The Day the Black Death Came – To Wales.


Depending on your vintage; do you know what you were doing when you got the news on 22 Nov 1963?  If you are 60+ – of course you do.  What about the rest of the day?  Did it really affect much of the rest of your life?  Unless you have a Sherlock Holmes like tenacity to solve the who and the why of JFK’s murder (like Jim Garrison) – probably not.

11th September (9/11) 2001? Anyone 25+ will know what they were doing when they got the news that day.  Too, you probably remember what you did for one or two hours afterwards. There was a bit to unfold after all; and governments the world over made changes to the way we went to war, and travelled between their borders for starters.  It was to define the way whole governments were to be remembered; certainly for George W Bush and Tony Blair.

What about 21st October 1966? If you are English, for once this Taff forgives you your nationality and even envies you; certainly I sincerely hope it doesn’t have the effect it might have.  If you live elsewhere in the World, the date will only have significance to a few individual families.  Even if you do come from Wales; unless you lived in a mining community, it is probably just a day of tragic news.

For some of us, eerily, we can relive the whole day, (I certainly can) and it did substantially shape our lives.  This is my, very personal, account.  I hope it helps you understand this son of those Welsh mining valleys and also those very formative times of social revolution – the ‘60s.

 The Event

It’s 10 a.m. on a Friday morning.  For me, it was the first day of a half term break.  (Half term breaks always started on a mid-week day and finished on a mid-week day in those days).  I am sat waiting in a barber’s in Abertillery.   For a 10 year old school boy, it is still a bit of an adventure as I had caught the bus by myself from my home village of Llanhilleth (Half Terms were always the time for haircuts).  Later on I will visit the library (I was a bit of a book worm at this time, I hadn’t discovered the guitar yet and the hours that would consume).


There is a radio on in the barbers, and, not unusually, it is tuned to the Welsh Home Service.  (This was the era of Vincent Kane and later, Tony Lewis, hosting “Good Morning Wales” on the radio.  Vintage radio journalism.)  Good Morning Wales would have finished by this time, but the barber had done what all broadcasters aim for, “stayed on” for less popular programs.

The pips go on the radio as 10 a.m. is approached and we go to some head line news on the radio.  The barbers are currently fairly full with men and boys waiting.  He’s going to have a good business day.  The news reader opens unusually “…….reports [are] reaching us about a spill of a coal tip in the village of Aberfan which has reached and buried part of the Pen Glass school.  Mine Rescue teams have reached the scene and are calling for additional volunteers to asist in…………”

Straight away, two men across the waiting room from me, douse the pipes they have been puffing on (you could still smoke in public places in those days); get up, wrap their scarves around their necks and “Y” front them across their chests before they put their top coats on.  “I think you’d better be coming as well butty” one of them says to a fit young man next to me.  “But I’ve only just come off night shift and I gotta go back in tonight mun” he responds to the older man.  “I’m only here now ‘cause Mum is complaining I’m leaving coal on the pillows as my hair is so long”.  “Doon matter son, I reckon there won’t be much call for tonight’s night shift, they’ll want us over there – come on”.  So “son” and two men immediately leave the shop.  (They were to get home at 7 p.m. on the Saturday – there was to be no night shift in Rose Hayworth Colliery, the one close to Abertillery that night)

“Where’s Aberfan?” I ask the barber.  “Dunno exactly son” says the barber.  “reckon by the end of the day you might know though”.  Clearly, that news said more than the announcer had read to the miners that had been in the barbers, but I was still a Junior School boy, and didn’t have the life experience to understand…………

I visit the library, extract a Biggles book (I read over 50 of the 78 W. E. Johns wrote, and never once detected any warped homo sexual nuance) and something to help me and Dad with the construction of a balsawood model aeroplane kit I’m building – it keeps going to the right when launched and digging it’s right wing down.

After the bus home and the very wet walk back up the hill to our house from the bus stop (It has been tipping down for about 56 hours, a significant contributor to the day’s main event) Mam gets my doused coat off me together with my balaclava (it’s wool and is drenched) and asks me to shush as she wants to keep listening to the radio.  “You still listening to Pete Murray” I ask?  “Thought he finished by midday”.  “Shush” Mam reemphasises; “I want to know what’s going on”.

The Afternoon and Early Evening

The rest of the day goes by keeping in touch with the radio.  (Television didn’t have regular broadcasts during the day time in this age).  In our house we spend a lot of time getting ready for the evening’s chapel event.  We are hosting a week of an evangelist (Glynn Morgan) campaign, and tonight is “Youth Night”.  Mam is cooking <something> to go with the ‘cups of tea’ for afterwards.

