t show our feelings, but some of the lads broke down.

The efforts of the people of Aberfan and the neighbouring mining communities were in vain. No one was rescued alive after 11am on the day of the disaster. In one morning, 144 had been killed, of whom 116 were children. Almost half the schoolchildren and five of the teachers at Pantglas Junior School were among the dead.

When the spoil tip gave way, the children in Pantglas Junior School had only just sat down to begin the last day of school before half-term. Had the slurry reached the school only a few hours earlier or later, most would have lived. But such catastrophes are depoliticised by being treated as tragedies that occurred by chance. Like the recent disaster at Grenfell, Aberfan was the direct result of a working-class community being treated with contempt, their concerns disregarded. The villagers didn’t need an inquiry to know this. When the coroner conducted his inquest on 30 of the children the following Monday, the Merthyr Express recorded the following:

As one name was read out and the cause of death given as asphyxia and multiple injuries, the father of the child said “No, sir, buried alive by the National Coal Board”. […] 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.”

The report of the Tribunal of Inquiry into the Aberfan Disaster showed how the National Coal Board refused to address villagers’ concerns for years prior to the disaster.

The tramway leading from Aberfan colliery to the spoil tips above the school, photographed in July 1964. Photo © John Thorn (cc-by-sa/2.0)

Unlike in the aftermath of, say, Orgreave or Hillsborough, the press and public opinion were overwhelmingly in sympathy with the people of Aberfan. On 26 October 1966, the Wilson government appointed a Tribunal of Inquiry to establish what had happened at Aberfan, why it happened, whether it could have been prevented, and whether anyone could be blamed for it. Previous inquiries into mining disasters had been whitewashes. The National Coal Board (NCB) and its chairman, Lord Robens, were responsible for managing the decline of the coal industry whilst avoiding strikes, and, for this reason, were indispensable to Labour and Conservative governments alike. When Robens, a Labour MP and minister in the Attlee government, was appointed chairman of the NCB in 1961, the UK coal industry employed 583,000 miners in 698 pits. When he left ten years later, there were 292 pits employing only 283,000.

The conduct of Robens in the aftermath of the disaster and throughout the subsequent Tribunal was to prove emblematic of the neglect that was blatantly responsible for the collapse of the spoil tip. On hearing news of the disaster on Friday 21 October, Robens did not immediately head to Aberfan. Instead, he chose to attend a ceremony where he was being installed as Chancellor of the University of Surrey. When he arrived in Aberfan on the Saturday, he refused any responsibility for what had happened, telling a TV reporter that “it was impossible to know that there was a spring in the heart of this tip which was turning the centre of the mountain into sludge”. As was demonstrated through the course of the Tribunal, this was a lie. The springs underneath the spoil tip that caused it to collapse onto Aberfan had been marked on Ordnance Survey maps as early as 1873, and were well known by the villagers, whose concerns about the tip had been repeatedly ignored by the NCB.

Throughout the Tribunal of Inquiry, the NCB insisted that the disaster couldn’t have been foreseen, and had happened because of the heavy rainfall in the days preceding the spoil tip’s collapse. However, during the course of the Tribunal, it was cited as evidence that three years previously in 1963, the borough and waterworks engineer of Merthyr Tydfil Borough Council had written a series of letters to the NCB, titled “Danger from Coal Slurry being tipped at the rear of the Pantglas School”. And, in 1965, Ann Jennings, the headmistress of Pantglas Junior School, had presented a petition against the tip to Merthyr Tydfil Borough Council, signed by the mothers of the Pantglas schoolchildren. Along with many of the petitioners’ children, Ann Jennings was killed when the tip collapsed a year later. As the Tribunal progressed, it became apparent that the people of Aberfan were well aware of the threat posed by the spoil tip. Yet many had been reluctant to campaign for its removal, knowing that the cost of doing so would have caused the end of coalmining in Aberfan. Today, this sort of dilemma is acutely familiar. Working-class people living in unsafe housing, or damaging their health through exploitative employment practices, remain afraid to speak out against powerful landlords and employers, knowing that to do so means risking losing their housing or their livelihood. Then as now, the choice between livelihood and safety had been forced upon a disempowered working class.

The refusal of the NCB to admit responsibility, even in the face of so much incriminating evidence, meant that the Tribunal dragged on for 76 days, unnecessarily protracting this ordeal for a community in mourning. When the Tribunal Report was published on Thursday 3 August 1967, its conclusion was clear in apportioning blame:

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.

