On this day in history : 21st October 1966 – A coal-slag heap slides downhill and engulfs the Welsh mining village of Aberfan, including the village school…. 144 people are killed, 116 of whom are children….

Aerial photograph of Aberfan following the disaster – Fair use

It was a Friday and the last morning before the school broke up for half term…. It was raining, hard and relentlessly, as it had been for days and days before…. At 9.10am the 240 children of Pantglas Junior School, who had been gathered for morning assembly, filed into their classrooms – a few late stragglers were still in the playground…. At 9.15am a large section of the coal spoil heap, that towered domineeringly on the hillside above, broke away and began to avalanche towards the village beneath…. Tons and tons of black sludge engulfed the school, along with a row of terraced cottages and a farm….

Numerous complaints had been made regarding the safety of the seven gigantic coal spoil heaps over the years – including a petition from the school itself in 1963…. But the National Coal Board took no notice…. Matters were not helped by the quarter-of-a-mile high heaps being built on ground riddled with natural springs…. With the constant rain the heaps had become completely saturated….

At first the rescue operation was hampered by thick fog…. Eventually though there were some 2,000 rescuers, many of them local miners, working non-stop to free survivors…. All the while the slag heap was still shifting…. In one classroom 14 bodies were found; in another the school dinner lady was discovered, clutching 5 children to her, trying to protect them – all had perished…. In all 116 children aged between 7 and 10 years old had died; 28 adults were also killed, 5 of them teachers at the school…. Many of the dead had died from suffocation; it was a week before the last body was recovered….

The rescue operation – Fair use

The National Coal Board blamed the abnormal rainfall, claiming it had caused the coal waste to move…. A later inquiry found the NCB solely to blame – and ordered that compensation should be paid…. However, the NCB refused to accept full financial responsibility – and would only do the minimum to make the remaining slag-heaps safe…. It was only after an additional grant from the government and a contribution of £150,000 (almost 10% of the value) from the relief fund that had been raised by the public, that the heaps were finally removed…. The enforced use of the relief fund money caused national outrage…. In comparison the NCB paid out compensation equating to just £500 per child’s life lost – for what had been a totally preventable tragedy….

The Queen and Prince Philip travelled to Aberfan on the 29th of October, to pay their respects – the Queen has visited four times altogether…. In May 1997 Her Majesty and the Duke planted a tree in Aberfan Memorial Garden…. The children are buried high on the hillside in Aberfan Cemetery….

Image credit – Llywelyn2000 at Welsh Wikipedia CC BY 3.0

2 thoughts on “On this day in history….21st October 1966

  1. This is without probably one of the most tragic stories of all time. I just about remember it at the time on the news, but at that young age I didn’t understand the real gravity of the situation. Apart from the completely unnecessary loss of so many lives your narrative highlights the appalling attitude that prevailed in many industries at the time. The fact that the NCB failed to accept full responsibility for this disaster is bad enough, to then expect the Government to subsidise the removal of the tips is shocking but what is unbelievable, and something I didn’t know until reading your piece is that they also took money from the fund set up for the bereaved families , words fail me! I hope the money was repaid ….
    Great article Hazel, thank you!!

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    1. Thanks Andrea – It was a rather harrowing post to research… I had obviously heard of this tragic event but knew very little about it, being less than a year old when it occurred… But seeing the reaction this post has provoked on social media it is clear it is still ingrained in many memories…. I can only imagine the scale of grief and anger felt by the public at the time – it must have been immense…. Like you say, such an unnecessary loss of life – truly heartbreaking….and appalling….

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