Deskarati is always alert to anniversaries, and I want to share some thoughts on an event that I wish had never happened. On the 21 Oct 1966, during a period of wet weather, a colliery waste heap of black mud and rocks, slid down the hillside, and engulfed the Pantglas Junior School in Aberfan, South Wales, killing 116 children and 28 adults. This was what civil engineers call a “quick clay slide”, where what was stable and semi-solid becomes semi-liquid and unstable, if enough water is added.
At the time I was working in a junior school in London, and all the teachers were stunned by the news. What if this had been our school? Suppose that it was our children who had been choked to death in a flood of filthy black mud? Three of my young women colleagues were from the valleys of South Wales, and took the news very badly. One of them came from the small town of Mountain Ash, in the next valley to Aberfan (this is a Welsh spelling and is always pronounced “aber –van”). How on earth could such a thing have happened?
Following the end of the Second World War, the privately-owned coal mines were broke, and many were likely to go bankrupt soon. Then the Labour government, under Clement Attlee, (2) nationalised the mines in 1948. Miners were always going to be in demand, because in 1948 coal was vital to everyday life. Most power stations burned coal; most offices and factories were heated by coal-fired boilers; most homes were heated by coal fires, and the railways used coal-burning locomotives; it was a very different world from that of today.
The private mine-owners had been careless of the safety of miners, and indifferent to the despoiling of the countryside around the mines. All this was expected to change with nationalisation (3). Although there was the chance of a major shake-up in mine management, and adoption of new methods, the “old guard”, who were most likely to lose their jobs, could hardly believe their luck when they were left in position. This was bitterly criticised by those hoping for a root and branch change in the management of mines. Leaving the old management in place meant that the old attitudes would remain.
Unfortunately, the new National Coal Board did not change much. It is true that pithead baths were introduced, in a fanfare of publicity, so that miners were able to travel from home to the mines and back in clean, decent clothes, but the old management styles remained. Despite much innovation, mine accidents were still common and the despoiling of land around mines continued (4).
Just three incidents, from the Aberfan tragedy, illustrate the truth about these unchanging management attitudes.
(i) “The Tipping Gang”
The mine employees who had to add further waste to what was already present on the spoil heap, were called the tipping gang. They reported to the management that there were springs of water under the spoil heap, and also that they had noticed some slippage in the heap. This was not just being wise after the event, and the tipping gang were correct in reporting it.
Why did middle management take no action? Well, if you work in a nice, clean, warm office, and a dirty, labouring man comes in out of the wet, to complain about some problem, why should you need to rush about in order to solve it?
(ii) “The Mountain”
In a radio interview, after the disaster, one of the local management team was interviewed by a BBC reporter and he kept talking about “the mountain”, meaning the natural landscape on which the mine was set. I can still hear his voice in my head as I write. My reaction was, “You lying bastard; it wasn’t “the mountain” that moved; it’s still there. It was the spoil heap that you put on top of it that slid down on to the school.” In those days journalists and interviewers were more reticent and polite than they are nowadays. That manager would not be allowed to get away with such evasive claptrap today.
(iii) The Head of the National Coal Board
The third incident concerns the man at the very top, the head of the National Coal Board itself, Alfred Robens, former trades union official, and former Labour MP, and then Life Peer.
When this dreadful calamity occurred at 9.15 on Friday morning, he did not immediately visit the site, as he was to be installed as Chancellor of Surrey University that very day. When questioned about this later, he said that there was nothing that he could do, meaning that all the specialist services were already there, and he could only watch. He finally reached Aberfan on Saturday evening, the following day.
The people of Wales were appalled at his attitude; he was supposed to be at one with them. He was no greedy capitalist or posh Tory MP; he had come up through the trade union movement and the Labour Party and ought to understand the feelings of ordinary working people. He had been an MP for a northern mining constituency, for heaven’s sake.
