John Summers


Aberfan Fights on for All the £1,800,000

by John Summers, published in the Daily Telegraph magazine, 6 October 1967

Families of the 116 dead children are to get £5,000 each, but the rest of the huge Aberfan disaster fund sits at Merthyr Tydfil, where the man who launched it says: ‘Even when all the survivors are dead, still most of the fund will be unspent. Then it will go to the Exchequer.’

The myths and the paper talk, the news-angled stories of ‘stricken Aberfan’, are all blowing away like smoke after a battle, and the reality of Aberfan as a new battlefield of human emotions is being revealed.

‘Nearly a year since it happened and some very strange things are happening here in Aberfan,’ say the bereaved parents who have erected a sign beside the Aberfan cemetery – where according to one journalist who has never been to Aberfan ‘the 116 children lie peacefully sleeping’ – the sign is daubed: Where is Aberfan's money? Spent!

The £1,800,000 Aberfan Disaster Fund – still growing at the rate of £2,000 in interest a week for the last year – has been loaned to Merthyr Tydfil Corporation, and, so allege the Aberfan survivors, ‘is being used to give Merthyr a face-lift.’

Eddie Thomas, former British champion boxer who has offered to stand against the Mayor of Merthyr Tydfil at the next local election, is collecting thousands of signatures from Merthyr’s own rate-payers who are demanding that the whole of the Disaster Fund be paid back immediately to Aberfan.

The morning the news of the £5,000 – bereaved parents only – payout was announced, a group of Aberfan survivors, some of whom have not lost children but have lost their homes and have been badly injured in the disaster, were marching on Merthyr Town Hall with their placards demanding ‘Justice for Aberfan’.

‘We marched to Parliament with a petition for the first £5,000 and now we’ve won that we are fighting on for £1,800,000 worth of justice for everybody in Aberfan,’ said Michael Maybanks. ‘My child – what about her? Coral wasn’t killed, but she was pulled alive from under the school ruins. Now she’s being treated by a psychiatrist and screaming with nightmares – and she’s only ½. Does anybody think I’m going to stop fighting for her?’

Stricken families in Aberfan – some of them with children still in hospital – outnumber the actual bereaved parents by five to one. Fred Gray, a coal-miner who dug out his own child, dead, from under the tip avalanche, said: ‘Now the fighting really starts in Aberfan. We’ve won the first round with the £5,000 payout to those who actually lost children, but now we are fighting for the same payment for the other survivors. £1,800,000 worth of justice, that’s what we want for Aberfan.’

Fred Gray has fought a year-long campaign with speech, march and writ demanding a public inquiry into what he calls ‘the scandal of the Aberfan Fund’. He has just landed the officials of Merthyr Corporation with a High Court writ demanding ‘the return of Aberfan’s £1,800,000 to any independent bank in Aberfan.’

Gray now says he will use his own £5,000 to pay legal costs in the battle. The next step will be a county court injunction to freeze all the assets of the Aberfan Disaster Fund until the whole £1,800,000 is paid back to Aberfan ‘and to the people it was meant to go to in the first place’.

The Aberfan stricken families plan to hit Merthyr Corporation from an interesting legal angle. The official receipt sent out to all parts of the world, even as far as Japan, to people who gave money to Aberfan acknowledges the receipt of the donation and says it is to be used for the stricken families of Aberfan.

‘Well, are the stricken families given the money after all this long year’s struggle?’ asks Fred Gray. ‘No, only the people unlucky enough to lose children are being offered this mere £5,000 handout, like beggars. There are many other stricken families whose children were badly injured both physically and mentally, and they will get nothing substantial at all.’

Aberfan’s bereaved parents have been parading in protest in Whitehall, in Downing Street and at the House of Commons, demanding a public inquiry into the fund.

I accompanied them on a march to Merthyr Town Hall, six miles up the valley from Aberfan. As we walked, one of the Aberfan bereaved fathers vomited on the road. ‘Ulcers,’ he punched his fist to his chest. ‘Never had them before I had to dig that child of mine out of the tip.’

The event of the week had been the arrival n Aberfan of the Free Wales Army detachment of a dynamite squad from west Wales ‘offering help to the people of Aberfan’, complete with their commander ‘and a big black one like Jack Palance wearing an all green uniform and Red Dragon badge’, and telling newspaper reporters they would blow up Merthyr Town Hall if the £1,800,000 was not paid out. ‘Don’t worry,’ insisted a short little Aberfan bereaved father with the inflamed face of an infuriated jockey, ‘if that money don’t get paid out something will happen here in Aberfan.’

