The Aberfan Young Wives’ Club

This new documentary marks the 50th anniversary of the Aberfan disaster, in which the catastrophic collapse of a colliery spoil tip killed 116 children and 28 adults in the village school and surrounding houses.

“You just, you wanted to do something, and you thought well, what could you do? And it was this helplessness that took over in a way. All of a sudden, somebody would blow a whistle and there was silence… And it was nothing. You couldn’t hear a bird even. And you were hoping they’d get somebody out alive, but by that time about two o’clock, there was no sign of anybody then. I think by that time, they’d realised.” – Gloria Davies, whose cousin was killed in the disaster

Featuring testimony from those affected by the tragedy, which happened on October 21, 1966, alongside extensive archive footage of the disaster and its aftermath, the documentary provides a vivid insight into the lives of South Wales families at the time, and how the disaster affected the whole community.

The documentary looks into the emotional impact on the community, that followed more than 40,000 cubic metres of accumulated rock and shale suddenly starting to slide downhill in the form of slurry, engulfing the village and inundating classrooms at Pantglas Junior School, where young children and teachers died either from impact or suffocation.

The victims’ relatives, including mothers of children who died – some speaking publicly for the first time – reveal how their spirit endured and the village quietly rebuilt itself over the years that followed, focusing in particular on a group of local women who came together in the wake of the tragedy and have met each week for the last half-century – the Aberfan Young Wives.

Marilyn Brown, whose daughter Janette, aged ten, died in the disaster, says: “[It] had been reported a long time ago, to say that the water was coming down. Nothing was done about it, because I think you get a bit blase about things sometimes… ‘Oh, that won’t come down, that won’t happen.’ The chap who worked on the top, he had warned people about it, because he knew all about it.”

That morning, parents around the village saw their young children out of the door, off to the local primary school. Joyce Hughes, whose daughter Annette, aged nine, died, says: “She was one of these girls you’ve got to push to get ready for school, and I said to her, ‘Come on, you’re going to miss the bus.’ I said, ‘Go on now, quick now.’ so she was running down the street. She got to the top of the street and she waved. And that was the last I saw of her.”

At 9.15am, 100,000 tonnes spilled down the hill from the slurry tip, crashing into Aberfan’s tightly-packed terrace streets, and the local junior school.

Sandra Rees describes the moment she and her husband scooped up their three young children to get out of their house, as an avalanche of black slurry began to engulf the village: “I was upstairs and I heard this rumbling and a thump, this tremendous noise. Normally I could see the tips from my kitchen window. You couldn’t see anything because it was so foggy. It wasn’t until this black stuff was coming out of the sky, and I could see this rubble, and it was all moving towards the house. And of course I had three young children in the house, very young children. And I called to John, and he came downstairs, he took one look and he said, ‘right, we’re going out, we’re going out.’”

Marilyn says her reaction was instant: “My nephew came in, he came running in and he said, ‘I think you had better get up the school, something’s happened.’ I had a pair of old sandals and an old green coat on, I can see it now. And I said, ‘What the hell has happened?’ And when I got up to the school it was very, very quiet. A lot of women standing there, very sad, some were crying as well. And then some of the women were up on the rubble by the school, passing bricks to one another. It was unreal.”

The tight-knit Valleys community was devastated by the news that 144 had died. Pat Lee, whose daughter Ann, eight, was killed, says: “They had the children in the chapel, and they were in two chapels. And you had to go in to identify them. I couldn’t do it, I couldn’t go in. So my husband went in, and his brother, and I do remember him coming out and asking what she had on… It’s hard to explain to be honest. How you feel if you, suddenly your eight-year-old child who is beautiful, and she is gone. It was a nightmare really. I don’t think I existed, then.”

Six days after the catastrophe, Aberfan held a mass funeral. The Queen visited the village. Pat says: “They said that the Queen was coming, well I’ve got to be honest, I didn’t care. I didn’t care about seeing anybody.”

Joyce says the pain of losing her daughter endured, but her family worked to stay strong. She says: “After Annette died, we’d be making food but a plate was always there. I always put her plate out ready, you know.”

In the aftermath of the disaster, Marilyn finished organising a concert for children which had originally been set up before it happened. The event, in which 50 children took part, led to the formation of the Aberfan Young Wives, which became an outlet for grieving relatives. Pat says: “I didn’t want to go. And I went and I never missed after that. Because it was somewhere where everybody was there, but nobody spoke of the disaster, nobody at all. No talking about children or of bereavements or… it was different. I think it was good for everybody.”

Since then, the club has met weekly, says Marilyn, to the point where it lost the ‘young’ from its name as the youngest member was 61. While they enjoy fun days out – and have even met the Queen again – a small part of them remains forever entwined with the disaster.

Marilyn says: “I’ve got photos in every room, you know, and in the night time, sometimes, I’ve got one by the side of my bed, and I touch it, I say goodnight to it. It’s always in your mind, isn’t it? And when you see my children growing up and doing lovely things and you know, I wonder, what would she be like? And what would she be doing now?”

+ More