Saturday, 22 October 2016

Bonfire Night

One reason why British people have never been quite as keen on Halloween as our American cousins is that we already have a good excuse for a party at this time of the year, namely “Bonfire Night”.

The origins of Bonfire Night

“Remember, remember, the Fifth of November; gunpowder, treason and plot. I see no reason why gunpowder treason should ever be forgot”. So runs the old rhyme that celebrates the events of November the fifth 1605, when a plot to blow up King James I and his Parliament, by igniting a stash of gunpowder in the cellars beneath the Houses of Parliament (the present-day Westminster Hall), was foiled.

The actual story of the plot by disenchanted Catholics to assassinate a Protestant King has been investigated very closely over the years, and there are some elements of mystery about it to this day. For example, it has long been debated whether the gunpowder in question would actually have done the job, as it could well have been too old to do more than fizzle gently.

However, it has been the excuse for a party down to the present day. That said, there is some evidence that the event was not greatly celebrated as a national festival until some considerable time after 1605. Despite the passing of a “Thanksgiving Act” in 1606, which required churches to mark the event every year, the popularity of Bonfire Night has probably got more to do with the “Glorious Revolution” of 1688, when William of Orange landed at Brixham in Devon, also on November the fifth, as a Protestant who was about to overthrow a Catholic monarch, namely James II.

This was an event that the English people wanted to celebrate, out of conviction rather than duty, as it marked the end of an unpopular reign and fresh hope for the future. The “Revolution” itself had little to mark it out as an event worthy of recall, as there was scarcely any resistance to William as he made his way to London and James fled to France. However, the story of 1605 had much more to commend itself as a popular image, and so that is what became the heart of the annual festival.

How we celebrate

The tradition in England has long involved two elements, namely bonfires and fireworks. November was a good month for lighting bonfires anyway, with lots of material having been cleared out from the fields and woods during the Autumn and which needed to be burned.

The idea of burning an effigy of the unfortunate Guido Fawkes (the sentry who was arrested while guarding the gunpowder) emerged in the 18th century and has continued intermittently to the present day. One tradition that is seen less often these days is that of young children making a “guy” and parading it round the town or village in the days before 5th November, asking for “a penny for the guy”. They would use the money to buy fireworks that would be let off on Bonfire Night. The custom has now been largely superseded by Halloween, which coincides with the time when guys would traditionally have been made and paraded.

Fireworks were made and lit in England to celebrate important events from around the mid-16th century, and would certainly have formed part of the early Bonfire Night celebrations. However, their manufacture would have been quite crude and doubtless there were many accidents. Fireworks have become more sophisticated over the years, with colours, bangs and aerial displays gradually being introduced throughout the 19th and 20th centuries.

Food has long been associated with Bonfire Night celebrations, with the tradition being to bake apples, potatoes and chestnuts in the embers of a dying bonfire. Modern Bonfire Night parties often incorporate a barbecue to increase the variety of food on offer, as well to allow people to eat before the fire is nearly out! On the drinks side, a hot punch is usually offered, highly spiced and often deceptively alcoholic!
Bonfire Night has, in recent years in the UK, become a more public event. People were formerly inclined to celebrate as a family, building a bonfire in their back garden and buying fireworks from a local shop. However, not so many families have suitable gardens these days, and there are also safety problems associated with lighting fireworks in confined spaces. It has now become common for village and local communities to organise large-scale bonfire parties that are properly organised with safety firmly in mind. These are often fundraising occasions for deserving causes.

Some less familiar customs

There are plenty of local variations on the theme, with Bonfire Night being celebrated in different parts of the country according to regional traditions. For example, in the Devon town of Ottery St Mary the custom is for barrels of tar to be lit and carried through the town.

Perhaps one of the strangest Bonfire Night traditions was that of the students of Bangor University, who, from the 1950s until at least the 1970s (when I was personally involved!), marked an unfortunate error on the part of a hall warden, who mispronounced the Latin grace “Benedicimus” as “Benny Diceymus”, thus instituting a ritual that incorporated a funeral service for “Benny”, whose coffin was then burned on a bonfire. This generally led to a punch-up between the students of Neuadd Reichel (who “owned” Benny) and those of the neighbouring halls of residence, especially if the latters’ bonfire had been hijacked as the funeral pyre!

