Aberfan; A Few Faded Memories as a Personal Tribute

This blog post is very different from usual.  Normally I present thoughts about freedom and equality; republican ideas jostle with reports of political events I have attended. I will admit that some posts deal with particularly obscure and arcane bits of our constitution I find irksome or dangerous. But in the week where we commemorate 50 years of the Aberfan disaster in South Wales I want to relate a few personal reflections and impressions, however fleeting and vague.

When the disaster occurred on 21st October 1966 I was a 5 year old living in Tredegar at the head of the Sirhowy Valley about 10 or 11 miles away from Aberfan.  The mines had been worked out in my area but with the South Wales Area NCB maintenance operations still going strong in the town and Pochin service colliery still operating a few miles down the valley, mining was still the main focus.  The human memory is a peculiar thing and it is easy to fall into the trap of false consciousness, of memories which are invented but have all the appearance of reality.  So trying my best to eliminate those I am left with precious few recollections.   As you may expect for a 5 year old the memories are impressionistic rather than of specific situations or events.  Whenever I think back to that day the overwhelming feeling is of darkess and anxiety. I can remember nothing of the morning in my little primary school a few hundred yards up a hill from where I lived, but I do recall the afternoon being disrupted with myself and my schoolmates being brought together in the hall.  I was allowed to stay up later than normal that evening by my mother, probably until about 8 or 9 o’clock.  Two memories are very clear. Firstly listening the news updates on the radio with my mother doing her best to explain what happened. The second seems peculiar.  But I remember my mother fishing my father’s wellington boots out of the cupboard to warm them by the fire!

I shall explain the last memory first. Soon after the news started spreading men started arriving to start digging.  Because of the nature of the disaster much of the relief relied on sheer musclepower rather than machinery.  From the mines and steelworks in the area men were literally finishing their shifts, throwing  clothes and tools into cars and setting off for Aberfan.  My father was an electrician  at Ebbw Vale steelworks on an afternoon shift which finished at 10pm. He never went.  Long before he got home there were so many people at Aberfan that they were getting in the way of the professional disaster relief teams and mine rescue crews who had arrived from Merthyr Vale colliery.

Looking back the impressions of darkness and anxiety are understandable.  Anxiety I picked up directly from the emotional state of my mother who identified immediately with the loss of children about the same age as myself.  The darkness was of two kinds, physical and psychological.  As a young child I had no real sense of death.  My maternal grandmother, my last remaining grandparent, had died of cancer in 1966 and my idea of death was that people simply left and you never saw them again. The physical sense of darkness came out of the conditions of valley life. The rain which had caused the tip at Aberfan to become unstable would have cast a late autumn gloom over the South Wales valleys for days prior to the event.  Living in a valley with the hillsides creating a very high horizon, the lowering clouds  would mean that evening drew in early and I can recall days when it hardly brightened at all.  Secondly, being allowed to stay up late in mid autumn, a bright kitchen with windows shrouded in darkness is understandable,  I do not remember my dad coming home at 10 o’clock in his little Austin A35 car. I guess I simply fell asleep.

I make no claim for these fleeting and faded recollections, apart from a desire to contribute something personal to the commemoration of this week. Maybe that is just egotism, so please excuse my indulgence. I simply offer them as my humble tribute to the 116 children and 28 adults who went to school that day just as I did but never came home. I also dedicate them to another group, those children of Aberfan who did survive that day and remain haunted by awful memories and feelings of guilt.  Maybe some historian in the future will find these words of use but I doubt it, insubstantial as they are.

Much later I acquired sense of profound injustice at what happened that day and subsequent events. That will wait for another blog post.

One thought on “Aberfan; A Few Faded Memories as a Personal Tribute

  1. Aberfan a village, near Merthyr tydvil,
    North of the village a mountainous hill.
    The coal board built it, and built it with skill
    Dark man-made mountain designed for a kill

    Warned time after time, one day they would slide
    ‘They need lowering now!’ the villagers cried
    But greedy owners swept protests aside
    They wouldn’t do anything till someone had died

    I had lived in Aberfan all of my life
    Had two loving sons and a loving wife
    The tale I will tell still cuts like a knife
    A sad tale of woe, bereavement and strife

    At five that morning I woke for my shift,
    To be there for six, I had to be swift,
    The cold foggy air, gave me short shrift
    Hated being late and really was miffed

    Got there on time, and clocked myself in
    I picked up my pit light and snapping tin
    Into the cage with the crack and the din
    ‘Morning, ‘ yelled Tom, with his big cheesy grin

    Tom was a good mate, I’d known thirty years
    Grew up together, scraped skin, shed our tears
    If you needed a friend to dispel fear
    Tom was the one you would always want near

