What we can do .. is try to focus the attention of many in Britain and beyond on the lessons of Aberfan, lessons which are still of profound relevance today . They touch on issues of public accountability, responsibility, competence and transparency.
Last week saw the 55th anniversary of the Aberfan disaster. That horrific event of an early morning on a Friday before half-term when an avalanche of coal slag engulfed a primary school and some houses killing one hundred and sixteen children and twenty-eight adults.
I was ten years old and living in a mining town in the Northeast of England, where slag heaps dotted the landscape. Indeed, we had a small one close to the primary school I attended. It’s, therefore, not surprising that the news deeply affected me when I heard of the disaster later that Friday. October 21, 1966. It is because it affects me to this day, that I write this Reflection and as I do I confess a little tear is in my eye.
At the time, my 10-year-old, and overactive, imagination put me into the classroom with those children. Given it was the last morning before half-term, the school was to break up at noon. If the torrent of slag had come four hours later, then the school would have been empty and the loss of life, especially young life, so much less.
Surrounding my childhood were my grandfather’s stories of his life as a coal miner. Those stories heightened the impact of the news of Aberfan on me. He first went down the mine in 1907 as a child himself at aged fourteen. He retired as a miner in 1958, having spent most of his adult life working deep underground. His respite was three years above ground in the trenches of the Great War until his severe wounding in July 1917. Once recovered, he was back in the mine.
My grandfather’s stories captivated me. Of his working in stifling heat in coal seams barely wide enough to fit a man. Of the dangers, death, and injury to which he was a witness. He didn’t escape such injury, suffering a handpick in his chest when, in cutting for coal, the handpick bounced back off some hardened rock. He once said that he joined up in 1914 to fight in the Great War because he thought it safer than working in the pit.
At the time of the disaster, I did not know the cause. I suspect even adults who were not from Aberfan assumed it to be some form of horrific accident of nature. I know my own parents reassured me that it was a one in a million chance and that it could never happen to any of ‘our’ slag heaps.
It was only when the public enquiry began that the country realised that this was a man-made and not a natural disaster. While a prolonged period of unprecedented, heavy rainfall caused the landslip, it was the bureaucrats in what was then the National Coal Board who ignored all the warnings over the preceding months. A primary duty of Government is the protection and safeguarding of the people over whom they govern. On that day in 1966 and for many months beforehand, the Government failed in that duty.
This week’s music is ‘Close the Coal House Door’. Written by Alex Glasgow, son of a northeast miner, just before the Aberfan disaster. Glasgow added a “bairns” verse after that disaster. Later, the song became the title song for the 1968 stage musical of the same name, co-written by Alan Plater. The play is based on the short stories of Sid Chaplin and reflects the history of the northeast mining industry through family drama, comedy sketches and songs.
I first saw a broadcast of the play on TV in 1969 as part of the ‘Wednesday Play’ series. I’ve since seen it performed on stage several times. On the last occasion at the Oxford Playhouse a few years ago. Before the performance, some of the audience took advantage of the cafe bar. Tucking into quiche, goats cheese sandwiches and other such delicacies while quaffing chilled dry white wine. I couldn’t help having a quiet chuckle to myself at the thought of what my grandfather and his fellow miners might have made of that.
Here’s a compelling rendition of the song.