Aberfan 50 years on: how best to remember the tragedy?

In 1966 a coal slag heap collapsed on a school in south Wales, killing 144 people, most of them children. Poet Owen Sheers went back to the pit village and, using the people’s own memories, created a ‘film poem’ to commemorate the disaster

• Click here to read extracts from The Green Hollow

‘How to talk about it? That’s been a struggle from the start.” Jeff Edwards, 58, pauses and shifts his weight in the armchair. We’re sitting in the front room of his house in Aberfan where for the past hour Jeff has been describing for me some of the difficulties experienced by the village in trying to negotiate the ongoing tightrope between memorial and healing, between sharing and silence, in the wake of the disaster that befell them 50 years ago. “Personally I found speaking about it better for me,” he continues, “in terms of my recovery. But other people, well, they just cannot speak about it at all.”

It was the last Friday before half term – 21 October 1966 – and, like hundreds of other children across Aberfan, Jeff set off for school that day looking forward to the holiday ahead of him. School would finish early, at midday, after which lay the promise of a whole week of playing with his friends in the orchards and farmed fields on the slopes above the village. A heavy autumnal mist was still lying thick in the valley when Jeff left his home for school. From early on, however, Aberfan had made itself heard, if not seen. Children who lived at the bottom end of the village, near the “black bridge”, would have woken to the colliery hooter at Merthyr Vale pit sounding the change of shift, and to the rattling of the “journeys” too – drams [trucks] on tracks carrying coal waste, tailings and grit up to the top of tip No 7, looming on the mountainside above the rows of terraced houses.

Children who lived at the other end of town would have woken to more rural sounds: cockerels, the bleating of sheep on the hill or dairy farmers bringing their herds in for milking. Jeff lived in the middle of the village, on Aberfan Road next to the chapel, so it was sounds of commerce rather than industry or farming that greeted him of a morning: shopkeepers letting down their awnings, deliveries being made, stock being put out on display.

As he did every school day, Jeff met up with his friends Robert and David and together they made their way through the ash-lined “gullies”, the back lanes of the village, up towards Pantglas junior school, stopping in at Anderson’s sweet shop to buy some shrimps and flying saucers. Elsewhere in the village, other children were travelling to Pantglas by bus; Mrs Jennings, the headmistress, was waiting, as she always did, at the top of the school steps; Jack-the-Milk was doing his rounds up Moy Road; Mr Benyon, a towering rugby player of a teacher, was preparing his classroom; and on the top of tip No 7 a crane driver had discovered that the point of the tip had slipped, shifting his crane tracks out of position. The telephone wires into the valley had been stolen, so the driver sent a slinger down to let the charge-hand know instead. The mist was still so thick that within a few feet of his descent the slinger had faded out of sight. Not long after he’d gone, a farm woman, out on the hill to feed her stock, noticed the telegraph wires disappearing into the mist towards Merthyr were shaking wildly, as if they’d been grabbed “by a giant hand”.

Down in Pantglas school, assembly had finished and the children were in their classrooms settling at their desks, or in the hall, collecting dinner tickets. Janet Bickley and Bernard Thomas, both in a classroom at the front of the school, remember hearing a gathering rumbling sound, like thunder, as they got out their books and began reading. But unlike thunder, this sound became louder, like a massive approaching train. And then louder still, like an aeroplane diving. Seconds later the collapsing tip No 7 broke through the canal bank and over Pantglas school and a row of houses along Moy Road, enveloping and crushing them under thousands of tonnes of slurry, coal waste and tailings.

Jeff Edwards, aged eight, photographed a few days after being rescued in October 1966
Jeff Edwards, aged eight, photographed a few days after being rescued in October 1966. Photograph: IC Rapoport/Getty Images

Within hours the site of the slippage was crawling with rescuers searching for people trapped in the still-moving slurry and the name of Aberfan, which had woken unknown that morning, was spreading across the world as news of the disaster broke.