    Down we descended down into the gloom,
    Two mile below ground into the earth’s womb
    You get to the bottom, you never assume
    Just one wrong step and it could be your tomb

    It was ten o clock when the word got round
    Something had just happened, something profound
    They mentioned the village and school playground
    When children were mentioned tools were soon downed

    ‘Everyone up,’ came the shout down the line
    We all grabbed tools headed out of the mine
    The news we heard sent shivers down our spine
    The slag heap had slid at a quarter past nine

    The school was under both debris and spoil
    From the mountains stretching up half a mile
    We all knew the slag heaps had been tactile
    With shovels we ran toward the black bile

    The sight that met us was straight out of hell
    The slime had swamped from floor to school bell
    Women were screaming a grief stricken yell
    Hand’s covered with blood from clawing at the shell

    Pain, panic and grief were etched on their face
    As we started digging at a fast pace
    We knew time was precious, it was a race
    For come the darkness there’d be no more trace

    For the submerged houses it was too late
    No one gave thought, as by the school gate
    the Grans and Mothers hold hands as they wait
    For word of their children, word of their fate

    A hole appeared at the front of the school,
    the sludge wasn’t so thick there, more of a pool
    They wondered how God could be so damn cruel
    As children were pulled out, from the cesspool.

    One by one they were carried to the gate
    Plucked from that hell and a terrible fate
    Deeper in the room we could not infiltrate
    For the roof was moving under our weight

    ‘Get back lads!’ the foreman called out in vain
    ‘Get back lads’ you’re putting the roof under strain
    ‘Just wait, the helpers are bringing a crane’,
    His words fell like stones in the heavy rain.
    We both had our children there, Tom and I,
    We didn’t know how, but we must try and buy
    As much time as possible, as time will fly
    If we didn’t act quickly, our children would die!

    I looked over at Tom, his powerful physique,
    I looked at his face, there were two white streaks,
    Where tears of anguish had ran down his cheek
    His body was strong, but his spirit was weak.

    It was almost eleven, more men had come
    We were ushered away from the deep chasm
    Hearts were broken that terrible Autumn
    When spoils of the rich began to succumb

    An army of people were now at the scene
    Fresh hands were digging, where we had just been
    Digging for children all under thirteen
    While young volunteers set up a canteen.

    My own boys were seven and nine years old,
    When I woke today, I couldn’t have foretold,
    What today would bring, what it would hold
    If I had known, my own soul I’d have sold

    I was fearing the worst, I must admit,
    Had a bad feeling, since leaving the pit,
    Was ready to give up, ready to quit
    As parent and husband, I felt unfit.

    ‘Quiet’ someone cried, but nothing was heard
    Just the fall of the rain, not even a bird,
    Everything was silent, and nothing stirred
    No one dared speak even one single word.

    By night there were thousands upon that black tomb
    All hope was lost, just bodies to exhume
    Over one hundred missing, in those classrooms
    And Mothers still waited in dark and gloom

    I searched for my wife among the crowd
    Pushed through people, called her name out loud
    Back to the school gates through people I plowed
    Returned to our cottage, with my head bowed.

    As I walked in the hall at dead of night,
    My wife ran toward me, held me so tight,
    ‘I tried to find you but you weren’t in sight,
    Find you and tell you, the boys were alright’

    ‘They both had flu symptoms,’ she started to say,
    I thought the best thing was to keep them away,
    I gave them both mixture- their pain to allay
    And it was the last day of term anyway

    I didn’t believe it, couldn’t believe my ears,
    I fell down on my knees, broke down in tears,
    In one loving moment, she’d erased my fears
    I prayed to God for the first time in years

    Early next morning, from the bedroom I crept,
    Looked in on the boys, watched as they slept,
    I thought of their lost friends, I could have wept
    How their future would change, they had no concept

    I stepped from my door, Tom stood outside
    That big man fell into my arms and cried
    ‘there’s no one left, my children have died
    I said there’s a chance, but knew I had lied

    That was the last time I saw him that week
    The outlook was bad and looking so bleak
    Children had died in the shadow of that peak
    The National coal board hadn’t made a squeak

    The After shock

    Chairman Lord Robens was in no great hurry
    Had a meeting at the University of Surrey,
    When told of the disaster, said ‘look, don’t worry,
    We’ll get it cleaned up, the coal and the slurry’

    They set up a fund for compensation
    Millions donated, by a saddened nation,
    To the coal board it seemed a mild irritation,
    Tried to cover it up with controlled oration.

    They used raised funds, to remove their own mess
    No thought for the villagers under duress
    When the story broke they tried to suppress
    No consideration or feeling, no finesse

    The survivors don’t laugh don’t go out to play
    For fear of upsetting the parents who pray
    For the children they lost on that fateful day
    The day that God took their loved ones away


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