However it is celebrated, Bonfire Night in Great Britain is seen by most people as an excuse for a good time, for socialising, for giving the children some wonderful “wow” moments, and, these days, for doing something worthwhile for the community. Unfortunately, there are still accidents from time to time, and it is never the favourite night of the country’s Fire Services!

© John Welford

Friday, 14 October 2016

The Battle of Stirling Bridge, 1297

The Battle of Stirling Bridge was fought on 11th September 1297. It was the first of the two major battles fought by an army led by Sir William Wallace, who has gone down in history and legend as “Braveheart”. The 1995 movie starring Mel Gibson presented some of the facts correctly but by no means all, and it is not safe to rely on the Hollywood version as a true account of what really happened.

William Wallace’s revolt

In 1297 William Wallace rose in rebellion against the overlordship of Scotland by King Edward I of England. Edward had taken advantage of a power vacuum in Scotland that had existed ever since the death of King Alexander III in March 1286. Edward had demanded the fealty of all the claimants to the Scottish throne (there were 13 of them) in exchange for his help in sorting out the succession, but had been greatly angered when the Scots made alliance with the King of France. Edward’s response had been to invade Scotland, showing no mercy to the towns and people in his way.

Of those who sought to fight back against the English, William Wallace was certainly the most effective. His origins are obscure, although it would appear that he was from Elderslie (west of Glasgow). However, this is not certain, and he could have been from Ellerslie in Ayrshire, depending on which Wallace family he belonged to. However, either way it is clear that he was not a Highlander as depicted in “Braveheart”. It is also not disputed that he had a relatively modest background, his father being a local landowner at best and not a member of the Scottish nobility.

Wallace was able to draw many followers to his side, based on his unshakeable conviction that he could defeat the English, which nobody else seemed able to do. He also seems to have had a considerable personal presence, being over 6 foot 6 inches in height and strongly built, so that when he told people that he could lead them to victory, they tended to believe him. Where his military know-how came from is a mystery, but he was able to train and discipline an effective fighting force, particularly in the deployment of “schiltrons”, which were formations of tightly-packed soldiers armed with spears which thus resembled giant hedgehogs.

Wallace was not the only general at Stirling Bridge, as he fought alongside Andrew Murray, a nobleman’s son with more conventional credentials as a soldier, whose troops had already captured a number of English-held strongholds further north in Scotland.

King Edward’s response

King Edward was at first dismissive of Wallace and his citizen army, and he dispatched an army, led by two trusted lieutenants, to deal with this minor inconvenience. These were John de Warenne, Earl of Surrey, and Hugh de Cressingham. After Edward’s conquest of much of Scotland he had headed south late in 1296 to deal with more pressing matters, leaving Warenne as governor and Cressingham as treasurer, although neither saw any need to actually stay north of the border.

When it became clear that a sizable force was being massed against the English, Warenne and Cressingham led an army northwards, reaching the safety of Stirling Castle on the south side of the River Forth, while the Scottish forces were arrayed on the northern side on top of Abbey Craig, which is a rocky prominence that is now the site of the impressive Wallace Monument. From there, Wallace and Murray had an excellent view of the English manoeuvres.

Manoeuvres prior to the battle

The problem faced by the English was that there was only one bridge across the river, this being a narrow wooden structure that could only take three horses abreast. Warenne therefore first tried diplomacy, liaising with two Scottish noblemen whose loyalty was more with the English but who might be able to strike a deal with Wallace and Murray.

On the morning of 11th September Warenne got off to a bad start by oversleeping. By the time he had got out of bed and had some breakfast he found that some of his troops had already crossed the bridge but then returned on realising that he was not there. When Warenne was ready they crossed a second time, but then the two intended go-betweens turned up and Warenne supposed that they had come back with a deal agreed with the Scots, so the men were recalled once more.

