The response of the authorities after the disaster was nothing short of appalling. The Government, the NCB and the Charity Commission behaved reprehensibly and their actions, coupled with media insensitivity made the grief of the survivors, their families and the wider Aberfan community even more difficult to bear.
The National Coal Board
The chairman of the National Coal Board (NCB), Lord Robens, did not immediately go to the scene; he instead went ahead with his investiture as chancellor of the University of Surrey and did not arrive at the village until the following evening, more than 30 hours later. NCB officers covered up for Robens when contacted by the Secretary of State for Wales, falsely claiming that Robens was personally directing relief work when in fact he was not present.
When he eventually reached Aberfan, Robens told a TV reporter that nothing could have been done to prevent the slide, attributing it to ‘natural unknown springs’ beneath the tip, a statement which the locals knew to be false — the NCB had in fact been tipping on top of springs that were clearly marked on maps of the neighbourhood, and where villagers had played as children. Robens refused to allow Coal Board funds to be used for the removal the remaining tips above Aberfan, instead appropriating a substantial sum from the public disaster relief fund to pay for the work.
The inquiry, which reported in August 1967, was the longest of its type in British history up to that time — interviewing 136 witnesses, examining 300 exhibits and hearing 2,500,000 words of evidence, which ranged from the history of mining in the area to the region’s geological conditions. The inquiry report was unsparing, passionate, and strangely poetic. The disaster was entirely the fault of the National Coal Board (NCB). Tip no. 7 had been located on top of springs which were shown on the Ordnance Survey map. The Aberfan tip complex had slid in 1944 and 1963. The physical evidence of these slides was clear to the naked eye, although the NCB spent many days at the inquiry denying that the 1963 slide had occurred. It had no tipping policy, and its engineering experts had given no guidance to local workers. The Area Civil and Mechanical Engineers were at war. Neither of them had inspected the tip, although the Mechanical Engineer claimed to have done so after Merthyr Council complained about the ‘Danger from Coal Slurry being tipped at the rear of the Pantglas Schools’. The disaster was a ‘terrifying tale of bungling ineptitude’. Nevertheless, the top management of the NCB tried to give the impression at the inquiry that they had ‘no more blameworthy connection than the Gas Board’. Lord Robens made a dramatic appearance the final days of the Tribunal to give evidence, at which point he conceded that the National Coal Board had been at fault; had this admission been made at the outset, much of the Tribunal’s inquiry would have been unnecessary. The NCB wasted up to 76 days of inquiry time by refusing to admit the liability that they had privately accepted before the inquiry had started. The tribunal called this ‘nothing short of audacious’. This may be the strongest language ever used in a tribunal report about a UK public body. It found that the blame for the disaster rested entirely with the National Coal Board, and that the basic cause was the NCB’s “total absence of tipping policy”.
” …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”.
“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.”
The Tribunal found that repeated warnings about the dangerous condition of the tip had been ignored, and that colliery engineers at all levels had concentrated only on conditions underground. In one of its most memorable passages, the Report noted:
“We found that many witnesses … had been oblivious of what lay before their eyes. It did not enter their consciousness. They were like moles being asked about the habits of birds.”
The Tribunal also found that the tips had never been surveyed, and right up to the time of the landslide they were continuously being added to in a chaotic and unplanned manner. The disregard of the NCB and the colliery staff for the unstable geological conditions and its failure to act after previous smaller slides were found to have been major factors that contributed to the catastrophe.
The NCB was ordered to pay compensation to the families at the rate of £500 per child. Nine senior NCB staff were named as having some degree of responsibility for the accident but no NCB staff were ever demoted, sacked or prosecuted, and Lord Robens and the entire Board of the NCB retained their positions.
Following the publication of the Report, Lord Robens wrote to the then Minister of Power, Richard Marsh, offering his resignation. Although Robens had a combative relationship with the government and several cabinet ministers argued strongly that he should go, in September 1967 Prime Minister Harold Wilson and Marsh rejected Robens’s resignation offer.
The traumatic effects of the disaster on the town of Aberfan were wide-ranging and profound. During the rescue operation, the shock and grief of parents and townspeople was exacerbated by the insensitive behaviour of the media — one unnamed rescue worker recalled hearing a press photographer tell a child to cry for her dead friends because it would make a good picture.
Anger at the National Coal Board erupted during the inquest into the death of 30 of the children. The Merthyr Express reported that that there were shouts of “murderers” as children’s names were read out. When one child’s name was read out and the cause of death was given as asphyxia and multiple injuries, the father said “No, sir, buried alive by the National Coal Board”. The coroner replied:
“I know your grief is much that you may not be realising what you are saying”
but the father repeated,
“I want it recorded – ‘Buried alive by the National Coal Board’. That is what I want to see on the record. That is the feeling of those present. Those are the words we want to go on the certificate.”
Aberfan’s social worker later noted that many people in the village were on sedatives but did not take them when it was raining because they were afraid to go to sleep, and that surviving children did not close their bedroom doors for fear of being trapped. An Aberfan doctor reported that the trauma of the disaster manifested itself in many ways — the birth rate went up, alcohol-related problems increased, as did health problems for those with pre-existing illnesses, and many parents suffered breakdowns over the next few years.
Many suffered from the effects of guilt, such as parents who had sent children to school who did not want to go. Tensions arose between families who had lost children and those who had not. One of the surviving school children recalled that they didn’t go out to play for a long time because families who had lost children could not bear to see them, and they themselves felt guilty about the fact that they had survived.
A study into the long-term psychological effects of the disaster was published in the British Journal of Psychiatry in 2003. It found that half the survivors of the Aberfan disaster suffered from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) at some time in their lives, that they were over three times more likely to have developed lifetime PTSD than a comparison group of individuals who had experienced other life-threatening traumas, and that 34% of survivors who took part in the study reported that they still experienced bad dreams or difficulty sleeping due to intrusive thoughts about the disaster.
The Disaster Fund
The public demonstrated their sympathy by donating money, with little idea of how it would be spent. Donations flooded in to the appeal and within a few months, nearly 90,000 contributions had been received, totalling £1,606,929 worth £27.1m at 2015 prices.
The management of this fund caused considerable controversy over the years. Many aspects of the aftermath of the Aberfan Disaster remained hidden until 1997, when the British Public Records Office released previously embargoed documents under the 30-year rule. These documents revealed new information about the machinations of Lord Robens, the NCB and the Charity Commission in the wake of the Aberfan Disaster.
At one point The Charity Commission planned to insist that before any payment was made to bereaved parents, each case should be reviewed to ascertain if the parents had been close to their children and were thus likely to be suffering mentally. At another meeting, the Commission threatened to remove the Trustees of the Disaster Fund or make a financial order against them if they went ahead with making grants to parents of children who had not been physically injured that day, and the Trustees were forced to abandon these payments.
Although the Davies Report had found that the NCB’s liability was “incontestable and uncontested” and it was widely felt that the NCB should have to bear the entire cost of removing the dangerous tips above Aberfan, Robens refused to pay the full cost, thereby putting the Trustees of the Disaster Fund under “intolerable pressure”. In a further display of contempt for the victims and their families, Robens then “raided” £150,000 from the Fund to cover the cost of removing the tips — an action which was “unquestionably unlawful” under charity law — and the Charity Commission took no action to protect the Fund from Robens’ dubious appropriation of funds.
As a historical footnote, in 1997 the incoming Blair Labour government paid back the £150,000 to the Disaster Fund — although taking account of inflation the amount repaid should have been nearly £2 million.