Friday 21st October 2016 marks the fiftieth anniversary of the Aberfan disaster which killed 116 children and 28 adults.
At the meeting of the Wales Synod, held on Saturday 15th October 2016, three people who have personal memories of Aberfan offered their thoughts and reflections. The were Mrs Jeanne Jones, the widow of the late Dr Arthur Jones who was a GP in Aberfan at the time of the disaster and Revds Nanette Lewis Head and Ivor Rees – both ministers in the local area at the time.
Their contributions are recorded here.
My husband, Arthur Jones was a GP in Aberfan, with surgeries in Troedyrhiw and Merthyr Vale. We lived in Troedyrhiw, and at about 9 o’clock on the morning of that fateful day, as Arthur was preparing to go to the surgery, his receptionist rang with the message that a wall had collapsed at a school in Aberfan and there were some casualties. Arthur went off straight away, and I went to Merthyr to do the weekly shopping. It was only then, hearing conversations and being aware of police and ambulance activity, that I realised that this was a serious tragedy, and I went straight home. I had no more information, but during the day there were phone calls from patients asking for the doctor, and all I could tell them was that he was somewhere in Aberfan. Arthur eventually arrived home late that evening, and it was then that I heard something of the terrible conditions being faced that day.
When Arthur arrived at the school, there were men digging in the rubble, and he was told that some children had been taken to safety, but that there was no hope for any others. Realising that there was nothing he could do there, he decided to go to the surgery, and returning to his car, parked on the opposite side of the road, he found it surrounded with slurry, and it had to be towed out. Arriving at the surgery, Arthur heard that his partner, Dr David Jones, had lost his son Robert in the school, news which highlighted this tragedy. Arthur then spent the day seeing patients in the surgery and in their homes, including climbing into the ruins of one house to give an injection to a man trapped there. There was also time spent in Bethania Chapel, which was being used as a mortuary, and it was here that Arthur, in order to save the distress of her family, officially identified the body of the Head Teacher. Most of the children who died that day were his patients, so for many months after that day the surgeries were very busy, with families seeking comfort and support. There were also members of the community who were troubled by recriminations over the neglect of the Coal Board, the distribution of the Disaster Fund money which had been sent from all over the world, and the compensations awarded to the bereaved families.
It must be said that the Churches in Aberfan and Merthyr Vale played a very important part in the healing process, led by the ministers, and Revd. Erastus Jones who returned to Aberfan and worked there for several years afterwards. Amongst many projects there was a monthly newspaper – “Headway” – which helped to bind the whole community together, and it is good to know that much of this work is still going on today. There is a thriving Community Centre on the site of the School, and the Ynysowen Male Voice Choir, established soon after the disaster, is of worldwide reputation, and although the scars will always be there, new life goes on in Aberfan.
Mrs Jeanne Jones (Merthyr Tydfil)
The Aberfan disaster happened on Friday, 21 October, 1966 and its memory is being observed across Wales and in radio and television programmes. On that morning Delyth and I were in my birthplace in the Rhondda Valley. Rain clouds came low down the hillsides. A neighbour said, “Something terrible has happened over the mountain.” The television was switched on and we saw! I felt as though the ground was cut from under my feet. . Ours was the last house in our street – next to it was a disused coal tip. Almost all the men in my family for at least two generations worked in the mines. One branch goes back at least four generations to a great-great-grandfather at Beaufort, Ebbw Vale. My great-grandfather received the Albert Medal (2nd Class) for his part in the rescue at the Tynewydd Colliery, Porth, in 1877. My mother’s brother was killed in a mine accident when I was twelve; a cousin had 90% pneumoconiosis before his thirtieth birthday and never worked again. My father was brought home on several occasions with “minor injuries” which kept him idle for weeks. I have been reminded of my own moments of insecurity when awaiting my father’s hoped-for safe return at the end of a shift. Added to that was the fact that my father and his father were born in the next village to Aberfan. I was overwhelmed by the need to do something.
On returning home that day I phoned my friend, Derwyn Morris Jones, who was chaplain to the mayor of Merthyr Tydfil that year. He asked me to be at Aberfan by 8.00 a.m. on the following Monday. Fifty years later a series of “snap shots” remain in my memory.