Dad gets home unusually early (he’s working for RTB’s by now, and has been for 6 years, having left the NCB in 1960).  In my naïve thinking, I’m thinking it’s because of preparations for tonight’s big youth event at the chapel; Dad is a Deacon there after all.  “Let me talk to Mam a minute, will you?” – I can’t remember any other time when my parents sent me away whilst they talked between themselves.

Eventually, I get into my “Sunday Best” of short trousered green tweed suit (I kid you not) and walk with Mam and Dad up to the Chapel to meet with my ‘mara’ Glenvin Dee (he’s 3 years older than me, but I did nothing in chapel during those years without Glenvin)

Now bear with me, and acknowledge that this writer has a very strong faith. It almost wasn’t so…..

Glen(vin) tells Dad that “they’ve reached to 80 over there according to the 6 o’clock news Uncle Ray” (Dad was “Uncle Ray” to a lot more than his (eventual) 40+ direct nephews and nieces).  Dad immediately grabs two other Deacons, (my ‘Uncle’ Cyril and Eric Matthews, who incidentally, also worked for RTB’s) and Glynn Morgan and works solemnly to the vestry.   It was one of a few handful of ‘incidents’ in life my father would NEVER talk to me about.

Eventually, they emerge and the “Youth Rally” goes ahead.  A school boy mate of Glenvin comes in to the chapel for the only time in his life.  “I want to see how you lot reckon He exists after what’s gone on today”.  THAT’s when it hit me.

(You have to realise that multiple death mining accidents were, even to me, ‘regular’ occurrences.  Only 6 years before, Six Bells colliery (3 miles up the valley from my village of Llanhilleth) had lost a whole coal face crew (44 out of 48) when a seam moved – released a gas bubble and freakily, they got a “flashover” .  When the news reached us on family holiday, It was one of only three occasions I remember my father crying.)

In my boyish chapel way, I had resolved to “go forward” that night at the youth rally to “give my life to Christ”.  It wouldn’t half please my parents, and make Glynn Morgan’s campaign worthwhile- wouldn’t it?  (Arrogance reached me at a very early age.)  But; with the “score” reaching past 100 by this time, – and they were of kids my age don’t forget – I really did start to wonder whether “God” actually bothered about us lot.  (I got there two years later, and have never doubted since that God actually does “bother about me” – he’s had to prove it.  And has.  But life isn’t dominated by ‘good’ – evil doesn’t just prevail sometimes in Harry Potter novels you know – more of that later.)

Full Realisation Dawns

The youth rally ended and we went out onto the streets to bring in young people – the conversations were dominated by ONE subject.  (Incidentally; the one thing I can’t remember – where was my (14 year old) sister all this time?  I’ll have to ask her)

My mate Glenvin broke down outside the chapel; – many men cried that day.  We went back to our house and put the television news on.  This was the media at its best (A personal opinion)

It was 1966, the media was still making its own rules and standards, especially with news gathering and reporting.  They really were making up the rules as they went along.   You could NOT have studied “Media” in those days; so well grooved, worked out procedures to protect middle class, Middle England sensibilities hadn’t even been thought about.  This was the time don’t forget that brought us the Vietnam War in all its uncensored gore right into our living rooms.  “They”, ((the establishment) got their control later on – but not yet.  THAT is crucial to the rest of this explanation.

Cliff Mitchellmore had already had one nervous breakdown some (15?) years before at the start of his BBC career.  By now he was anchoring the later night News / review flagship “24 hours”.   I found out in later years that he had insisted on covering this in the BBC news office because (perhaps ghoulishly) he “knew how to cover disasters”.   This is his summary – I can remember just about every word of that broadcast.  Cliff Mitchelmore Broadcast from Aberfan

I caught him being interviewed years later on “Parkinson”.  This was “the most memorable outside broadcast of his career” he claimed.  He was waiting for the train back to London the next day at Cardiff Central Station.  There was a “big game” of rugby scheduled that day – and it went ahead.  He recalls hundreds individually coming up to him on the platform and simply saying “thank you” – he had to have drops put in his eyes when he got home, his tears were affecting his sight!

That day at Cardiff Arms Park; at the “big game” – they went around with a blanket just out of play.  It collected so much, they had to empty it 6 times.  (A parallel with the scriptures there)

Some family aftermath

On Saturday morning they were appealing for “able bodied men” to help dig out the dead bodies.  Dad started thinking about it – but was VERY relieved to find that the call had had such an answer they were now with too many men.  I asked why he hadn’t just got in the car and gone there.  His response was telling and chilling. “I’m not sure I could have stood failing to rescue people your age.  I didn’t want those memories haunting me”  I didn’t get it for a few years.  We NEVER talked about this again.

