This year is the 50th anniversary of the Aberfan disaster. The injustices that the bereaved families of Aberfan had to deal with on top of their grief were beyond belief. Deborah Price remembers how the Free Wales Army helped the families of Aberfan, and Mike Jenkins memorialises the disaster with a poem.
At 9.15am on the 21st October 1966, in a small mining village that quickly became known worldwide, ‘The Aberfan Disaster’ struck. The unsuspecting Pantglas Junior School pupils and staff were preparing for a normal day. Looming above them was Mynydd Merthyr, the National Coal Board's dumping ground. A deafening roar was heard by many, but there was no time to react. The landslide took out 20 houses and demolished Pantglas, quickly burying it in a debris of slurry and loose rock. Rescuers came from nearby villages to try and help the frantic parents, but to no avail. 144 lives were lost that day, of those 116 were children.
Who was responsible? The NCB of course. Did they have the decency to acknowledge their blame, to bow their heads in shame? That's not how those capitalists work. The raw pain visible on the families' faces packed no punches with those hard-nosed bosses. The NCB's Lord Robens' excuse was that there must have been 'Unknown Water Sources!' What a deceitful response, every map of the area showed natural underwater springs, many directly below the dumping ground. People who had grown up in Aberfan used to play in those once-clear and beautiful waters, when they were children.
The Wilson government found the NCB guilty, but the price they placed on each small head was just £500. The indignity of it! Worldwide, people were less insensitive, donations poured in daily and a trust fund was set up. But another insult ensued. The bereaved families were not thought to be competent enough to distribute the funds. An initial committee was selected with not one person from Aberfan included. The grieving families were outraged. The villagers took it upon themselves to form a Parents and Residents' Association, and their solicitors eventually persuaded bureaucrats to include five representatives from Aberfan. The ten officials who were not from Aberfan accepted highly paid salaries from the fund.
Tensions were running high, applications to the fund were complicated and the Aberfan people were proud. The complacency those families had to deal with was unacceptable, something had to be done. Perversely the barrister in charge was now installed in the newly built offices at Merthyr Town Hall, paid for by The Aberfan Disaster Fund. A demand for £150,000 for clearance of the tips was also paid to the government and the NCB, 'to make the area safe,' they claimed.
The journalist, John Summers, was disturbed by the residents' plight and out of desperation contacted the Free Wales Army. When The FWA heard of the miscarriage of justice, they knew they had to take action. The fact that the families had had to pay for their own children's funerals was abhorrent, whilst using the fund to pay for the clearance of the tips was just another insufferable smack in the face to all of those families who were experiencing enough pain already. They vowed to challenge the authoritarian figures in charge of releasing monies from the fund and make sure that the bereaved families received what they were entitled to.
Dennis Coslett and David Bonar Thomas met with The Aberfan Residents' Committee to discuss immediate action. The following day a press conference was called, the venue was The Morlais Castle public house. More than fifty Free Wales Army representatives, dressed in their uniforms, marched through Merthyr High Street. Flags flying, white eagles adorned their berets, as they proudly sang their battle hymn:
“Behold the Red Dragon Flag,
Is floating across the silver sea,
And the soul of Wales is crying,
In the very heart of me.
Crying Justice, Crying Vengeance,
Pray my sons for strength anew,
For the many that’ll be dying,
At the falling of the dew...
They issued forth an ultimatum to be printed by the many newspapers present:
£5000 must be paid to each family within one week or let the consequences be on your heads. Our first action will be to bomb The Town Hall where the Disaster Fund Committee sits. Next the acting solicitor, then the treasury if we must. If all that fails we'll blow up The County Government Offices and then The Government Offices in Cardiff.
The money came forth within a matter of days. As a result, a memorial for those who died could be erected. The families of Aberfan had waited almost a year for this money. The following was printed in The Daily Telegraph magazine on 6th October 1967:
Families of the 116 dead children are to get £5,000 each, but the rest of the huge Aberfan disaster fund sits at Merthyr Tydfil, where the man who launched it says: ‘Even when all the survivors are dead, still most of the fund will be unspent. Then it will go to the Exchequer.’
The fund was growing fast, there was over £1,800,000, but people were saying that the money was being used to give Merthyr Tydfil a facelift!
Why did the government pay out so quickly after the intervention of the FWA? Well, prior to 1967, the Free Wales Army had been linked to a bombing that took place in the Clwedog valley in March 1966. A forage cap dropped in the area with their emblem on it had thrown suspicion upon them, but nothing had ever been proved. However, the incident had resulted in them being under the surveillance of the Regional Crime Squad.
Further suspicious activities in 1967 saw rumours that the FWA had formed an umbrella group with The Patriotic Front. The Anti-Investiture Front were planning some kind of destructive action in relation to Prince Charles's investiture, which was to be held in Caernarfon in July 1969. This information led to an emergency meeting at Buckingham Palace, which included members of both the Home Office and the Welsh Office. There was sufficient information to treat this as a serious potential threat. Members of the FWA were aware of the government's suspicions and the fact that as a group they were now
considered to be a real menace to public order in Wales.
On the 17th November 1967 the FWA did blow up the Temple of Peace in Cardiff, where an all-Wales conference of Lord Mayors was due to take place. Princess Margaret would have been present. The bomb went off at four in the morning. At 11am the dignitaries arrived and were confronted with a wrecked building.
The following is a quote from Denis Coslett, who was at the forefront of the FWA:
“I think one of the proudest moments in my life was to see those people,
at Aberfan, having that bit of cash. It wasn’t the money for itself they wanted. Their
grief couldn’t be soothed by money. It was just the recognition that it was their children who had paid the price – and no one else!”
Denis was presented with a watch by the parents' association for his help. Fred Gray, who was a leading member of the association, and lost a child himself, had this to say:
“If it wasn’t for the FWA the families would never have received a penny.”
The repayment of the money, in 1997, came about after the opening of public records under the 30 year rule. Iain McLean wrote several newspaper features about the behaviour of the NCB, the Ministry of Power, the Welsh Office, and the failure of the Heath government to hold anybody responsible for the disaster. He sent an article to Ron Davies, in May 1997, looking for the £150,000 to be repaid to the still extant Aberfan Memorial Trust, which maintains the cemetery and the memorial garden on the site of Pantglas Junior School.
The injustices that the bereaved families of Aberfan had to deal with on top of their grief were beyond belief.
He loved light, freedom and animals
by Mike Jenkins
No grave could contain him.
He will always be young
in the classroom
waving an answer
like a greeting.
Buried alive –
alive he is by a river
skimming stones down
the path of the sun.
When the tumour on the hillside
burst and the black blood
of coal drowned him,
he ran forever,
with his sheepdog leaping
for sticks, tumbling together
in windblown abandon.
I gulp back tears
because of a notion of manliness.
After the October rain
the slag-heap sagged
its greedy belly.
He drew a picture of a wren
his favourite bird for frailty
and determination. His eyes gleamed
as gorse-flowers do now
above the village.
His scream was stopped in mid-flight.
Black and blemished
by the hills sickness
he must have been,
like a child collier, dragged
out of one of Bute’s mines.
There he is, climbing a tree,
mimicking an ape, calling out names
at classmates. Laughs springing
down the slope: my wife hears them,
ears attuned as a ewe’s in lambing
and I try to foster the inscription,
away from its stubborn stone.
Deborah Price lives in Deri. She has written four books for children and collaborated on and published another ten. They include poetry anthologies/collections and a 30th anniversary commemoration of the 1984 Miners' Strike.