Initially the rescuers were people from the town. Family members, shopkeepers, bank clerks, digging with their hands and garden tools, the chimneys of the houses still smoking through the rubble. Then the fire brigade came, then miners from the pit, volunteers from across the country, an NCB rescue team, the army. Every few minutes the frantic digging would pause as the teeming rescuers stopped to listen for sounds under the waste. Around 11 o’clock Jeff Edwards was pulled from the wreckage of the school. He was the last child found alive. After that, each bout of listening was only ever met with silence. Within a few days’ time that silence had a figure: 144 people had been killed, 116 of them children aged between three months and 14 years old. The majority had been in the classrooms at the back of the school, aged between eight and 10.

How to talk about it? From the moment Bethan Jones, an executive producer at BBC Wales Drama, asked me to write a piece for TV to mark the 50th anniversary of the Aberfan disaster, echoes of Jeff’s question have haunted me. The prospect of trying to shape dramatically and render the nature of the village’s loss seemed emotionally daunting and fraught with difficulty, which it has been. For 50 years, from the day tip No 7 collapsed, Aberfan has had to grieve publicly over every parent’s worst nightmare – the death of their child – and the sudden loss of a great slice of their community. Interwoven with this grief has been anger, recrimination and a sense of injustice. And it hasn’t been a grief allowed to rest either. Every anniversary has, to varying degrees, attracted the attention of the media and the wider world. Time is a natural smoother of grief’s roughest edges, but for many in Aberfan a gradual submersion of their bereavement under the years has been denied them, the pressure of anniversarial attention regularly drawing their sorrow to the surface, and with each breaching back into the air, returning them afresh to the point of their loss.

With the weight of this particular history in mind I found myself questioning whether Aberfan’s story should be told again at all. From what I could tell, and quite understandably, some in the community would rather move on from the disaster now and look forwards, not back. Most of the survivors, parents and rescuers are still alive, so any attempt at a conventional dramatic reconstruction, especially given that the story has been told before, seemed inappropriate. Similarly, although there were injustices and negligence at the root of the disaster, these too have been well documented. Perhaps most significantly though, as a writer, I sensed a destabilising tension at the heart of the endeavour, between the dramatic need to take an audience into the unflinching core of the story and the potential, in so doing, for emotional exploitation at the cost of those who had lived and lost through the disaster.

The worries of this tension never left me throughout the writing of what became The Green Hollow, and that I embarked on it at all was, in the end, more to do with concerns about the present than about the past. As I researched the details of what happened at Aberfan, I realised this was a historical story with a deeply urgent contemporary resonance: a story of what can happen when a community is run by a corporation. It is also a story known along generational rather than geographic borders, as is evidenced by the many plaques and memorials throughout the village from countries across the globe: a plaque in the community centre from the city of Florence, a dedication and statue in the cemetery from the people of South Africa. In 1966 world television news was in its ascendancy and images and reports of the disaster were broadcast on every continent. Together with the nature of the village’s loss, this has meant the story of Aberfan is surprisingly well remembered and known across the globe. In nearly every country to which I’ve travelled, I’ve found people who can tell me where they were, and what they were doing, the moment they heard about the fate of Pantglas school. Just recently, in Mexico, an elderly woman told me how she’d been working with Pablo Neruda in Chile when his secretary had knocked on her door one afternoon to tell her “something terrible has happened in Wales”.

Whenever I meet these people they are always of a certain age, either old enough to remember hearing about the disaster themselves or, like me, to have parents who recall it and who can pass on that memory. Ask people in their late 20s and early 30s about Aberfan and even close to home in Wales, I’ve found increasingly the reply to be a shake of the head and a shrug of the shoulders.

Although this generational erosion in the collective memory was a further spur to say yes to the BBC’s offer, and so hopefully deepen knowledge of the disaster, it was perhaps secondary to a growing desire to try to retell the story to those who already knew it. The more I researched Aberfan, the more I realised that such disasters, especially when they occur in small communities, are anonymising and dominating. A place’s character becomes defined in relation to the disaster, with both its past and its present increasingly occupied by outsiders’ perspectives of the event. The disaster imposes itself upon the physical and psychological identity of a community until a reversal occurs in the traditional process of geographic nomenclature and the event appropriates the name rather than the other way round – place and disaster become synonymous. Look at the phrase I wrote earlier in this paragraph: “the more I researched Aberfan”. This should mean the village in its entirety, in every dimension, geographical, historical, societal. But we know that what I was referring to, and what if you’re familiar with the story you probably read, was “the more I researched the disaster”.

