The Aberfan Tragedy – The Village that Lost its Children

“All things bright and beautiful, all creatures great and small, all things wise and wonderful, the Lord God made them all” – Refrain from a hymn sang in British school assemblies during the 1960’s.

Life is precious and young life is most precious as it embodies the future and the chance to create a brighter and wiser world. So when a young life is taken we mourn the loss of potential as much as the devastating personal tragedy. Aberfan is the story of the tragic waste of young life on a monumental scale.

For most people born before 1960 in America they can remember what they were doing when they heard President Kennedy got shot. For the same generation living in Britain at the time, you were more likely to remember what you were doing when you heard about Aberfan.

On the morning of 21st October 1966, 144 people, 116 of them children, were killed when a tip of coal waste slid onto the village of Aberfan in South Wales. One of the first structures in the path of the slag slide was the village school. In just a few short minutes the future of this small welsh community was erased.

Aberfan tormented and shrouded Britain for many months after.

Parents found the haunting images in the newspapers and on TV difficult to confront. The inconsolable father who lost his whole family. The mother still waiting at the door for her child to return home from school… but who never will. Just when you thought the stories could get no more tragic… they did.

Surviving children in Aberfan were prized – they were hugged and protected.

English poet and essayist Laurie Lee visited Aberfan one year after the disaster and wrote a poignant essay describing the lingering devastation on the community he found. The fields of tiny graves visited daily by parents, the sound of silence on the playgrounds, and the scarcity of children’s garments drying on wash lines. They all told the story of a village that had lost its children.

Within a few hours of the disaster people came from miles around with their picks and shovels to dig out survivors… but it was futile. No survivors were found after 11:00am. Grown men openly wept as they uncovered the bodies of still children surrounded by black mud-laden books and toys.

The slag that engulfed the village was a by-product of the local mine. After many years the tips grew to be mountains… but without a solid foundation. One of the tips had a spring underneath it, and it was just a question of time before the saturation shifted its core and created the unstoppable landslide.

Coal mining disasters in south Wales were not unusual. It was part of the price for the work it brought to the region. And it was hard and dangerous work for the men of the village, and they lived daily with the knowledge an accident could shatter the fortunes of a family. But never for a minute did anybody think the price would include their children.

Aberfan has long slipped into the English language. One word that when spoken evokes instant sadness and remorse for a day in the 1960s that changed a village forever.

At the time the mines were owned and run by the National Coal Board, and after a few days of mourning the miners were required to return to work. Nationalization of the Coal industry was originally welcomed in the hope that the years of exploitation of the miners would be redressed. But even after the Aberfan disaster life in the South Wales valleys remained hard; collieries closed regularly, unemployment remained high, and nothing came in to fill the widening economic gap.

Today the colliery is closed and the site of the destroyed school is a memorial garden.

The Aberfan tragedy is part of a history that still casts its long shadow over the south Wales coalfield. We all carry our own “Aberfan” with us – some event that overwhelms us with grief and makes us question the injustice of life.

By October 1966 I had left school for good and was no longer required to sing hymns as part of my life. I’m not what most would call a religious person, but when I heard the news of Aberfan the hymn’s refrain I quoted at the beginning occupied my thoughts for days. To this day when I hear the hymn I think of Aberfan and a lost generation in south Wales.

I give my children plenty of hugs and protection – they are precious and I know why…

“All things bright and beautiful, all creatures great and small, all things wise and wonderful, the Lord God made them all.”