A typewriter’s keys clattered loudly as waterworks engineer DCW Jones articulated his alarm. “The slurry is so fluid and the gradient so steep”, wrote Jones, “that it could not possibly stay in position in the winter time or during periods of heavy rain”. Dated July 24th, 1963, Jones’s letter was one of many which prompted brief exchanges between Merthyr Tydfil Council and the National Coal Board on the topic of “danger from coal slurry being tipped at the rear of the Pantglas Schools”.
By 1966, little had changed. Black mounds of mining spoil bulged like cancers atop malformed Welsh valleys. A rising chorus of concerned local voices, betraying the usual faith placed in higher powers by Welsh mining communities, were shouted down by the all-knowing National Coal Board. Corporatism endured, and so Tip 7 continued to cast an ever-growing shadow upon Pantglas School.
A thick fog had spilled into the valley by the morning of October 21st, obscuring Tip 7 as though some divine power sought to ease Aberfan of its collective anxiety. Like a coroner, the power draped a soft blanket over a lacerated Welsh body so as to spare loved ones the wretched site of decomposition. Did local children grasp the peril of what lay under the blanket? If so, perhaps it’s presence that morning helped make the winding route to Pantglas a little more carefree.
Mothers stuffed the pockets of their little ones with colourful sweets and handkerchiefs, before waving them off into the mist. A well-worn routine, not one could’ve envisioned recounting the contents of their child’s pockets to authorities hours later, so as to ease the process of identification.
While pupils snaked their way through terrace-lined streets towards Pantglas, the heavy rain of days prior sank deeper into the spoil of Tip 7. Liquefaction had set in the night before, opening a gaping hole and swallowing a section of minecart track. No cause for alarm, maintained tip supervisors.
One by one, children skipped, ran and ambled into Pantglas for their final day of term. Gathered together for Friday’s assembly, hundreds of high-pitched voices sang in beautiful chorus for the final time. By 9:15, pupils had peeled off into their respective classrooms, and teachers began to call names for that morning’s registration. In the distance, a rumbling. Lights hanging from classroom ceilings began to sway at the ends of their wires. Students searched the eyes of their teachers for answers and found only fear.
The Aberfan disaster claimed the lives of 144, of whom 116 were children. Among the darkest days in Welsh history, the stoicism of many 1960s mining communities and general British ignorance of Welsh history have largely buried the story of Pantglas school. With it, the price paid by Welsh communities for ‘black gold’, wanton resource exploitation and the silencing of community voices, have also been forgotten. In the absence of Aberfan among school syllabi and the collective British conscience, we must turn to popular portrayals for a telling of the story. Here too, until now, Aberfan has been conspicuously absent.
Enter The Crown. Episode 3 of the recently released third series of the highly acclaimed charting of the reign of Queen Elizabeth II provides the first-ever dramatisation of the Aberfan disaster. For Peter Morgan, the show’s creator, the episode ‘stands alone’, owing to the depth of attention required to tell an untold story of such sensitivity. Tacking close to the reality of what happened that day, The Crown built its depiction of Aberfan upon the formerly shunned voices of South Wales communities. In return, producers committed to collaborative storytelling and made counselling available to residents – the first time many had been offered mental health support in some five decades, resulting in an hour of television which stands as a testament to good storytelling.
Telling untold stories is no easy feat. In so doing, storytellers subject themselves to accusations of revisionism and the ire of misrepresented communities. In this sense, credit is due to The Crown for even attempting to grapple with a subject so close to Welsh hearts. But the merit of the resulting dramatisation is rooted in its effort to capture hearts farther-flung. The story of Aberfan should be known to every industrial town, every person with a stake in the wellbeing of their community, every Brit.
Untold stories are guaranteed by unheard voices, and The Crown’s brand of people-orientated storytelling has handed Aberfan a megaphone. Such efforts should be both lauded and emulated.