However, Warenne was mistaken, and no deal had been struck. Instead, he sent over a couple of Dominican friars to try to arrange a settlement, but Wallace was in no mood to make peace, sending them back with a message that left Warenne and Cressingham in no doubt that there was no alternative to doing battle.

The English were quietly confident that their forces were superior to those of the Scots. Although the opposing forces were similar in number, the English were far better armed and trained. It should however be made clear that many of the “English” troops were in fact Welsh, having being forced to fight for King Edward after their own country had been conquered. It was, indeed, partly fear of the prospect of ending up fighting Edward’s foreign wars that had convinced the Scots that they must fight back against the invaders and succeed where the Welsh had failed.

Warenne’s confidence in victory was so strong that he ignored advice that there was a safe crossing point a mile or so upriver that the cavalry could use to outflank the Scots. Had he taken this advice, the outcome might have been very different. However, he gave orders to advance across the bridge.

With the bridge being so narrow, it would have taken half the day to get all the army across. As it was, the horsemen could only cross in such small numbers that they would always be vulnerable to a sudden attack. Added to this difficulty was the fact that the land on the northern side of the river was boggy and totally unsuitable for mounting a cavalry charge. Even worse, the river swung about in huge meanders, and the bridge led straight into one of these.

The first horsemen to cross were led by Cressingham, who was a very fat man, not built for speed, and who was recognisable at a considerable distance. He soon realised that any plans for deploying the cavalry would have to be revised. This would only be possible if they advanced on to drier land, which was only reachable via a narrow bottleneck between two sweeps of the river. There was no way back, because of the press of troops still coming across the bridge.

Battle is joined

Wallace and Murray advanced when they saw that about half the English army was now trapped between the bottleneck and the bridge, surrounded by a deep and wide river.

The result was butchery. The horses panicked and threw their riders, and other horsemen were pulled down and despatched. These included Cressingham himself, whose body was later skinned, the skin being used to make a sword belt for William Wallace. Some of the English troops tried to swim the river but many drowned in the attempt.

Warenne did not cross the bridge but made good his escape together with that part of the army that been lucky enough not to be involved in the slaughter. In all, some 100 English mounted knights and 1000 foot soldiers were killed, with very few Scottish casualties. It was an overwhelming victory. However, although William Wallace survived unscathed, and was knighted for his efforts, Andrew Murray did not. Although it is not clear exactly what happened to him, it would seem that he died of his wounds within a few weeks of the battle.

The Battle of Stirling Bridge had several consequences. One was that it angered King Edward to such an extent that he was determined to have his revenge on Wallace, which he eventually did. Another was that the Scots were given a new self-belief that convinced them that they could resist the English and regain their independence. Although Edward was able to reverse this defeat by victory at Falkirk the following year, he then lost interest in what he now knew would be a difficult cause to win. The defeat of King Edward II at Bannockburn in 1314 was made possible by the spirit engendered in the Scots at Stirling Bridge in 1297.

John Welford

The Battle of Crecy,1346

The Battle of Crecy was fought on 26th August 1346, when King Edward III of England, with an army of 11,000 men, took on the might of France. The size of the French army is variously estimated at anything from 35,000 to 60,000.

The Battle of Crecy

The result was an overwhelming victory for the English side. One reason for this was that the English fought as a unified force under central command, whereas the knights who lined up on the French side had different motives in mind. Their basic plan was to capture as many English noblemen as possible and hold them for ransom. Patriotism took second place to pure greed!

Crossbows versus longbows

Another major difference between the assembled forces was that the English relied on their longbowmen, who numbered about 7,000, whereas the French bowmen, although greater in number at around 8,000, were armed with crossbows.

The medieval crossbow was a formidable weapon in that a crossbow bolt could pierce anything that it hit. However, it needed both hands to pull the cord back to its locking point before the bolt was loaded. The fastest rate of fire was no more than two shots per minute.

The English longbow, despite needing a strong arm to pull the string back, could be fired much more rapidly. A trained and experienced bowman could send five or more shots per minute. This immediately meant that 7,000 longbows were superior to 8,000 crossbows.

