Remembering Aberfan: 55 years since 113 children and 28 adults killed as slurry landslide crushed school and homes

On this day in 1966, 113 children and 28 adults were killed when 110,000 cubic metres of colliery ‘spoil’ slid onto Pantglas Junior School in Aberfan school after heavy rain. The slurry ran 640m down the mountain above the school, on its way demolishing two farmhouses and killing all their occupants, before crushing and burying a large part the school along with nearby houses.

The heap had been built by the National Coal Board (NCB) over a natural spring. Residents had been complaining for years about the danger, but had been ignored by the NCB.

The acting head at the time described what he saw:

The Girls’ Entrance [of the secondary school] was approximately two-thirds to three-quarters full of rubble and waste material…

I climbed onto the rubble in the doorway… when I looked directly in front of me… I saw that the houses in Moy Road had vanished in a mass of tip-waste material and that the Junior School gable-ends, or part of the roof, were sticking up out of this morass. I looked down to my right and I saw that the Moy Road houses had gone.

The scene was of utter devastation:

Local people began desperately digging for survivors, using garden tools and bare hands and soon aided by miners arriving from the nearby pit. No one was found alive after 11am. The children who died were aged between seven and ten. School meals clerk Nansi Williams had used her body to shield five children. They all survived but she was killed. According to reports at the time, she was found by rescuers still holding a pound note she had been collecting as lunch money.

Deputy head Dai Beynon had used a blackboard to shield himself and five children from the avalanche, but he and all the class’s 34 children died. Five of the adults killed in the disaster were teachers at the school. Years later, survivors of the disaster reported that they felt unable to play outside as children because they were too aware of the grief of parents who had lost their children and felt guilty about being alive.

It took the authorities more than two hours to turn off the water pouring from two mains broken by the slide, during which time the slurry continued to move through the village as the mains poured out millions of litres of water.

Shamefully, the NCB and the government of the day resisted local people’s campaign for the removal of the remaining spoil heaps – and when they were removed, they took a forced contribution of £150,000 – a huge sum at the time – from the Aberfan Disaster Memorial Fund. The money was only repaid more than thirty years later, with the Welsh government – not Westminster – adding further funds to compensate for the wrong.

The Charity Commission initially banned the disaster fund from providing financial help to bereaved families, saying that doing so would breach the terms of the fund’s trust. This ban was only lifted after legal challenge, but the board tried to impose a £500 limit. The fund said it was going to give £5,000 of the £1.75 million ultimately raised to each family.

The board backed down – but said that the Charity should interview each family before giving any money,

to ascertain whether the parents had been close to their children and were thus likely to be suffering mentally

Some in the media also disgraced themselves. One reporter was heard asking a child to cry for her dead friends as it would make a good picture.

Nine NCB employees were censured by the inquiry that followed for their . None were dismissed or demoted and the NCB was never charged. One of the employees criticised by the inquiry was later promoted to the board.

NCB chair Lord Robens offered to resign – but only after obtaining assurances from the relevant government minister that his resignation would not be accepted. The NCB offered bereaved families just £50, though this was later raised to £500 in what the Coal Board described as ‘a good offer’.

The public inquiry found,

that the Aberfan disaster could and should have been prevented… the Report which follows tells not of wickedness but of ignorance, ineptitude and a failure in communications. Ignorance on the part of those charged at all levels with the siting, control and daily management of tips; bungling ineptitude on the part of those who had the duty of supervising and directing them; and failure on the part of those having knowledge of the factors which affect tip safety to communicate that knowledge and to see that it was applied.

The report had been given to the NCB ten days before publication, allowing the Board to prepare its ‘spin’ in advance.

The people of Aberfan would likely disagree about the wickedness.


  1. This article makes grim reading. I was a child at the time and reading it distressed me as it brought back the horror of it all. At the time I was not aware of the “wickedness” which lay behind the disaster nor did I know until recently about the way the families were treated and that those responsible escaped prosecution. The terrible thing is that nothing much has changed in the intervening years – the Grenfell families and survivors can attest to that.