Was it possible, then, to create a piece for TV marking the 50th anniversary of the collapse of tip No 7, while also attempting to broaden the field of vision in respect to the village? To paint a portrait not just of what happened, but also of what was lost? What was Aberfan like in 1966? What were the interests of the people, the social life, the sporting obsessions, the bands of the day? What was the deeper history of the place? Why had it become the mining village it was, and what had it been before the discovery of coal under its soil? Perhaps most significantly, what was Aberfan like today? What other influences beyond the disaster have shaped its contemporary character, and how do those who call it home with no connection to the disaster view the village and the area now?

Rescuers queue for tea.
Rescuers queue for tea. Photograph: Popperfoto/Getty Images

In trying to answer some of these questions my hope was to create a piece that was both tribute and descriptively expansive; that embraced the disaster but could also be a point of departure, of moving on. I wanted to present the disaster within the broader life and history of Aberfan. To allow it to live in the public conversation more in the manner that it exists within the lived experience of the community today – as a resonating echo, a part of the village, rather than the village as a part of the event.

Although I knew what I wanted to achieve, I still had to answer the “how” of Jeff’s question – in what form and style would these aspirations be rendered in such a way as to keep on the right side of that tension between dramatic need and emotional exploitation?

The approach I felt to be the most instinctively appropriate was already suggested in the question – “how to talk about it?” Talking, voice, voices. Despite this commission being for TV, a visual medium, it was through voice I wanted The Green Hollow to discover its shape and tone. I wanted the village to speak, and given the communal nature of the disaster a choral quality to the angle of entry seemed appropriate.

My initial idea was to begin with a single voice, then to have the voices of the village grow exponentially to a climax of 144 voices, before tapering again to a single voice. The shape would be like that of a growing double wave with a tremor of genesis in the voice of a child in 1966, before bellying in both directions at its widest point to create a climax around the disaster of depth, height and weight, then a gradual reduction and focusing to a single, final voice in the present.

From early on I’d envisaged these voices as being attached to particular characters and stories, but also being temporally fluid, able to move between younger and older versions of people, between then and now, with youthful voices appearing in the mouths of elderly people, and vice versa.

As with most early concepts in the process of writing, these initial ideas soon lost their definition and became necessarily blurred in the creation of the piece. Enough of them survived, however, to lend the finished work its three-part structure of the morning of the disaster, the disaster itself and then a closing third act set in Aberfan today. The voices still move across these time frames and swell towards the centre of the piece as well. They also gather, I hope, a progression of ownership. The first part is voiced and acted entirely by actors playing characters. The second is acted again, but consists of stories of rescuers and other “outsiders” who were drawn to the village that day – Gwyneth, a young council worker, Sam, a local journalist, Dave, a local bank clerk and Mansel, a young medical student who happened to be travelling to Aberfan that day. The real Gwyneth, Sam, Dave and Mansel are present in this second part, observing their younger selves being acted. In the third part the actors’ voices are joined by voices from the Aberfan community today – the headmistress of the junior school, a shopkeeper, the schoolchildren.

Devastated miners still digging, 25 October 1966.
Devastated miners still digging, 25 October 1966 Photograph: Gamma-Keystone via Getty Images

It was beginning with the idea of voice – of giving Aberfan a voice – that led me towards the style of the piece, a form of verse drama created from first person accounts; a series of rhythmically driven dramatic monologues underpinned by internal and line-end rhyme and half-rhyme. This is a form I’d first developed for Pink Mist, a play about young wounded soldiers and the emotional aftermath of conflict. I knew, therefore, that a heightened speech inherited from everyday language would create a quality of restrained energy that I’d need if the interwoven stories of The Green Hollow were to be sustained through an hour of television.

