Remembering Aberfan

By Iain McLean and Martin Johnes

 

In 1984, a judge presiding over a libel case ruled that the word Aberfan ‘had passed into the currency of ordinary language and that it requires no explanation’. What happened at Aberfan on 21 October 1966 left an indelible mark on the valleys of south Wales. Even today, the name Aberfan evokes sadness and contemplation. Most British people born before 1960 remember what they were doing when they heard the tragic news. The shock was felt beyond South Wales too. The television coverage allowed a collective witnessing of the disaster and turned it into a national tragedy. Parents, children, mining communities, Welsh exiles, people who had been evacuated to the area during the Second World War – so many people across Britain and worldwide felt a deep personal empathy and sympathy with those who suffered in the disaster. The surviving 50,000 letters of condolence sent to the village are a testament to that sympathy. David Kerr MP, (Labour, Wandsworth Central) said in Parliament that ‘this tragedy has reminded people a long way from Wales that we are still one nation.’

Aberfan was a defining moment in Welsh history and it has become part of the nation’s collective memory. Certain historical events assume such positions because of the signals they give out about our lives and place within society. Disasters in particular are laden with such cultural resonances. The tragedy of Aberfan was exacerbated by the fact that the NCB was supposed to serve and be part of the community. Coal nationalisation was widely seen as a just recompense for years of hardship and exploitation and the crowning achievement of the 1945-51 Labour government. Thus the creation of the NCB was greeted with goodwill and enthusiasm in south Wales despite some concern at managerial personnel retaining their jobs. The goodwill was evaporating in the 1960s as collieries were closed and miners lost their jobs.

For many people in south Wales and beyond, Aberfan was confirmation or realisation of this disenchantment. It brought back memories of the pit disasters of Senghennydd (1913 - 439 killed) and Gresford (1934 - 263 killed) and the numerous less-known accidents that killed and maimed individual miners. Such fatalities continued to occur in the wake of 1947 but miners accepted the dangers inherent in their occupation. Aberfan however was different. This time it was their children that were killed, and by implication, a part of the future was lost. To many, Aberfan was evidence of the failures of the nationalisation dream. The NCB’s responsibilities to the people whose labour underpinned it were not being fulfilled.

The continuing social and economic problems of the south Wales valleys have ensured that the Aberfan disaster has remained part of the collective memory of the region and indeed Wales. The tragedy does not belong to a poverty-stricken by-gone age but a period of exploitation and deprivation that still exists for many. Many of the tips in Wales have since being removed or landscaped but the physical, economic and emotional scars left by the coal industry and its decline remain prominent in the valleys. While nearby Cardiff has developed into a prosperous and cosmopolitan city, the valleys remain markedly separate to the surrounding areas. Although housing in the valleys is much cheaper than in Cardiff, there has been little movement up-valley of commuters. The lack of any real economic replacement for the closed collieries means that the valleys are a region unable to escape their past. The dominant narrative of that past is one of united and vibrant communities struggling against a tide of exploitation and deprivation. Along with strikes, dole queues and soup kitchens, the Aberfan disaster is part of a history that still casts its long shadow over the south Wales coalfield.

Iain McLean and Martin Johnes

 

Taken from the forthcoming book:

Iain McLean & Martin Johnes, Aberfan: Government and Disasters (Cardiff: Welsh Academic Press, 2000).

 

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