Monday, 17 August 2015

Aberfan; The Price of Coal.

As we swung down the valley road towards Cardiff, I wanted to do something for the Blog about mining which was so important for this area. But I'd looked at the map and whatever valley road we took - it's all gone.

Once every village had a pit, a mining gear, a Miners Welfare and a slag heap of mining waste.

I didn't have any contacts with the South Wales Miners - in the great Miners Strike of 1984/5 all my connections were with the Kent Miners.

However, it's the same everywhere.

Once Thatcher won the strike, they closed down as many mines as they could, as quickly as they could. They then tried to remove any trace of the industry.

It's as though it never existed.

In Cornwall, mining is everywhere; old engine sheds, old mines, museums, heritage centres.

It's a nice little earner for The National trust.

In old industrial areas Industry is celebrated. The area around Ironbridge and the Tin mines of Cornwall are World heritage sites.

Go to Kent - no trace of coal. In South wales there's one pit open as a tourist attraction and that's it.

It was, of course, a very political action because the Miners represented just about the only people ready to take on Thatcher and what she stood for and the memories of that great strike were always going to be a centre for future resistance.

1984/5 was a really important time for me - I was out of work and able to use some of my time to help.

We collected food and money as hard as we could. 

I was singing with The Workers Music Association at the time and we organised benefits for the Miners and then we did a concert in Canterbury to raise money for the wives and children of the Kent Miners - an amazing and emotional evening for all of us.

We sang surrounded by donated workers banners from all over the country and beyond. There were even Miners banners from the Pas de Calais; the 'North Country' of France but only just across the channel from Kent.

This Industry and those people should not be erased from history.

So as we swung down towards the sea I saw a sign post for 'Aberfan' and I had to visit.

It's a tiny village and I had real difficulty finding it until I saw the skyline and instantly remembered it from countless documentaries in black and white and all the scandals over the years when I was young.

And now? 

A sleepy little village of terraced houses;

 Except that in 1966, for a few terrible days, this little village was the main item of news worldwide;

You wouldn't know why from reading the plaque at the quiet little memorial garden;

And across the way there is a children's play ground, which is somehow very appropriate. 

Further away is a school - built in the style of the early 1970's.

It's impossible to imagine it now but back in the 1960's there was a mine at the top of the steep hillside and for years they dumped the waste rock, sand and mud in great heaps above the village, as they did everywhere in South Wales.

Unfortunately, underneath the heaps ran streams and after heavy rain, the waste turned to mud and slipped down the hillside, burying some houses and the local primary school;

Word quickly spread and although the village was soon full of people and local Miners digging with their hands or whatever else was available, 144 people died.
When I saw the memorial I was quite angry - I wanted some reference to the causes of what happened - the scandals that went on in the years that followed.
In fact, as I discovered when I got home, there were real battles about the disaster and I'm able to set some of the record straight with the help of Merthyr Tydfil's History pages and Iain Mclain who has written a book and has a web page about what happened after the disaster.
Unfortunately, when the mines were nationalised after the war, the old managers and in some cases the old coal owners who had ravaged the mines were still left in charge.
That didn't change when Alfred Robens (a failed Labour politician) was appointed by the Tories to run the business down and close half the pits.
When the disaster happened, he didn't bother to attend as instead, he was due to be installed as Chancellor of Surrey University.
The South wales Area manager was too busy in Japan to return.
Robens never accepted liability; he wasn't fired and no one else at The National Coal Board was ever demoted or sacked for what happened.
The Right Honourable Lord Alfred Robens of Waldringham was free to go on enjoying the use of the Rolls Royce and his own personal private plane provided by the Coal Board.
This is from The Aberfan Disaster webpage;
The saddest day in the history of the Borough of Merthyr Tydfil was Friday 21st October 1966, the Aberfan Disaster. In the previous 10 years there had been a good deal of correspondence between Merthyr Council and the National Coal Board concerning the tip. One Council official even wrote, ‘ You are no doubt aware that tips in Merthyr Vale tower above the Pantglas area and if they were to move a very serious situation would occur’. Over a week of heavy rainfall caused a mountain of slag to move incredibly quickly, engulfing Moy Road and Pantglas School just as junior school children were inside. The tragedy caused the sad death of  28 adults  and 116 young children. It is a day that few would ever forget. The tribunal that was held afterwards concluded that ‘ Blame for the disaster rests upon the National Coal Board’.
Initially, the board proposed that compensation of £50 per child would be suitable.
By 1970, The Board had still failed to compensate Merthyr Tidfil Council for the cost of building a new school.
Eventually, compensation was raised to £500 a child.
There was a worldwide outpouring of grief and a Disaster fund raised over £1.75 million in a short period of time. In today's money that is the equivalent of about £25 million pounds. This was mainly in the form of very small donations;
""Please use this small amount in any way you wish. I was saving it for a new coat. O God I wish I had save (sic) more. Yours sincerely, A Mother." "
The authorities soon decided that this kind of money was far too much for the poor people of the Welsh Valleys.
The Charity Commissioners stepped in and forbade the Trustees from paying for a memorial in the churchyard as it might 'Criticise'. This 'advise' was ignored.
They tried to stop the trustees making equal payments to all the bereaved families on the grounds that the trustees should ascertain whether the parents were 'Close to their children or not' - those who weren't 'close' shouldn't get the money.
The Coroner tried to cover up what happened. This is an extract from Iain Mclain's book;
Anger at the National Coal Board erupted during the inquest into the death of 30 of the children. The Merthyr Express reported that there were shouts of "murderers" as children's names were read out. When one child's name was read out and the cause of death was given as asphyxia and multiple injuries, the father said "No, sir, buried alive by the National Coal Board". The coroner replied: "I know your grief is much that you may not be realising what you are saying" but the father repeated:
I want it recorded – ‘Buried alive by the National Coal Board.’ That is what I want to see on the record. That is the feeling of those present. Those are the words we want to go on the certificate.[8]
Meanwhile, the heaps of mine waste still towered above the village and the streams underneath still flowed.
Some weeks after the disaster, the novelist Laurie lee visited and described the scene at the village;
"Fragments of the school itself still lie embedded in the rubbish - chunks of green-painted classroom wall... Even more poignant relics lie in a corner of the buried playground piled haphazardly against a wall - some miniature desks and chairs, evocative as a dead child's clothes, infant-sized, still showing the shape of their bodies. Among the rubble there also lie crumpled song-books, sodden and smeared with slime, the words of some bed-time song still visible on the pages surrounded by drawings of sleeping elves."
In the summer of 1968, there were some small movements in the waste heaps and even though everyone was agreed that they had to be removed, the Coal Board refused on grounds of cost.
In the end, the government contributed £200,000 and the Trustees of the Disaster fund were forced to pay out £150,000 from the donations as well.
It is now accepted that this was as a result of great pressure placed on the Trustees which they should have resisted and was an illegal payment made outside the charitable purposes of the fund.
The Charity Commissioners who had demanded that the Trustees check how close bereaved parents had been to their dead children did not object to this payment.
In 1997, in a symbolic gesture, the government returned the £150,000 to the disaster fund.
It still makes me angry that there is nothing in the village that sets out what happened; no background - no history.
No photographs, no story boards.
No representation of peoples anger and grief - a whole generation of children wiped out.
It's as though 144 people just.......died.
A hundred years from now who will know?
And I suppose it matters for me because, at the time, I was at exactly the right age to have been at PantGlas Junior School singing 'All things Bright and Beautiful' in Assembly on the day before they broke up for half term on 21st October 1966.
Neil Harris
(a don't stop till you drop production)

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