I also knew what such a form offers in terms of rendering traumatic and disturbing material in a manner that is, at one and the same time, lyrically distancing yet emotively true. Most of the characters in The Green Hollow are telling us their stories, not “showing” them. Their perspective is often retrospective, a reporting back from the other side of the crucible. Because they are speaking in a form of poetry though, I hope they are also “showing” us their experiences through the nature of their imagery, rhythm and patterns of rhyme and echo. In such a way moments of emotional trauma might be excavated not through the dramatic immediacy of visual representation or action, but via the deeper, subterranean channels of spoken music.

This lyric reportage allows language to be, at times, beautiful. This might be a strange word to conjure when discussing a piece of writing about Aberfan, but the more time I spent on The Green Hollow, the more I became convinced of the necessity of beauty in the work. Not to gild, or as euphemism, but as memorial. The truth of what happened that day in October 1966 was brutal, cruel and ugly. But as well as truth, the other two foundations of poetry are, I believe, the song and the prayer. So I hope it’s been possible to both acknowledge that cruelty and ugliness in a piece of writing, while also discovering the song and the prayer in the witness and experience of those who endured the sorrow of the disaster. As the Russian poet Osip Mandelstam once wrote, “In time I too will craft beauty from this sullen weight” and that, I suppose, became my guiding principle when embarking on The Green Hollow – to make something beautiful from the sullen weight of Aberfan.In doing so I hope that what we’ve made is not just a tribute of memory, but also of beauty. Otherwise, what else is art for?

The voice of a piece like The Green Hollow can only be created and drawn from original voices; from the memories and language of those at the heart of the subject. Even when the language or content of the writing travels far from these original voices, when the observations, images or phrasing are mine, none of it would exist without that initial fuel of first-person witness. In practical terms this meant that however much I might conceive and plan structures and style, nothing was going to happen without my first going to talk to the community in Aberfan.

Over a period of seven months, together with BBC producer Jenna Robbins, I travelled to Aberfan to interview survivors, parents who had lost children, rescuers and current residents. This process was, by turns, harrowing and uplifting. However much survivors or rescuers told me they were fine, that enough time had passed for them to talk about their experiences, still, there was always a moment when the awful horror of that day would break upon them. Sometimes it would be no more than a reddening of the eyes and an intake of settling breath. At others the tears came hard, through shuddering sobs. Always, I felt a sharp guilt. It is one thing to be able to recall an event in general, and quite another to have someone ask you to walk them, step by step, moment by moment, through your memories, describing them in detail as you go.

There were moments when the archival research also caught me unawares. Coming across a handwritten list of the dead and its accumulation of single-digit ages filling a column. Or reading a local newspaper report of an inquest into the deaths of 30 of the children, and of the moment when, after one name was read out and the cause of death given as asphyxia and multiple injuries, a father stood and responded with “No, sir, buried alive by the National Coal Board. That is what I want to see on record.”

I read that report in the archives of Merthyr Library, which is where I also came across a set of correspondence that explained the root of that father’s anger and which, in turn, left me simmering with sad indignation for weeks. The neatly typed letters were addressed from DCW Jones, the Merthyr Borough and Waterworks engineer, to Mr D Roberts, area chief mechanical engineer for the National Coal Board, and TS Evans, the town clerk. They are dated back as far as August 1963, and all carry the same subject line: “Danger from Coal Slurry being tipped at the rear of the Pantglas Schools.”

In these letters, DCW Jones clearly outlines the reasons why tip No 7 shouldn’t continue to be used. He cites previous movements after heavy rain and the fact that the absorption of storm water would counter any attempt to de-water the slurry before it is tipped. He also prophesies, in restrained, official language, what would happen if the tip did collapse. In August 1963 he signs off with the line, “…if they were to move a very serious position would accrue”. In December of the same year he warns again that “although the current solution at Pantglas may be difficult it will not by any means be as difficult as would apply in the event of the tips sliding in the manner that I have envisaged”.