This verdict absolved Merthyr Tydfil Borough Council and the National Union of Mineworkers of any blame for not taking their concerns about the Aberfan spoil tip further. It was accepted that they could have done nothing more than accept the NCB’s claims that the situation was under control. However, these findings were nothing more than what was factually incontestable and merely proved what the victims had already known. Just as with Grenfell today, the Aberfan disaster was the direct result of working class people being neglected and ignored. It was an exemplary case of what Engels termed “social murder”:

When society places hundreds of proletarians in such a position that they inevitably meet a too early and an unnatural death, one which is quite as much a death by violence as that by the sword or bullet; when it deprives thousands of the necessaries of life, places them under conditions in which they cannot live – forces them, through the strong arm of the law, to remain in such conditions until that death ensues which is the inevitable consequence – knows that these thousands of victims must perish, and yet permits these conditions to remain, its deed is murder just as surely as the deed of the single individual.

Despite the unavoidable conclusions reached on the strength of the evidence submitted, the Tribunal of Inquiry failed to recognise that being responsible for the disaster meant being responsible for the murder of 144 people. Although nine individuals faced particular criticism, no one was subject to criminal proceedings. Robens’ offer of his resignation was refused. In a macabrely ironic twist, he would go on to chair the committee that led to the 1974 Health and Safety at Work Act. The Tribunal Report’s conclusions were typified by its claim that those responsible were “not villains but decent men, led astray by foolishness or by ignorance or by both in combination”. Robens, who as Chairman of the NCB had previously urged the government to take action against unofficial strikes and secondary picketing, was presumably one such “decent man”. That the NCB had ignored repeated warnings from Aberfan while it waged its offensive against jobs in the industry was not criminal, but merely “foolish” or “ignorant”. The ruling class had closed ranks to protect its own “decent men”. A bereaved husband and parent despaired: “I was tormented by the fact that the people I was seeking justice from were my people – a Labour Government, a Labour council, a Labour-nationalised Coal Board.”

The community in Aberfan had to fight the National Coal Board to receive compensation, and only succeeded in getting the remaining tips removed after direct action forced the Labour government to take notice.

The spoil tips that remained above Aberfan, photographed in August 1968. Photo © Tudor Williams (cc-by-sa/2.0)

When the Tribunal published its report on Thursday 3 August 1967, it left unresolved the immediate problems of compensating the bereaved and removing the remaining spoil tips that continued to overshadow Aberfan. Although the Tribunal Report had established that the NCB was legally liable to pay compensation, the amount was not decided. In order to reach an appropriate sum, the Charity Commission proposed asking grieving parents, “exactly how close were you to your child?”. Although this appallingly callous suggestion wasn’t acted on, the NCB initially offered a pitiful £50 for each dead child. Later, this was raised to £500, only slightly more than would have been paid for the death of livestock. It was argued that paying any more would have harmed working-class people unused to such amounts of money.

In total, the NCB paid out £160,000 in compensation. However, it refused to pay for the removal of the spoil tips which remained above Aberfan. Its stance was supported by the Wilson government, which reneged on its promise to have the tips removed. Instead, the people of Aberfan were told that the tips were safe, and would only be landscaped in order to soften their appearance. Villagers continued to petition the Minister of State for Wales, George Thomas, to remove the tips. Thomas refused to yield. It was only after a group from Aberfan travelled to Cardiff, confronted Thomas, and tipped coal slurry in the Welsh Office that he relented.

Although this piece of direct action initially appeared to have won redress for an injustice that had remained after the Tribunal, this was not the case. The NCB refused to pay for the tips to be removed without a substantial contribution to the cost of doing so. The NCB’s stance was supported by the Wilson government, which proposed expropriating money from the Aberfan Disaster Fund to contribute to the NCB’s costs. The Fund had been set up by the Mayor of Merthyr immediately after the disaster, and, by the time it closed in January 1967, had received donations totalling £1,606,929 from nearly 90,000 contributions. The Wilson government insisted that the price a traumatised community would have to pay for removing a sight that continued to torment them would be £150,000, taken from the Disaster Fund. Although the legality of using charitable funds in this way was dubious, the Charity Commission sided with the government. The people of Aberfan had no choice but to pay the £150,000, an amount that almost cancelled out the £160,000 they had received in compensation. Eventually, the money taken from the Disaster Fund was repaid by the Blair government in 1997. However, it only repaid the nominal amount of £150,000. Adjusted for inflation, the amount originally taken from the Fund would have been worth roughly £1,500,000 in 1997.

The lesson of the Tribunal of Inquiry into the Aberfan Disaster remains relevant fifty years on. The NCB was able to treat the working class with contempt and continue to do so because it was integral to the state’s economic strategy. Because of this, the community had to continue to fight for anything resembling justice despite the Tribunal blaming the NCB for the disaster. The success the community achieved – finally getting the spoil tips removed – was effectively cancelled out by the fact they were forced to pay almost as much as they received in compensation. In short, the Tribunal did nothing to address the fundamental social and economic injustices that caused the disaster. As a result, it did nothing to empower the working-class community of Aberfan going forward.

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