The Harrowing Lessons Of Aberfan

Those who mock health and safety precautions and talk of a compensation culture should reflect on the 50th anniversary commemorations of the Aberfan colliery disaster, says solicitor Anthony McCarthy.

The National Coal Board (NCB) was responsible for a series of catastrophic failings and ignored repeated warnings about the dangers posed by a huge mountain of mining debris that was piled above the Welsh village over a period of decades.

Parents of pupils at Pantglas School beneath one of the seven tips measuring up to three-quarters of a mile high even presented a petition to Merthyr Tydfil Council calling for something to be done about them.

Shortly after the school day started on Friday October 21 1966, following several days of heavy rain, a tsunami containing thousands of tonnes of sodden debris thundered towards the village, striking several homes and then flattening the school.

The disaster resulted in the deaths of 116 children and 26 adults in the most horrific of circumstances. The pupils were due to break up for the half-term holidays at lunchtime.

NCB chairman Alfred Lord Robens refused to accept responsibility for what had happened, claiming nobody could have known there were natural springs underneath the tip. However, it emerged that this was common knowledge locally and the waterways were clearly marked on maps of the area.

aberfan“Health and safety sometimes gets a bad press and there are many myths about the rules and regulations and why they exist,” says Anthony, who specialises in Personal Injury work.

“It makes harrowing reading but it’s worth taking some time to look into what happened at Aberfan at a time when attitudes towards both health and safety and the blameless victims of accidents were very different from what we have come to expect today.

“Deaths caused by the mining industry were nothing new to the people of this South Wales community that depended so much on coal for their livelihoods. To some degree they were seen as an inevitable price to be paid for bringing the work that enabled them to put bread on the table.

“The dangers of these enormous tips collapsing were also well known – but back then it was considered simply too costly to find an alternative, and so nothing was done. The concerns of worried mothers and fathers and of the Borough Engineer were completely ignored. The NCB made it clear that if the tips went, so would the mine.”

There was enormous public sympathy for the stricken village and donations to the Aberfan Disaster Fund reached £1.75m – a huge amount at the time. But the injustices towards the victims’ families added to their grief and misery. At first they were even denied money to pay for gravestones.

The authorities continued to turn a deaf ear to appeals for the tips to be dismantled. And even when they did relent, the government even took a large chunk of the donations and gave it to the body responsible for the disaster – the NCB – to pay for the work.

“Although this disaster is within living memory for many people, it was an age when fundamental rights such as access to counselling, legal representation and financial compensation were simply not available,” says Anthony.

“The NCB’s willful negligence was shown to have caused the deaths of these poor people – and yet they weren’t required to compensate their families.”

The statutory corporation that ran the nationalised industry on behalf of the country was not nearly as altruistic as the thousands of members of the public who donated to the disaster fund. It offered families just £50, before raising this to a “generous” £500.

“Nobody at the NCB was ever held accountable for the fatal mistakes that were made,” says Anthony. “Lord Robens kept his job and ironically was chosen to head the commission into health and safety that laid the foundations for legislation that’s still in force today.

“Looking back on the events of half a century ago is a harrowing experience. What happened before and after the disaster is truly appalling.

“We hear much in the media about the alleged ‘compensation culture’ in this country. We read in the press about ‘health and safety gone mad’, with supposedly daft rules and procedures being mocked and ridiculed. Well this is how things used to be done.

“Thankfully, we’ve come a long way in the last 50 years, although I believe we still have more to do, especially when it comes to ensuring justice for the victims of the industrial diseases caused by asbestos.

“But Aberfan reminds us all what routinely happened before these issues were taken seriously and when those who were responsible for destroying so many lives did not have to answer for their actions before the law.”

View All