In March 1964, DCW Jones received a reply from the National Coal Board stating that with regard to the disposing of slurries they “would not like to continue beyond the next 6/8 weeks in tipping it on the mountainside where it is likely to be a source of danger to Pantglas school”. Tip No 7 remained in use for the next two-and-a-half years, until 20 October 1966. When an official tribunal into the Aberfan disaster reached its conclusion, no member of the NCB resigned or was asked to leave their position. The disaster had been caused, the tribunal stated, not by “wickedness but ignorance, ineptitude and a failure of communication”.

Poet and playwright Owen Sheers.
Poet and playwright Owen Sheers. Photograph: Dimitris Legakis/Athena Pictures

The difficulties and darkness of much of my research were often countered by the best of the human condition. Accounts of extraordinary acts of effort and kindness at the moment of the disaster and in its aftermath; spending a morning in the thriving maelstrom of the local mother and toddlers group, or among the infectious curiosity and energy of pupils in the impressive Ynysowen primary school. Nearly every interview, too, however upsetting, would also give way at some point to humour, optimism and generosity of spirit, and nowhere more so than in my visits to the Young Wives Club.

Originally formed by mothers and wives from the village in the wake of the disaster as a place to “laugh, cry, speak and be heard”, this organisation has grown over the past 50 years into a general social club of invited speakers, theatre trips and weekly gatherings in a room above a chapel. Many of its members lost children in the disaster and perhaps this was why I’d been particularly daunted by the prospect of visiting the club; of sitting before bereaved mothers and explaining that I wanted to try to tell their story. What I hadn’t expected was to spend so much of my evening at the club (which, with an average age in the 70s had just voted to remove the “young” from their title) laughing. But I did. The women I spoke to were open about their losses, and about the difficulties of coping with such a public grief, but they were also one of the most life-affirming group of people I’ve ever met; a living manifestation of the kind of place Aberfan had been in 1966. Many of the survivors I’d interviewed had spoken about the village’s vibrancy at that time. With full employment in the mine and local factories, its streets were thick with shops and tradesmen, boasting two butchers, two fishmongers and even two cinemas. The village’s cultural life was similarly active, with well-supported drama societies, bands and choirs and the swinging dance halls of Merthyr just down the road.

Walking down Aberfan’s high street today I’d often found it difficult to imagine this version of the village. Over the past 50 years, as well as the disaster, Aberfan has also had to take all the other body blows inflicted upon the south Wales valleys by the late 20th century – the miners’ strike and closure of the pits, Thatcherism, unemployment, poverty, alienation, then Osborne’s austerity. The busy high street of traders is gone, and employment is largely elsewhere now, at the EE call centre in Merthyr, or further afield in Cardiff. In spending time with the Wives Club, though, I felt I’d visited that other village, the Aberfan of 1966, full of possibility, energetic intelligence and vibrant life, alive not just in their memories but also in them, their actions, attitudes and humour.

The last time I visited the Wives Club was to read to them from the script of The Green Hollow. Having decided that this piece would begin with voices and the sharing of voices, the producers and I felt it was only right that the circle be completed, and that those I’d spoken to should have the opportunity to hear the “voice” of the script. It wasn’t easy to stand before those women and read to them, but I’m sure it was much harder for them to sit before me and listen. But they did listen, an act of generosity in itself for which I am hugely grateful.

And then so did many others, as the script went on its collaborative journey of compromise and creation that is the process of film-making. The director, Pip Broughton, the actors, the cameramen, the crew. As each person listened, then made their contribution to the finished film, so the original voices with which I’d begun became increasingly distilled through the voices of others. Which is how it should be, I think. Because distillation is not the same as diffusion, it’s about purifying, about capturing an essence, and with voices that capturing can only be achieved through listening first. Which is, perhaps, another possible answer to Jeff’s question of “How to talk about it?” By listening as well as talking, as completely as we can. By listening as the members of the Wives Club did when they first came together to support each other – as an act of sharing, an act of tribute.

The Green Hollow will be broadcast by BBC1 Wales on Friday 21 October, 9pm, and on BBC4 on Sunday 23 October, 9pm


Owen Sheers

The GuardianTramp

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