Mrs Joyce Fudge, who lost her child, said: ‘We’re fighting now for all the disaster funds to come. Because people will never give again after they hear what’s happened here in Aberfan.’

A badly injured survivor of the disaster, Gerald Tarr, said angrily: ‘I was buried under the tip for an hour and I’ve been in hospital since with the broken pelvis and can’t work to keep my wife and I’m only getting £4 a week National Assistance. What’s for people like me out of the £l million and more that’s left? Oh no, nothing. They tell me to go away and ask for National Assistance.’

As we walked on, a bereaved father snapped: ‘American photographer was here a while ago and offering a thousand dollars to any Aberfan father who’d let him take a photograph in the bedroom when his wife gave birth to one of Aberfan’s new babies. I damn near killed him when he asked me...’

A newspaper reporter following us had called out: ‘You shouldn’t be out with your leg like that, Mr Gray,’ and Fred Gray was raging back at the newspaper reporter, ‘I shouldn’t need to be out trying to get a bit of money from this fund if you’d written about what’s really going on here in Aberfan!’ And as the reporter comforted him equably: ‘You watch that leg, Mr Gray. ..’ the bereaved father shouted back warningly: ‘You watch your chin!’ The shock of the disaster has stricken Fred Gray with thrombosis. He will never work again. And he cannot walk without a stick, although an NCB official described him as ‘one of the fittest and most hard-working miners in Aberfan before all this happened.’

As we approached the brand-new block of offices that houses the Aberfan Disaster Fund Management Committee, the bereaved parents were discussing the day’s classically barmy headline in one newspaper – OLD KING COAL A MERRY SOUL, over the news story announcing that ‘National Coal Board accounts are back in the black at last with a profit of £300,000 last year.’

From the panoramic windows of the Aberfan Disaster Fund offices, the South Wales mining valleys were purple with heather and the slopes of the Aberfan killer tip just showed on the skyline at Aberfan six miles away.

Up here in his office Mr Gerald Davis, the newly-appointed barrister who is now secretary-treasurer of the £1,800,000 fund, talked, in a voice that sounded uneasy, with a high note of strain. ‘It isn’t easy, it isn’t easy,’ he describes his job, ‘because you can’t just give money away.’ You just can’t give pound notes away just like that.’

Fred Gray has already countered: ‘Well, that’s exactly what ordinary people did all over the world when they sent the money here to Aberfan, and the stricken families of Aberfan – not to rebuild Merthyr Tydfil.’ But Mr Davis pursues his point: ‘I was doing social work in Africa before this and there are many similarities with the problems I find here in Aberfan.

‘Actually I’ve sent some of the money back. I sent 13 shillings back. I had this crank writing in to me from somewhere saying he gave 13 shillings and he meant it to go to the stricken families of Aberfan, and not to rebuild Merthyr Tydfil, so in the end I had to make him a cheque out for 13 shillings and send him his 13 shillings back.’

Has the £1,800,000 gone to rebuild Merthyr Tydfil?

‘Well, of course. When a corporation takes a loan of money like that – it uses it, naturally. They are paying us £2,000 a week interest. Just seven days’ notice I have to give Merthyr Tydfil and they’d have to provide all the money back. They would simply have to borrow it elsewhere, of course, at a slightly higher rate of interest.’

Soon after the news of the £5,000 payout was announced, the same group of marchers and petitioners, including Fred Gray with his High Court writ in his pocket, were picketing Merthyr Town Hall again and assuring reporters: ‘Now the fight for Aberfan’s money is really on in earnest.’

The people of Aberfan say they fear that Aberfan’s £1,800,000 disaster fund will become ‘another Gresford’ or ‘another Senghenydd’ – two other Welsh coal-mining disasters which attracted bonanza-size public donations for the survivors but which also failed to make any sensibly large grants. Even the ex-Mayor of Merthyr Tydfil, Stanley Davies, who launched the Aberfan fund appeal to the world, has gone on record saying: ‘I’m afraid everyone’s eyes in Aberfan will be closed, they’ll all be dead, and still most of the Aberfan disaster fund will be unspent. And after that it will go to the Exchequer.’

‘Well, I want to make the Aberfan fund a 1967 fund not an 1867 fund,’ says Gerald Davis. ‘And after all the Gresford and Senghenydd mining disasters happened a long time ago. Yes, I did tell Mr Tarr [the survivor who was buried under the tip] that he must go to the National Assistance people if he wanted money immediately from the fund.’

