I was only five-years-old when the Aberfan Disaster occurred. It was the fateful day a huge black tip of coal waste slid down a mountainside, and in its wake, swept through two farm houses, some domestic dwellings and a village school, causing death, devastation and destruction. 116 children and 28 adults died from impact or suffocation.
At that age, I was too young to understand such a traumatic event.
I have memories of my father and my coal miner grandfather, going to the school to dig out searching for any sign of life, like many other volunteers in the area. It wasn’t until a few days ago, I found a Getty Image online of one scene where a lifeless body was discovered–the scene is obscured from view by the men with blankets, probably not for the Press to see, I would imagine. In that particular photograph, I saw my father standing there looking down on the scene before him–it must have been absolutely shocking. It sent a shiver down my spine seeing him on that photograph. He’s on the far right of the photograph wearing a patterned jumper [See below].
He would only have been twenty-seven-years-old at that time, so still quite young himself. According to my brother, our father worked for Rees & Kirby at that time, working on the construction of the Heads of the Valley Road I think — I’d imagine the men were dispatched to Aberfan to help out as soon as possible, being fairly nearby in Merthyr Tydfil.
The strange thing about this is, at the time, I had no understanding of all the children that had died nor the carnage that ensued, all I asked for when my father and grandfather went to help out was a ‘Janet and John’ book. I thought as they would be digging in a school they might find one and bring it home for me as I loved those particular school books.
Who knows what they thought when I made my childish request.
Imagine the strange feeling that came over me when I studied those black and white Getty Images to see a photograph of a discarded Janet and John book at Pantglas school in Aberfan, in amongst the slurry.
Those children who died that day were my generation. A generation that was wiped out that day. A generation who died too soon. One little boy ended up in my class at Caedraw Primary School a few miles up the valley from Aberfan, he’d lost both his mother and sister in the disaster. I always remember him being a very quiet little boy at school and never remember him mentioning it at all. He had been sent to live with an aunt and uncle.
So many people in the area were touched by the disaster, it sent shock waves around the world, the ripples of which continue to this day. The name of the village of Aberfan is hardly mentioned without it implanting the image of that terrible disaster that day in our minds.
I have a memory of me and my brother being taken to visit relatives in the area to check they were all right, and walking in my wellingtons through this thick brown sludge that oozed through the streets. I think I remember it so well as it was the colour of my wellies, so the image sticks in my mind. There were camera crews and reporters all around. My brother stood in a shop door way at the time in his little duffle coat, he would have been four-years-old. Then, later that evening, the image was broadcast on the BBC news. Looking back on it, it was probably used as there would have been so few children around as many in the area had either died, been sent to hospital or been kept at home following the rescue mission. Thankfully, our family were safe.
I remember attending some sort of memorial to all those who lost their lives not long afterwards at St. David’s Church in Merthyr Tydfil. I have memories of all the mothers crying around me in the church [I suspect the villagers themselves had different services in their own community a few miles down the road]. Even my own mother was weeping and I couldn’t understand why she was crying for other people’s children. Now as a mother myself, of course I understand all too well. My childish mind could not fathom such a thing at the time though.
The strange thing is, I never remember my father nor my grandfather ever speaking about the disaster over the following years. Maybe it was all too harrowing for them to bring it to mind.
Now fifty years on, I look back on that day and remember it so well, even though I was very young at the time. After all, it was my own generation who had died that day, and maybe parents up and down the land hugged their children a little tighter after what occurred, relieved that it wasn’t any child of theirs who had been taken away from them far too soon.