The course of the battle

The French opened proceedings by sending their crossbowmen (who were mostly Genoese mercenaries) forward to get within range of the English. However, they were immediately met by a hail of English arrows which reduced their numbers considerably.

The French mounted knights were impatient to get to work on their English counterparts, so they charged forward, riding over the crossbowmen on their way. They were in turn met by a hail of arrows and those who were unhorsed were despatched by English foot soldiers armed with swords and maces.

As each wave of knights charged forward, fresh fusillades of arrows rained down on them. Any knight who got close to the English lines found that progress was impeded by sharpened stakes that the bowmen had thrust into the ground as protection.

It has been estimated that about half a million arrows were fired by the English during the battle.

The aftermath

The French defeat was total. They lost 15,000 French and Genoese soldiers, with a further 1,500 French knights killed or captured. English losses were no more than 100.

One lasting outcome of the battle came from the capture of the crest of King John of Bohemia, who, despite being blind, had fought bravely before being killed. The crest, consisting of three ostrich feathers and the motto “Ich dien” (I serve), was presented to King Edward’s son, Edward the Black Prince. He adopted the crest and motto as his own, and the Princes of Wales have used it ever since.

Crecy was one of the earliest engagements of the long drawn-out series of hostilities that was later given the title of the Hundred Years’ War (which was always an approximation). Despite the crushing nature of the victory it settled very little, given that the War was to last for another 107 years.

© John Welford

The background to Magna Carta

The background to the Magna Carta, signed by King John in 1215, lay in England having been poorly governed for many years, going back to the reign of John’s father, King Henry II.

Kings and barons

Henry’s great-grandfather, William the Conqueror, had brought an entirely new ruling class to England in the shape of aristocratic knights who had been well rewarded for their efforts by being given huge swathes of land from which they could extract vast fortunes. They were the ancestors of the barons who forced John’s hand at Runnymede.

However, although the barons were happy to live the good life in their English castles and sit almost at the top of the pyramid that became known as the feudal system, the person to whom they owed allegiance, namely the king, was a remote figure whose influence came to be seen as oppressive.

The Norman kings ruled over an empire that stretched well beyond the shores of England. By marrying Eleanor of Aquitaine, Henry Plantagenet became the ruler of lands that stretched from the Pyrenees to the north of France, to which England was added with the death of King Stephen in 1154 when Henry was only 21 years old. He therefore had divided loyalties.

One of Henry’s first problems was to exercise control over the barons, who had become virtual kings in their own fiefdoms during Stephen’s chaotic reign. Over a thousand castles had been erected illegally, and Henry ordered the destruction of many of them, which did not endear him to their owners.

Henry spent much of his reign outside England, leaving the day-to-day governing to his able chancellor, Thomas Becket. Indeed, it was when he was at his court in Normandy that he made the intemperate remark that led to the death of Becket, then Archbishop of Canterbury. After that, Henry was never as powerful again, being weakened in the sight of the Church, the people, and the barons.

This unpopularity was made worse when Henry, in an effort to mend fences with Rome, supported the Crusade to rescue Jerusalem from the Muslim forces that had occupied it and prevented Christians from accessing the “holy places”. In order to finance the venture, a ten per cent tax was levied in England, and taxes are always least popular with the people who have most to pay, in this case the rich landowning barons.

More problems under King Richard

Henry’s son Richard was even more of an absentee than his father, making only two visits to England during his entire reign from 1189 to 1199. The Crusades occupied his whole attention, and it was the barons of England who were expected to pay for them. As well as the taxes, Richard sold public offices and even pieces of territory (to the Scots) to raise money.

When Richard was captured and held for a “king’s ransom”, the situation became even worse, with a tax of 25 per cent being levied, as well as the silver crosses from churches and cathedrals being melted down. It was no wonder that the country was virtually bankrupt when Richard eventually returned home for a brief visit before leaving again, never to return.

