I was reminded of early writings on this point by one episode of the new Netflix ‘The Crown’ Series, which was all about the Aberfan Pit disaster. In the episode, the script wove the story about how Lord Snowdon, Princess Margaret’s husband, once he heard the news, got on his motorbike and rode through the night to photograph the tragedy at first hand. Then the Politicians got involved, and Prince Philip was convoyed in to view this terrible happening. Her Majesty was pictured as believing that her presence would only get in the way of the rescuers, but decided to visit after all had been cleared, the burials completed: and all that remained was the Inquiry. There was an obvious scripted session where Her Majesty revealed that she had never really cried, but did so whilst listening to a recording of the hymn sung by those villagers as they buried their dead.
There is a saying which goes:- “you are never too old too learn new tricks,” and so it was that I sat in fascination while I read reports, and watched old videos anew about the scheming, the lying, the deceit and the breaking of promises regarding the Aberfan Disaster.
As you might remember, one hundred and sixteen kids and twenty-eight adults died in a carnage of slurry which cascaded down from a coal tip above a Welsh valley village. It was the world’s first television disaster, with seasoned reporters unable to speak for fear of breaking down. The physical reasons why the tip collapsed were easily discovered; a natural spring had flowed through the fields for generations, but the expansion of the waste tips covered the bed of the stream. As the tip grew, it also became more saturated with first the spring water, and secondly the rain, and after a certain time, a physical change occurred, in that the slurry altered it’s state from being a slurry to a type of paste which is vulnerable to a shockwave, turning it into a pyroclastic volume, which of course was far too high to retain its height, and down it came!
The dead children and adults were dug out, and buried, the Government personnel, including Prime Minister Harold Wilson, Lord Marsh and of course, Lord Robens, chairman of the National Coal Board, the television reporters and cameras had come and gone.
The Rt Hon. Lord Robens of Woldingham, a former trade unionist and Labour politician whom the Macmillan government had appointed Chairman of the National Coal Board, arrived 36 hours later, having first gone to Guildford to be installed as Chancellor of Surrey University. He announced that the cause of the disaster was an unknown spring underneath the tip. This was immediately challenged by villagers who had known it all their lives.
The Investigating Tribunal sat, and had delivered an overwhelming verdict of “Guilty” against the N.C.B. and it’s officials, both local and national, including Lord Robens! Such statements as “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!” were made! But no-one resigned, no-one was fired, no-one was even censured except by the Tribunal! The evidence was accepted that the stream was known about, but nothing was done to halt the tipping, or change the direction!
Then the tribunal delivered what was the damning evidence that not only was the stream known about, the actual danger to the village from the tips had been the subject of a stream of letters from Merthyr Tydfil Council to the Area N.C.B. offices, all of which were ignored, partly because of a dispute between two professional engineers, but partly because if the tips had been closed, the pit would also have closed, and the jobs would have been lost!
The Inquiry reported in August 1967. Its report is unsparing, passionate, and strangely poetic. The disaster was entirely the fault of the National Coal Board (NCB). Tip no. 7 had been located on top of springs which are shown on the Ordnance Survey map. The Aberfan tip complex had slid in 1944 and 1963. The physical evidence of these slides was clear to the naked eye, although the NCB spent many days at the inquiry denying that the 1963 slide had occurred. It had no tipping policy, and its engineering experts had given no guidance to local workers. The Area Civil and Mechanical Engineers were at war. Neither of them inspected the tip, although the Mechanical Engineer claimed to have done so after Merthyr Council complained about the ‘Danger from Coal Slurry being tipped at the rear of the Pantglas Schools’. The disaster was a ‘terrifying tale of bungling ineptitude’. Nevertheless, the top management of the NCB tried to give the impression at the Inquiry that they had ‘no more blameworthy connection … than the Gas Board’. The NCB wasted up to 76 days of inquiry time by refusing to admit the liability that they had privately accepted before the inquiry started. The Tribunal called this ‘nothing short of audacious’. This may be the strongest language ever used in a Tribunal Report about a UK public body. A section of the report condemns the behaviour of Lord Robens in a fine piece of official prose:
“For the National Coal Board, through its counsel, thus to invite the Tribunal to ignore the evidence given by its Chairman was, at one and the same time, both remarkable and, in the circumstances, understandable. Nevertheless, the invitation is one which we think it right to accept.”
The tips were eventually cleared, but, and I paraphrase here the words of Neil Kinnock, “A Labour Government, a Labour Government” made the villagers of Aberfan contribute £150,000.00 towards the costs of this removal!
The twisted logic which allowed the Government to literally ‘steal’ £150,000.00 from the accrued interest was described, in Parliament, as a ‘graceless pavane’ These documents prove that Leo Abse’s phrase ‘graceless pavane’ was deadly accurate. The insurance staff of the NCB told Robens that £500 per dead child was a ‘good’ offer, and that only the ‘hard core’ were agitating for more. On compensation to the victims, the Charity Commission intervened when it should not have done, and failed to intervene when it should have done. It tried to prevent the Disaster Fund trustees from building the arched memorial in Aberfan cemetery, and from making flat-rate payments to bereaved families: they must first satisfy themselves that bereaved parents had been ‘close’ to their deceased children. The Trustees defied the Commission on both points. However, the Commission was silent in 1968 when the Wilson government raided £150,000 from the disaster fund to pay for removing the remaining Aberfan tips. Those tips belonged to the National Coal Board. They violated the Board’s own criteria for tip safety. Yet the Board refused to remove them and lied about the cost. Paying for their removal is not a lawful use of charitable funds.
In July 1997, Ron Davies, the first Secretary of State for Wales under Tony Blair, returned £150,000 to the Aberfan memorial funds to compensate for the Wilson’s government raid on them for removing the tips.. As he has recently said, it was a very easy decision: he had long thought that the money had been stolen. His action was widely welcomed, but some asked why he had not returned the £1.5 million that more accurately represents £150,000 of 1966 money plus interest forgone. In January 2007, the National Assembly for Wales finally did the right thing, as I and others had been urging since 1997. The £1.5 million it then gave the Aberfan Memorial Charity will at last give the memorials a secure endowment.
And still no-one has ever been censured, fired; or brought up to full public scrutiny!