A boy sailor’s memories of the Aberfan disaster

The Aberfan disaster in October 1966 when a slag tip slipped and killed 116 children and 28 adults.
The roof of Pantglas Junior School stands like an island in a sea of mud and debris
The Aberfan disaster in October 1966 when a slag tip slipped and killed 116 children and 28 adults. The roof of Pantglas Junior School stands like an island in a sea of mud and debris
Opening of the new school by the home secretary in October 1927. The headmaster, Canon Barton, is on the lowest step, on the left. Dorothea Barton is possibly there, somewhere. (PGS Archive)

NOSTALGIA: A red bluestocking at Portsmouth Grammar School

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I know it is not a Portsmouth subject but I really could not let tomorrow, the 50th anniversary of the Aberfan disaster, pass without mention.

It has always been somewhat poignant to me.

The aftermath of the landslide which engulfed Pantglas Junior School

The aftermath of the landslide which engulfed Pantglas Junior School

I remember when it happened. I was a boy sailor, just 15, at Frobisher 31 Mess, HMS Ganges, Ipswich.

Among the 40 boys in the mess were four Welsh lads, and when the news came through at midday they were despondent with grief.

It affected the whole mess. We were only a few years older than the children who had died.

I always told myself that one day I would visit the village to pay my respects.

The graves of the victims of the Aberfan disaster in the village's cemetery

The graves of the victims of the Aberfan disaster in the village's cemetery

It took me many years but I was honoured to have visited Aberfan’s Bryntaf Cemetery, where the children are interred, and the memorial garden on the site of Pantglas School.

On approaching the graves, I thought of Laurence Binyon’s poem, For the Fallen:

‘They shall not grow old, as we that are left grow old.’

Not completely appropriate perhaps, but that is what happened.

The graves of the 116 children, a generation taken at 9.10am on the morning of October 21, 1966, are a stark reminder of how tender life is and can be taken away in minutes.

Along with the children, 28 adults died, five of them school teachers.

Pantglas School was destroyed in minutes when an 800ft black heap of shale – equal to 500,000 tonnes of liquefied slurry – poured down, engulfing the school and houses opposite.

I spoke to several local people who were moved that my two pals and I had come all the way from Portsmouth to pay our respects.

Unnecessarily, they apologised to me when their voices cracked. Most still have trouble talking about it.

Not one person from the National Coal Board was sacked, demoted or prosecuted for the disaster. They even had the nerve to take £150,000 from the disaster fund to pay for removal of the tips.

If you are ever in south Wales do pay a visit and pay your respects.

The memorial garden is beautiful.