Richard’s brother John had been looking after England for virtually the whole of Richard’s reign, and had therefore been at the forefront of the tax-gathering operations. However, it was hardly in John’s interest for Richard to make a speedy return, and it is almost certain that much of the raised money did not go towards the ransom payment.

How much was King John to blame?

Given all the circumstances, it is somewhat unfair to see John as the wicked brother in contrast to the nobility of good King Richard, as portrayed in the Robin Hood legends. Had it not been for the fecklessness of Richard, sparked originally by the unwise actions of their father, the country would not have been in the dire straits that it was when John became king, although it is certainly the case that John was in large part responsible for the rebellion that came about.

John certainly had none of the military skills of his brother, and he became known as “John Lackland” when various parts of the Angevin Empire fell away during his reign.

However, by alienating the Church he gave himself a powerful enemy, to whom the vast majority of the nobles and people were loyal. In order to raise money, John seized Church lands, and the Pope’s response was to excommunicate John and close all the churches for five years. This meant that no weddings, baptisms or funerals could take place, so many children would have been born as bastards and could not, in the people’s eyes, go to Heaven if they died young, being unbaptised and buried in unconsecrated ground.

In desperation, John acted with no sense of respect for property or person by imprisoning people at will, many of whom starved to death, and taking their property.

Another contributory factor to Magna Carta was rampant inflation, caused by coin-clipping, whereby the weight of the gold in the coins was less than it should be, thus devaluing the currency. Many of the clauses in Magna Carta had to do with economic and commercial matters.

Well, quite a lot actually!

In short, the background to Magna Carta was that John had been dealt a bad hand, and he did not have the skills to rescue the situation. Everything he tried only made things worse, although he was also visited by bad luck, such as when the crown jewels were accidentally lost in transit when the carts carrying them fell into quicksand.  

As an absolute monarch, the recourse to oppression was clearly a great temptation, and that was the course John chose. However, the moral high ground was clearly forfeited by his actions, although it should also be remembered that the barons who opposed him were concerned largely with their own private interests rather than the wellbeing of mankind in general.

The presentation of Magna Carta to King John for his signature was the action of the most powerful people in the land, namely the barons, imposing their will on someone who had less power, namely the king. During the reign of John’s son and successor, Henry III, the process was to move another step down the same path, with the nobles making their voice heard when they established the country’s first Parliament.

© John Welford

Thursday, 13 October 2016

Apartheid in South Africa

The year 1950 marked a step backwards in the path to global racial equality. On 27th April the government of South Africa passed the Group Areas Act into law, thus institutionalising the policy of Apartheid that was advocated by the National Party that had formed the government since 1948.

What is meant by Apartheid?

Apartheid is an Afrikaans word that can be translated as “separate-hood”, by which was meant that the different races that constituted the population of South Africa would be forced to integrate as little as possible. The whites who ran the National Party preferred the term “separate development”, but there was little intention that any race other than the white one would do much developing.

Instituting Apartheid

Under the direction of Prime Minister Daniel Malan, the three racial groups of Whites, Blacks and Coloureds (meaning people of mixed race) would be forced to live in separate areas, with neighbourhoods reserved for each racial group. As might be imagined, this soon meant that the rich whites would have the best houses and facilities, with the blacks and coloureds consigned to sub-standard housing on the margins of the cities.

A second act, the Separate Amenities Act, was passed in 1953 to make the division even more pronounced. This required all sorts of services to be reserved for the sole use of whites, including shops, transport, beaches, and even park benches. Again, the minority white population was always accorded the best facilities with the majority blacks always being made aware of their inferior status.

Another Act, the 1956 Separate Representation of Voters Act, virtually disenfranchised all non-whites and ensured that their only purpose in society was to work as servants of white people and as the manual workforce in the farms and factories owned by their white masters.

The struggle for freedom

The opposition to Apartheid took a long time to bear fruit in South Africa. The protest movements of black activists were met with savage repression, most notably at Sharpeville on 21st March 1960 when 69 people, including women and children, were killed by armed police officers.
Underground opposition movements were founded, including the African National Congress and the Black Consciousness Movement, but activists were regularly arrested and imprisoned. However, prisoners such as Nelson Mandela and Oliver Tambo made plans for how they would eventually defeat Apartheid and form a government that had room for all the racial groups in South Africa.