The Fallout

The aftermath was what has really irritated and angered me.

I understand (though don’t agree) with the arrogant prick persona that Lord Robens projected.  This was the dying embers of Empire; and people in “power” resented having to be scrutinised by the by the rank and file.  This was when authority and power was rightly and so expertly surgically taken apart by the QC the residents of Aberfan hired to examine the NCB and those accountable.  Lord Robbins would now be (probably) lynched if he were to claim “No one knew about the stream under the tip” to press and tribunal alike today.  (Everyone in Aberfan knew about it)

Fortunately, the QC and presiding Judge didn’t let Robens get away with that and absolutely skewered Robens’ (initial) claims.

The area engineers Civil and Mechanical, (I know their names, but I am withholding them, both men are now dead).  These, so called technical experts, were clearly, intellectually and educationally inept.  Not really competent to make technical judgements on such things as coal slag tips.

I resolved to study engineering and technology that term.  No technical or morally inept judgements were to be taken on my patch(es) in the future.

Dick Marsh, controversially, wouldn’t accept Lord Robens resignation (he was a more able politician and better intellect and deserved better sub cabinet positions than he was appointed to – he was minister of Power and Energy at this time, and that was not a cabinet post in 1966).  He saved Lord Robens’ skin probably to the overall good, especially when Robens turned up to the last days of the Tribunal and admitted NCB culpability.  If he’d taken the invitation at the start and said what he eventually did say at the start, he would have saved having the majority of the tribunal happen.  He was told so.

The tips were dismantled, as Harold Wilson had promised on the day of the disaster.  Not just in Aberfan, but elsewhere in mining communities (I particularly remember tips above Marine Colliery Cwm)

The Bit That Sticks in The Gullet 

This is the piece that does stick in my gullet.  I can tolerate the mistakes made by the NCB in constructing those tips that slide down the mountain.  Mistakes were made, but eventually, nothing like it ever happened again.  We did learn.

I choke even now when I write about this.  The tips were moved, but Harold Wilson made the Aberfan community contribute £150,000 (in 1966 sums) to the cost of moving the tips.  (approx. 10% of the cost) I have never “got it” and no one has ever managed to give me an explanation why.  Harold Wilson, like his great political Allies Jim Callaghan, always did “everything on purpose”; so he must have had a purpose.  When Tony Blair’s government came to power in 1997, within the first week of his administration, the £150,000 was paid back.  The money is now used to tend the mass graves in the village.

So, what do I take from all this?

All through my career, I have been used to ask “flaming awkward questions” of anybody and everybody in Authority of any kind.   It is unnerving for many leader types, and it has blunted my career progression; to the extent I now have to work for myself.  But, especially when I encounter an ego; they get shredded to see what they are made of.  I can’t help it.

I am meeting a rescuer next week at the request of his daughter.  At the time of the disaster; he was a staunch and active Methodist lay preacher.  He went into the school to initially attempt rescue and then subsequent clearing of those children’s bodies.  He came away absolutely convinced that no God could exist in that school.  He has not stepped inside a chapel since.

I actually agree with him, that God wasn’t present in that school that day.  We fight against principalities and powers the Good Book tells us.  It isn’t just within Harry Potter stories that Good has to overcome Evil.  Satan (the Prince of this World) won a small battle that day – but he didn’t win the War.  Was God sleeping? No; but the disaster was totally made by Man’s folly, and it was predictable.   I also consider (these days, and so do many church people) that we actually don’t know what God does with little children.  We just don’t know; and I will wait to find out.

By the time I graduated, a motivation I had for study (one of many)  – the fluid mechanics of slurries –  had become unnecessary for the removal of coal tips – they’d gone.  Challenge of Authority sure as hell has not gone away, and government and public institutions have done much to become more transparent, they know (as JFK warned them) – “That you can’t fool all the people all of the time”

Many, in the media, have tried to play something of a “blame game” in the reviews leading up to the 50th Anniversary.  What has always impressed me most, is once the Aberfan community got an unequivocal apology out of the NCB and settlement over the Tip removals, they have, by in large, wanted to (in very modern parlance) “move on”.

I find this a well reasoned review of the disaster and the aftermath The Untold Story of Aberfan

I learnt a song about a coal mining disaster from another part of the world a few years later when in Grammar School.  It was written by Pete Seeger and Ewan Micol.  There’s a line in it that sums up the view I had formed about the mining industry – it has never changed.

“Bone and Blood is the price of coal”