I drove up on what is now the Head of the Valleys road and turned right for Merthyr Tydfil. Immediately there was a road block; when I told the police that I came at the request of the mayor’s chaplain I was allowed through. What struck all visitors at that time was the utter silence in this industrial village. The streets were virtually deserted. Huge machines stood in the street near the school and child came to look at them. The pain hanging over the village was to be felt as clearly as Friday’s clouds were to be seen.
Derwyn and I representing the local churches, whose clergy were as shocked as their flocks and most had lost many or all of their children at a time of large Sunday Schools. We were based in the bar of a local pub, which was temporarily closed. Against one wall, behind tables, sat half a dozen funeral directors from across south east Wales, whilst Derwyn and I sat at the other end. Our work was to arrange the community funeral planned for the following Thursday. Parents came to say whether their child(ren) were to share in the communal grave or have a private funeral. Our forms listed name and age, address and church, communal or private arrangements; if communal, did they wish their child(ren) to lie next to friends. Tribute should be paid to the funeral directors who volunteered their services, performing their duties with great sympathy, dignity and kindness. This task was completed by Wednesday.
There is someone else whom I have never forgotten. A young man from the English Home Counties (about 19) was so moved by television pictures that he donned his choir cassock and came to Aberfan. His task was to help care for the chapel and the young who lay there. His gentle sympathy and loving care earned him the loud praise and gratitude of the funeral directors. I have wondered long what happened to him.
Aberfan cemetery’s narrow roads are very difficult for hearses at the best of times and now there were over a hundred to be buried. The work of collecting those for communal burial began at 8.00 a.m. on Thursday and everything was in place before the families arrived for the 3.00 p.m. service. Early that morning, Derwyn and I needed to visit a local minister. On our return we crossed another old tip; at its end we looked down on a little one sided street; there were five hearses close together. Derwyn went one house and I to another. I received a warm welcome, sat in a wooden armchair by the fire and given a cup of tea. I asked if they had lost anyone. The wife replied, “Two of our three children, brother and sister, and my mother who was the first to be killed in a farm house.” I tried to express sympathy but could say nothing else. I just sat with them in silence for a while and then left. My silence has bothered me for fifty years until, last week, when I recalled the words of Ezekiel 3.15, when he visited the sorrowing exiles in Babylon: “And I sat where they sat.” Maybe it did help a little.
The funeral took place on Thursday 27 October. By 3.00 p.m. two thousand people had come together. Families stood before the coffins of their children. A short and simple but warm service took place. Two hymns were sung: “Loving Shepherd of thy sheep” and “Jesu, Lover of my soul” in its Welsh and English versions at the same time. The Anglican Bishop of Llandaff read from the Scriptures and the Roman Catholic Archbishop of Cardiff led the prayers which contained Psalms 148 and 12 read by all. Aberfan’s senior pastor, Welsh Independent Revd. Stanley Lloyd was responsible for the simple and moving Committal in which he commended “our children” to the loving care of God. His chapel, Bethania, used as the main mortuary, was closed, pulled down and replaced by a new building, as was the Presbyterian chapel.
I returned home after the service. Only once have I returned since but those four days remain in my heart. Human greed caused Aberfan’s suffering. Human greed still causes children to suffer as we see daily from Aleppo and other places.
God grant to the living, grace;
to the departed, rest;
to the world, peace;
and to us, and all his children, life everlasting.
The Revd Ivor Jones (Swansea)
On the morning of the 21st October I woke early to a very misty day in fact we had experienced some very wet and foggy weather for days. Another day of fog and rain. Living within the town of Blaenavon two valleys away from Merthyr valley and where there was little contact across valleys and without a telephone news was shared by the meeting of people in community. Early that morning catching up and visiting those who were not in Church I was aware as I walked that there was more activity than usual coming from the pit head. .It wasn’t long before rumour came from the big tip that there had been a terrible accident involving some children in another valley. Word spread from house to house and I remember the tension, fear as people shared the news. rumour grow and altered with the telling but this rumour the extent of which was still to unfold in the unbelievable loss of so many lives l There was silence, tears, shock and then the news that children were involved. There was action so much that it wasn’t long into the early evening the message stay away for so many had gone over to the valley for what they didn’t know but the need was there do something. The story of Aberfan has been told over and over. People’s lives not just traumatised that wasn’t a word in use then but devastated, over.