What emerged was that, despite his left-wing background, he was the worst kind of politician; a careerist who thoroughly enjoyed the trappings of power. Arriving at the Coal Board, he soon arranged to provide himself with an expensive Daimler car, with personalised number plates, “NCB 1″and a private “executive” aircraft for his personal use. Such things are trivial in themselves, but they provide a clue to the real nature of the man at the top.
As Acton observed, “power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely”. Such a man as Robens would hardly forgo the dressing up, and finery of being installed as a university Chancellor (7), for the grime of a south Wales mining village coping with a major disaster.
Robens was described as, “a forceful personality” and “a man who required absolute loyalty from his staff” (Ref B), in other words he was a bully. After the Aberfan disaster it became clear how deeply this bully had intimidated his staff. At the time, the Secretary of State for Wales, a senior politician and member of the Labour cabinet was Cledwyn Hughes. When Hughes contacted the NCB the officials covered up for Robens, falsely claiming that he was directing the relief operations.
This almost passes belief. These public officials had such low moral standards that they lied to a Cabinet Minister to protect their chief, when miners and fireman were toiling heroically to recover the bodies of little children from black colliery mud. It was an indication of the malign influence of a bully, on an already corrupt organisation that had carried over complacency and indifference from the days of the private mine-owners.
Typically, of a bully, Robens blustered and denied. In an initial TV interview he claimed that nothing could have been done to prevent the slide, as it was due to unknown springs below the tip. Both statements were completely untrue. It was inevitable that the Labour government must hold an inquiry. Parliament appointed a special Tribunal of Inquiry, chaired by a distinguished Welsh lawyer, Lord Justice Edmund Davies (9).
He was born in the small town of Mountain Ash, in the next valley to Aberfan. In the closing stages of the inquiry, counsel for the NCB, asked that the evidence given by Robens be ignored because it was unsatisfactory. Again, this beggars belief.
In case readers might think that I have presented a biased account, or have unfairly criticised Robens, here are some quotes from the Davies Report.
It found that the responsibility for the disaster rested entirely with the NCB, and “the basic cause was a total absence of a tipping policy”. The NCB were, “following in the footsteps of their predecessors, (the private mine-owners). They were not guided either by HM Inspectorate of Mines, or by legislation.”
“The Aberfan disaster is a terrifying tale of bungling ineptitude by many men charged with tasks for which they were totally unfitted, of failure to heed clear warnings, and of total lack of direction from above (i.e. Alfred Robens).”
“The specific cause of the collapse was a build-up of water in the pile. When a small rotational slip occurred, the disturbance caused the saturated, fine material of the tip to liquefy (thixotropy) and flow down the mountain (11). The tip had been sited on a known stream (shown on Ordnance Survey maps) and had several minor slips. Its instability was well known to colliery management, but very little was done about it.” (Ref A)
The Tribunal found that repeated warnings about the dangerous condition of the tip had been ignored, and that colliery engineers at all levels had concentrated only on conditions underground. In one passage, the Report noted:
“We found that witnesses … had been oblivious of what lay before their eyes. It did not enter their consciousness. They were like moles being asked about the habits of birds.”
The disregard of the NCB and the colliery staff for the unstable geological conditions, and failure to act, after previous smaller slides, were found to have been major factors that contributed to the catastrophe. (Ref A)
The Davies Report was published on 3 August 1967, during the summer vacation for schools. I had left the London junior school in July 1967, after only a year there, to take up a new job after the vacation. Most of the staff there were under thirty, and we were all on very friendly terms, and socialised after work, even to group theatre trips. Unfortunately, I had no opportunity to hear the response of the three young Welsh women teachers to the report on the Aberfan disaster.
What was the outcome of the Davies Report? Readers may well ask. The brutal answer is, “Very little.” The National Coal Board paid the bereaved parents £500 for each dead child. Of course, this amount was worth much more in the 1960s than it is now, but discussion is pointless, because no sum can compensate parents for the needless loss of a beloved child.