  2. Wow, this takes me back. We used to stand near a bus stop in Liverpool (Opposite the CF Mott teacher training college) and collect penny for the guy prior to bonfire night. We, as usual were very successful.We used the money collected to have fireworks in my families large garden and many of the local kids and families joined us for fireworks , bonfire and fire roasted spuds too. On this occasion, after the news of Aberfan, my mum suggested that we send our “penny for the guy” money to the fund established and my Mum and Dad paid for the fireworks we would have otherwise bought with our collected funds. I was always very proud that we had done that, not least matched by the sadness of having to do it !! Another tragedy that could have been avoided if those in authority had listened to the expert residents….

  3. Very sad day and I remember it well watching on tv as the reports came in on our black and white TV…The horror as it unfolded was somthing that stayed with me and helped to solidify my earlier politics and allowed me to look at the slums and poverty all around us and decide that they will not get away with murder of the working-class class again….Little did I know then,and I put my faith in the Labour party.

  4. Thank you for the history Skwawkie. I was aware of this tragedy, but not many of the details you mention. The heroic staff, the anguish of all the survivors and the typical establishment shenanigans.

    I can’t help but think as a parent about the grief that town carried and still does.

    Kudos to the Welsh government too!

  5. The way those poor souls were treated by a nationalised industry…Yet even today we have an inquiry where immunity from prosecution for corporates and has been granted for a disaster that killed the innocent despite persistent warnings.

    Nothing much changes (And, for want of a far less inappropriate, and less horrible phrase) Shit still rolls downhill….Always will 😒

  6. As a teenager in 1966 I remember it well , but like other comments here was unaware until relatively recently of the despicable behaviour of the NCB. I was unaware of until today, and totally shocked, to read above that the bereaved were to be interviewed to determine ‘how close they were to their children’. Utterly shameful. As ‘Smartboy’ says, Grenfell and survivors of other incidents since Aberfan would no doubt say little has changed.

  7. I would like to point out the following for the benefit of younger readers or those who would idolise the records of the postwar Labour governments or those who believe nationalisation of the means of production equals socialism:
    (0). All this happened under a Labour government which was directly complicit at least in the inadequate response to this disaster in a nationalised industry.
    (1). Robens was a major figure in the Labour party in almost the entire period of the postwar Labour party prior to 1978.
    (2). In 1969, Robens was selected by Barbara Castle (no less) to chair a committee on workplace health and safety.
    (3). According to an academic source cited by Wikipedia the action of the disaster funder in making “under intolerable pressure” a contribution of £150,000 to cover the cost of removing the tips was “unquestionably unlawful” under charity law – yet the Charity Commission took no action to protect the Fund from this misappropriation of funds.
    The behaviour of the Charity Commission in ignoring its own official purpose for political reasons has not changed one iota.

  8. Listen to Leon Rosselsson’s marvellous song in response: Palaces of Gold. Never in the hit parade, of course, They make sure that’s full of sentimental tosh.

  9. Very sad memories.
    Old fashioned top down bureaucratic nationalised industries (often with the same managers from the private era in control) who didn’t give staff and communities a say and clearly in this case didn’t listen to the community.
    So we need the opposite – democratic public ownership with staff and communities having a say and listened to, not services FOR but services WITH.

  10. Very sad memories.
    And the days of top down, bureaucratic nationalised industries (often with the same managers from the private era in control) and with staff and communities having no say & clearly not listened to in this case.
    Which is why we need democratic public ownership with staff and communities having a say and listened to, services not FOR but WITH.

  11. Bazza makes a very cogent point here, namely that the ‘bureaucratic nationalised industries’ almost always retained the ‘services’ of managers employed by the former owners and that workers and communities were not required to join in whatever debate was had about how these industries were run.

    Shamefully, the former owners themselves could often be found at the highest levels of the Boards set up to run the newly-nationalised industries. You may ask what had really changed. To be sure, it was a change in form only, but not in substance.

    This is why when the privatised industries are re-nationalised, and we must ensure that they are, they MUST be under the democratic control of the workforce and local communities. This is the only way that tragedies like that of Aberfan, which I remember from my teens, can possibly be prevented.

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