Support for the cause grew rapidly during the 1960s and 70s in western countries, with the National Party coming under increasing scrutiny and various sanctions being imposed on South Africa.

Particularly noteworthy were bans on South African sports teams from international competition unless they were racially integrated. The country was not allowed to compete at the Olympic Games from 1964 to 1988, for example, but some international sporting bodies were ambivalent and more accepting of South African participation during the Apartheid era.

One event that drew close attention to Apartheid in sport was the “D’Oliveira affair” of 1968. Basil D’Oliveira (1931-2011) was a mixed-race cricketer who was born in South Africa but emigrated to the United Kingdom and became a British citizen in 1964. He was selected to play for the England tour to South Africa in 1968-9 despite it being made known by the South Africans (led by Prime Minister John Vorster) that he would not be welcome. The affair escalated into a worldwide boycott of South African cricket that lasted until 1991.

The end of Apartheid

Worldwide pressure, coupled with largely peaceful internal demonstrations, eventually persuaded white South Africans that Apartheid could not be maintained and that majority rule would have to be conceded.

Credit for the peaceful transfer of power is due to two men in particular, namely President F W de Klerk and the leader of the African National Congress, Nelson Mandela. De Klerk realised that Apartheid was a thing of the past, and that it could not be justified morally or in any other way.

The move that caught the world’s attention as marking the beginning of the end of Apartheid was the release from prison in 1990 of Nelson Mandela after 27 years in captivity. He was immediately recognised as the leader of the black community and he was clearly the person most suited to conduct the negotiations that culminated in the 1994 election of a new government. More than 20 million black South Africans cast their votes, which swept Mandela into power as the country’s first black President.

The stain of Apartheid has therefore been lifted from South Africa which, although it still has many problems to solve, has now been restored to the world community of nations.

© John Welford

Monday, 3 October 2016

The Aberfan pit heap disaster, 1966

The pit heap disaster that happened in the village of Aberfan on 21st October 1966 was one that shocked the nation, especially because most of the victims were young children.

Disaster in South Wales

I can still remember the profound sense of shock that the whole United Kingdom felt on 21st October 1966 when part of a colliery slag heap slid down a hillside and smashed into houses and a school in the South Wales village of Aberfan, killing 116 children and 28 adults. I was still at school, and the thought of being in one’s classroom one minute and smothered to death under tons of slurry the next gave rise to a sense of horror that has never left me. Fortunately, the lessons that were learned from the Aberfan disaster have prevented anything similar happening again in this country.

Aberfan and its pit heaps

Aberfan is a small village in the valley of the River Taff, five miles south of Merthyr Tydfil in the central part of what was once the South Wales coalfield. The Taff is one of several rivers that have carved out parallel valleys along which the pit villages were built, strung out in an approximate north-south direction. Between the valleys are bare, steep-sided hills, and it was on these hills that the waste material from centuries of coalmining was piled in vast artificial hills that dominated the towns and villages below.

The danger posed by these heaps had been noted several years before the disaster, and in particular the practice of the National Coal Board in authorising the dumping of slurry from the Merthyr Vale Colliery on top of the existing tip to the rear of Pantglas School, on Moy Road, Aberfan. Engineers from the local authority had noted the fluid nature of the slurry and warned that, under wet conditions, it was unlikely to stay in place on such a steep slope. However, no action was taken and slurry continued to be added to the heap.

The moving heap

The days before the disaster had been wet, although 21st October was dry and sunny up on the hills, albeit foggy in the valley. Shortly after 9.00am, as the men up on the slag heap added another load, the point was reached where the heap crossed the line of stability and a huge mass of slurry broke away. The men were unable to warn anyone of the slide because it broke the telephone line that was their only means of communication. They could only watch helplessly as the slurry headed off down the mountainside into the fog that shrouded Aberfan.

