The Tribunal of Inquiry
into the Aberfan Disaster

On the 26th of October 1966, after resolutions by both Houses of Parliament, the Secretary of State for Wales, Cledwyn Hughes, appointed a Tribunal to inquire into the causes of, and circumstances relating to, the Aberfan disaster. Sir Herbert Edmund Davies, a respected south Wales barrister with much experience of mining law, was appointed chairman. At its preliminary meeting, Davies posed the four broad questions that the Tribunal would look into. They were:

There was controversy before the Tribunal had even begun. The Attorney General warned about, and then imposed restrictions on, speculation in the media about the causes of the disaster. This, together with the accusations that earlier public inquiries into pit disasters were often whitewashes, exacerbated the already tense and difficult circumstances of the Tribunal.

Initially at Merthyr Tydfil College of Further Education and then, after Christmas, at the College of Food Technology and Commerce in Cardiff, the Tribunal sat for 76 days. It was the the longest Inquiry of its type in British history up to that date.

136 witnesses were interviewed, 300 exhibits examined and 2,500,000 words heard. Evidence was given on everything from the history of mining in the area to the region's geological conditions. Those who took the stand were as varied as schoolboys and university professors. It emerged that there had long been local worries over the stability of the tip, that the chairman of the NCB's claim that the spring underneath the tip had not been known about was simply not true and that the coal board had no kind of tipping policy at all. Lord Robens, the NCB chairman, appeared dramatically in the final days of the Tribunal to give evidence and admitted that the coal board had been at fault. Had this admission been made at the beginning of the inquiry, much of what followed at the Tribunal would have been unnecessary. The Tribunal retired on the 28th of April 1967 to consider its verdict.

Link to examples of correspondence expressing concerns over safety of tips at Aberfan

When the Report was published on August 3rd 1967 it had no qualms about making perfectly clear who was to blame:

… 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. Not villains but decent men, led astray by foolishness or by ignorance or by both in combination, are responsible for what happened at Aberfan.

It concluded:

Blame for the disaster rests upon the National Coal Board. This is shared, though in varying degrees, among the NCB headquarters, the South Western Divisional Board, and certain individuals. … The legal liability of the NCB to pay compensation of the personal injuries, fatal or otherwise, and damage to property, is incontestable and uncontested.

Merthyr Tydfil Borough Council and the National Union of Mineworkers were cleared of any blame for not following their concerns over the tip further. It was concluded that they had had little option but to accept the assurances of the NCB that all was under control. Nine individual NCB employees and officials were singled for particular criticism. However, the report made clear that it was a tale of "not of wickedness but of ignorance, ineptitude and a failure of communications." No one faced criminal proceedings but those named (and others cleared) had to live with the disaster on their consciences for the rest of their lives.

Click here to read the Summary chapter of the Tribunal Report

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