Eleven years after as a family we moved to Merthyr following the call received to Market Sq.; Merthyr & Merthyr Vale………….You may need to know that Merthyr Vale & Aberfan were two communities on either side of the valley for in the valley floor was the colliery and up above was the tip that miners said was one day going to move. And that is one of the hardest thing for those who survived to come to terms with as it should not have happened. I went into assemblies each month at the new school built after the disaster and lingered with the children and whatever subject I chose to speak in those pre curriculum days and gave children the opportunity to chat the disaster came up together with questions but also the need to talk about it something in those days that wasn’t heard of. I can pay tribute to the work of Ken Hayes the Baptist minister who lived in the village and to Erastus Jones who came after with an ecumenical hat on but their vision was never achieved of creating one Christian centre. The churches were rebuilt. Tribute to Dr Arthur who just gave of himself and the support of Jeanne. In the synod today a young policeman Alan who stood by those who came to the chapel where so many lay. We cannot imagine, how many prayers must have gone up and it was determination, bravery, horror, guilt and love for those who had died that enabled the community to build itself without a generation that were no longer laughing and playing.
Many families left, many stayed, stayed because they felt they had to be near those they had lost. Lives had to be rebuilt as they were through tears, determination for in that valley there was a sense of belonging and togetherness.
As I walked around the community latterly visitors would be wandering with no idea of what a tip looked like and I would try to explain, but now the valley is green and the stream under that tip that slipped still flows and those who were directly affected will never be forgotten and we will not forget. Words so often used for comfort…There is nothing, nothing in all creation that can separate us for god’s love in Christ Jesus.
MAY God hold you and all for whom prayer is asked in the palm of his hand.
May God hold you, ever hold you.
May the Creator of life heal the deepest wounds,
May Jesus Christ grant healing,
May the Holy Spirit restore all to wholeness
WE pray for grace, forgiveness and blessing.
I LIFT UP MY EYES TO THE HILLS-FROM WHERE WILL MY HELP COME?
MY HELP COMES FROM THE LORD WHO MADE HEAVEN AND EARTH.
We come together to share the knowledge that God is always with us and that as individuals and communities we can trust Gods watching and sheltering presence.
Living God you are our strength when we are weak.
Living god you are our hope when people are feeling vulnerable and feeling exposed to the traumas that hit.
I lift up my eyes……………
For the community of Aberfan as the world remembers, those with deep sadness and unresolved fear, those who wanted to do more, for those who stood shoulder to shoulder with no words adequate. For the community when through the children left people learned and knew it was alright smile again. For those who left for a new beginning. For those who through tears pastorally, medically, and through hard grafting, ministered to the shocked, hurting and bereaved.
I lift up my eyes…….
We give thanks for the hope that drew people to work together, the hope that cared for one another, for that hope that overcomes adversity and gathers the strength to overcome, the hope that guides and gives vision for the future. We give thanks for the hope that feeds faith, hope that breathes peace.
I lift up my eyes………………
Thank you for children throughout our world, may all know love and peace and truth. Today the experience of mass loss, homelessness, wandering parted from families is being experienced as we pray.
I lift my eyes………
For your promises in our comings and goings we give thanks, for being there when we simply want to be left alone,
THE LORD WILL KEEP YOUR GOING OUT AND YOUR COMING IN FROM THIS TIME ON AND FOREVER MORE.
In addition, the following broadcasts can be viewed over the coming days
BBC 1 Wales – Monday 17th, 9 pm – Surviving Aberfan
BBC 1 Wales – Tuesday 18th, 10.45 pm – Huw Edwards: The Fight for Justice
ITV Wales – Wednesday, 19th, 9 pm – Aberfan: The day our lives changed
BBC 4 – Thursday, 20th, 9 pm – Surviving Aberfan
S4C – Friday, 21st, 10.30 pm – Karl Jenkins’ Cantata Memoria
BBC 4 – Sunday, 23rd 9 pm – A Concert to remember, i.e. Cantata Memoria