Down below, the children at Pantglas Junior School had just returned to their classrooms after morning assembly, and the teachers were telling their charges to settle down and get their books ready, when a terrible rumbling noise was heard. Very few of the school’s occupants knew what was happening before the slurry hit the single-storey school and caved in the back wall, burying much of the interior up to the level of the roof. Some of the children instinctively hid under their desks and some survived because of this, but many were not so lucky. Hardly anyone survived from the classrooms at the back of the school.

As well as the school, some twenty houses in Moy Road were also hit, as was a farm cottage in the path of the slide that was carried away with all its inhabitants. Most of the 28 adults who died were in these houses and the cottage.

Rescue attempts and the aftermath

When the slurry stopped sliding there was silence at first as the survivors looked on in shock and horror at what had happened. Then there began a desperate effort to dig people out of the slurry, particularly from the villagers who rushed to the school as soon as they were aware of what had happened. Many of them had, not long before, left their own children at the school and had just got home when they heard the terrible rumbling as the slurry bore down on them through the mist.

The would-be rescuers had only their bare hands for tools as they scrambled through the mess to try to reach those buried underneath. There were a few successful rescues but very few; after 11.00 that morning there were only dead bodies to be found.

The 116 children who died (together with five of their teachers) were about half of the school’s total number. They therefore represented a substantial portion of the village’s next generation. Many of their fathers were underground in the pit at the time of the disaster, and their profound shock at being told the news was to affect many for the rest of their lives. They had always imagined that they were the ones at risk of sudden death, and the cruel irony that it was the waste product of their industry that had killed their children was extremely hard to bear.

The Inquiry and Disaster Fund

A Tribunal of Inquiry into the disaster was announced in Parliament within days, even before the last of the bodies had been removed from the school. The Tribunal sat for 76 days and heard evidence from 136 witnesses, the eventual documentation running to 2.5 million words. The main point at issue was whether this was an unforeseeable accident or whether blame could be attached to any specific persons or organizations.

The final report that was published on 3rd August 1967 did not mince its words:

“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.”

One significant piece of evidence was the fact that a natural spring emerged underneath the pit heap, which therefore kept the base of the heap permanently lubricated. It was therefore only a matter of time before the continual loading of slurry would cause the heap to collapse. At first the National Coal Board officials denied having known about this spring, but they were eventually forced to acknowledge that it was known about and people had trusted to luck that nothing bad would happen.

With the blame laid firmly on the National Coal Board, would any individuals be held to account? Nine people were singled out for criticism, but no proceedings were taken against them. Likewise, the Coal Board was not required to pay the full amount of compensation to the victims’ families that might have been expected. One problem was that the coal industry was in financial difficulties, and bankrupting the Coal Board (a public body) would have helped no-one.

However, the British public contributed generously to a Disaster Fund which eventually raised £1.75 million. It was nothing short of a scandal that some of this money (some £150,000) had to be used to fund the removal of the remaining pit heaps above Aberfan, as this was clearly the responsibility of the National Coal Board. It was not until 1997 that this money was finally refunded by the Government.

Aberfan today

Visitors to Aberfan today will see a peaceful, quiet village that is safe for ever from the threat of a slurry slide, as the heaps have all gone. Indeed, the village is bypassed by a road that goes through the place where the heaps once stood. The school was demolished and in its place is a memorial garden, next door to a community centre that was built by the trustees of the Aberfan Disaster Fund. Up on the hillside are the graves of about half the victims, marked by a stone monument.

The lesson of Aberfan is that corporate greed must never again be allowed to put innocent lives at danger. By taking unwarranted shortcuts and ignoring clear warnings, the officials of the National Coal Board put the pursuit of profit above the safety of their employees and their families, much as their predecessors had done in the dark days of the early Industrial Revolution. The Aberfan disaster was a “one-off”, thankfully, because it brought home to the managers of British industry, in all sectors, the fact that they cannot put their responsibilities to one side whenever it suits them.

Aberfan will long be remembered, and not just in the South Wales valleys where the disaster was felt most keenly.

© John Welford