The Social Security people told Mr Tarr to come back and ask for money from the Aberfan fund, I told him. ‘Well, they probably did. But he didn’t come back, did he? It isn’t a matter of pride. Pride doesn’t come into it. I need an application in writing and I need time to deal with it...’

Back down in the Aberfan Hotel a noisy meeting was called. Mrs Joyce Fudge declared: ‘I say we don’t want Plaid Cymru and the Free Wales Army fighting our cause for us.’

‘Yes we do,’ shouted back the meeting’s chairman. Harry Wilshire, who lost his child and his grandchild in the disaster. ‘We need all the support we can get here!’ and so the meeting ended with a pledge of 100 per cent support for a final demand for immediate payment of £5,000, to be backed by the biggest protest march yet, together with the Free Wales Army with banner, fife and drum, upon Merthyr Town Hall.

The night before the march was due the Fund’s administrators announced they would meet the £5,000 demand immediately, but added that the petitions and protest marches had in no way influenced, the decision. ‘Ha ha,’ comments Fred Gray sourly. Harry Wilshire, newly elected as spokesman of the Aberfan Justice Association, commented: ‘Well, we’ll see how a bit more fighting will influence them, then.’

‘Yes!’ Mrs Jean Gough, the mother who had lost two children, read out the letter she intended reading in public at Merthyr Town Hall. ‘There has been bloodshed once in the streets of Aberfan already when over a hundred sweet children had to die. Think, think, you men, you controllers of this fund. There could be bloodshed in the streets again unless this money is paid out in the way it was intended.’

Explosions of angry conversation come from little groups of bereaved parents. A shout of: ‘Bloody murderers! When Slogger Williams was headmaster of the school he was always saying that tip was going to fall and they called him a crank!’

‘There was a Canadian woman here today from Ottawa saying she’s called because she was disgusted hearing the £1,800,000 hadn’t been paid out and she it was who collected a lot of it in Canada...’

In a comer four bereaved fathers were discussing a scheme to daub WHERE IS ABERFAN’S MONEY? on the walls of Merthyr Town Hall and one of them made a key turning in a lock motion and said: ‘I can run faster than you, mind…’

‘D’you see that Free Wales Army bloke last Saturday; talking about blowing up Merthyr Town Hall if they don’t pay us the money out? Well, I shall assist them to the fullness of the extreme. I’ll be there to light the fuses...’

‘They said they blew up that dam in North Wales...’

‘Ah, you’re going off at a tangent now, Dai...’

‘No. I’m not going off on a tandem at all, I’m sticking to the point: look don’t argue with me – if I turn nasty with you – look here,’ a warning finger pointed in the other man’s face, ‘I may be older than you, but I still know the way to go about it, look!’

Hysteria is always in the air now in Aberfan: the night before at ‘stop-tap’ time all had ended in a fight over the arrangements for the previous Saturday’s protest march.

Each weekend, to Aberfan, to this graveyard of human good intentions, still the tourist coaches and the cars are coming to see the ruins of houses and school where last October the roaring coal waste glaciered through the village. And they come to ask questions about the avalanche of money which has – so far – provided Aberfan with its second disaster.

To each questioner Fred Gray answers: ‘Let me ask you this question. Why should Aberfan’s £1,800,000 be spent rebuilding Merthyr? And not Aberfan?’

Leaning on his stick, Gray says, ‘I’ve only got a few years to live, the doctor says. Perhaps only a couple of years.’ And Gray says he is going to spend them ‘fighting for my rights and for the rights of the other stricken families. I come home every night and I look up at that picture of my child…’

The weekend sightseers were lining the Aberfan cemetery below the loom of the great Mont Blanc-shaped tip of coalwaste, still as high as it was on the day of the disaster – contrary to popular misconception, only a small proportion of the Aberfan tip actually fell – and in the cemetery Aberfan mothers were putting banks of fresh expensive flowers on the graves. And it is only when you view the ordered rows of fresh-looking graves that you realize again that it really was 144 human beings who died at Aberfan: 116 of them children.

And in the banks of fresh expensive flowers in the parallel rows of graves, a woman was pinning a card among the flowers on one small grave and adding a toy and explaining to a bystander, bright-eyed, ‘It’s her birthday today.’

And another mother pointed and said, with equally moist bright eyes, ‘There’s another birthday further down the row…’