The Aberfan disaster deeply affected the British public and they contributed generously to a special fund for the surviving families. The fund reached £1.6 million, which is about £28 million at 2016 values. There was also a call for the remaining spoil heaps to be levelled (13) and made safe so that such a disaster could never happen again in South Wales. Removing the remaining Aberfan tips alone, would cost about £3 million. Robens considered this un-necessary as the tips were “safe”, and the NCB refused to pay the full cost of the work.
The Labour government under Harold Wilson made a grant of £200, 000, but it also pressured the trustees of the Disaster Fund into contributing £150, 000 (about 10% of the fund total). Although Wilson’s government got away with this at the time, it was actually unlawful under existing charity law, as well as being morally repugnant.
When a new Labour government came to power in 1997 under Tony Blair it recognised the monstrous injustice of the Wilson government’s action and repaid £150, 000 to the fund. This took no account of the fact that the repayment was of vastly inferior monetary value to the original sum, given inflation across the intervening thirty years. Once again one asks, “How were they able to get away with an illegal act?”
Three years before the disaster, Robens told a conference of the National Union of Mineworkers that “If we are going to make pits safer for men we shall have to discipline the wrongdoer. I have no sympathy at all for those people— whether men, management or officials—who act in any way which endangers the lives and limbs of others.” (Ref A) Clearly this strong line did not apply to adults and children living below the spoil heaps of those pits.
Despite the criticism and apportionment of blame by the Davies enquiry, no NCB staff were demoted, sacked or prosecuted as a consequence of the Aberfan disaster, and Robens and the entire Board of the NCB retained their positions and pensions.
It is true that Robens tendered his resignation to Richard Marsh, the Minister of Power, but it was refused. The matter was scornfully condemned by Leo Abse (15), a Welsh-born Jewish Labour MP. He described it as a “graceless pavane” danced by the two men, where one, “coyly offered his resignation,” and the other, “equally coyly, rejected the offer. I thought that it was a disgraceful spectacle.”
Anyone looking back on the disaster would wonder why the Labour government of the time was so keen to keep Robens in post. The answers are to do with the politics of the time. A variety of Conservative governments had been in power for thirteen years, from 1951 to 1964. The 1960s and 1970s were marked by a series of short-lived governments, alternating between Labour and Conservative administrations, led by Harold Wilson (16) and Edward Heath (17) respectively.
The survival of Robens, who was head of the National Coal Board from 1961 to 1971 revolved round the issue of closing uneconomic pits. This has been happening ever since mine shafts were first sunk. Apparently, Robens was “taking the coal industry through a period of painful contraction without big strikes” and the strong support for him within the coal industry and the union movement were crucial to the decision to retain him. (Ref A)
Robens had the advantage of sensible co-operation from the leaders of the miners’ unions so that agreement could be reached on when a pit was no longer economic to run. It could be closed without protests or strikes, and the workforce could either be compensated or redeployed to other pits. When he began at the NCB there were 698 pits and 585,000 miners, and when he left there were 292 pits and 283, 000 miners. (Ref B) This represents a 58% reduction in pits, and a 51.6 % reduction in the workforce.
Readers interested in fuller details of the aftermath of the disaster, especially the arrogance and insensitivity of various public bodies, politicians, and the civil servants of the Charity Commission, should read the accounts in References A and B. They make one so angry, as to be too much to be included here, in what is intended to be a solemn reflection on the tragedy.
Although I have visited many parts of Wales as a tourist, I have never been to Aberfan. Whenever the tragedy comes to mind, I see the ten-year-old faces of the children I was teaching in 1966. All of them, hopefully, grew up into healthy and fulfilled adults.
A. “Aberfan disaster” Wikipedia article
B. “Alfred Robens, Baron Robens of Woldingham” Wikipedia article
The illustrations have been taken from various sources in Google Images