Aberfan Disaster 1966
The Aberfan Disaster of 1966 is well documented when it comes to the list of names of those who lost their lives, the names of Aberfan victims can quite quickly be ascertained. There were 116 children buried alive on that day, most of those will have been in their classrooms - others were still walking to school and were swept away from the school yard and outside.
But Aberfan disaster survivors names are harder to find.
There were 28 adults who lost their lives that day - five teachers in the school and residents of the houses adjacent to the school, which were engulfed and buried by the coal tip slurry that moved like an avalanche and buried the school and row of terraced houses in Aberfan 50 years ago.
However, you might then ask is there a list of Aberfan survivors' names?
In short, there isn't. However, it is possible to work out who was a survivor and who was probably a survivor of that awful day.
It can be difficult, however, to define what a survivor is. There are a number of groups of people who might be termed as Aberfan survivors.
Would you call yourself a survivor if you'd been about to walk past the school that day, but a neighbour called you over and chatted for 10 minutes so you missed it?
A "true survivor" probably has to be limited to those who were in the school/terrace of houses in Moy Road that were engulfed, or who were outside in the street and ran to safety.
Maybe you're compiling your family tree and are wondering if one of your ancestors' relatives were involved in the disaster.
Aberfan Survivors from the School
IC Rapoport, an American photojournalist, arrived in the town a week after the disaster, to photograph the survivors. In his book, published 40 years later, the primary focus was on the children who had survived - and one of the photos in his book is of the "25 survivors", the remaining children of Aberfan, this book gives some Aberfan disaster survivors names.
These will be the surviving children, presumably who were dug out of the slurry and survived. But, he missed some. There were nearly 30 people taken to Hospital, with about eight of them staying in Hospital for some months, so he won't have photographed or mentioned those.
There are some "high profile Aberfan survivors", the very few who spoke out in the earlier years. Jeff Edwards (the last boy pulled alive from the rubble) is one of those high profile survivors. Gaynor Madgwick (nee Minett) was pulled alive from the rubble; she lost her brother and sister and has since written a couple of books - the first of these books was based on her memories of the event, that she wrote when she was 12. Gaynor published another book, including more quotes from survivors on 13 July 2016, in the lead up to the 50th anniversary.
In Aberfan school, there were survivors who were pulled from the rubble, some at the edges of the slurry so dirty but unhurt, managing to walk out themselves, or be helped out; others were dug out. However, there were other survivors who were in a position to run away as the disaster was occurring, or about to occur. They are survivors because they were nearly caught up in it, but they weren't victims. There were other 'survivors' too, such as the 50 school children whose bus was delayed that morning. They survived by not being at their desks.
Having a Sickie!
That day, quite a few of the kids were either ill, had a Doctor appointment, or were throwing a sickie. It's one mother's regret that she 'forced' her son to go to school that day - he said he was sick, but she sent him anyway. He was probably trying to throw a sickie, but she has to live with her decision for life, thinking "if only....".
Again, you can glean some of the names of these survivors from quotes from other survivors, often when they mention names of aberfan victims in interviews.
You can get many quotes from a variety of survivors over the years, from newspapers. Some were quoted at the time of the event, others have been interviewed in the intervening years, most often at the 10th, 20th, 30th and 40th anniversaries, when the newspapers will have wanted to write a short article.
These survivor quotes will give you a list of those people - although sometimes quotes taken more recently will be in the married name of a female who was a survivor.
So, you need to get sleuthing to find a full list of Aberfan disaster survivors names.
I used standard family history websites and methods to come up with a list of survivors. By keeping a list you can also cross-reference the quotes and work out people's names by piecing together 2-3 quotes over the years.
One issue you will discover, with some of the local names, is that many of the families use the same names. You might identify one person as a possible child/sibling, then realise there are 4-6 people that could be! But, in the main, you can work out the bulk of people who might have been survivors.
Using sites like Ancestry and Find My Past, as well as FreeBMD and FamilySearch, you can build up a list of a household. See if somebody from the list of the dead had siblings, check the age of those siblings and you might find that it's likely one of those was also a survivor. If their sibling was aged 3 at the time they'll have been home with mum, if their sibling were aged 12-13 they'll have probably been at the senior school, which escaped the slurry - and, on time (not late) so they were safe in their classroom and not being washed along the street outside by the slurry.
Many of the adults who died were buried alive in their own homes. Again, use standard family history websites to work out who else lived in their house with them. Their spouse will be one type of survivor simply for not having been in the house at the time.
Number of Children Survivors
Researching Aberfan you find that the Junior school could take ~200 pupils. News reports will tell you about half died. 116 died, so you're about 84 short somewhere.... that's 84 potential survivors. Later on in the year newspapers said that ~90 pupils from the Junior school and Primary School were being taught at Merthyr Vale, so you know there were about 90 surviving children that day - whether they were present and dug out, present and missed it, or having a snooze at home in bed. About 50 of the survivors were on a bus that was running late as it was foggy that morning; they survived by not being present - is that a survivor?
The Senior School was mainly left intact, the children who died and attended the Senior School were mostly swept away from the surrounding road as they approached the school. Again, figures thrown around by the newspapers said that 194 pupils were being taught close by at Troedyrhiw - some might consider that all the pupils of the senior school were survivors because they "could have been caught up in it".
So, what is your definition of a survivor?
End of the Line
While some of the survivors came from large families, who have since grown up, married and had children of their own - some even with the parents still alive, other victims who died were only children and their parents have both since passed on, often gone to an early grave.
One Doctor said at a previous anniversary that he knew of at least 20 adults who'd died prematurely as a result of the tragedy - from broken hearts, or illnesses brought on by the stress.
In those households there are no survivors who can now tell their story; their stories will never be collected and heard, unless they were written down at the time.... but the mid to late 60s weren't a time for self-publishing. People kept their grief to themselves.
It should also be remembered that a lot of the parents who lost children had themselves already just lived through world war two - and the grandparents of those children who died will have lived through both world wars. Not only was Aberfan a tragedy, but it was most likely another in a long line of family tragedies - and who would listen to them? As 'everybody' had a story to tell, you don't tell your story...
Nearly every house in the whole village had a story, or were close to somebody who did. It's not easy to speak in such an environment - and if you did tell your story, the listener will have heard 100 other stories ... and won't remember the details of each, individually.
The children and grandchildren of the survivors will now be living in a world where questions ARE asked - and they'll, no doubt, be trying to find out more from their parents and grandparents.
With each passing month though, as time marches on, another survivor (by the wide definition of the word) will pass on. Another story lost...
IC Rapoport's Book on Aberfan:
Gaynor Madgwick's Book, 2016
In the approach to the 50th anniversary, Gaynor Madgwick (nee Minett) has interviewed a lot more survivors - people who have never before given their memories of the day. This book will probably be the most comprehensive collection of memories available. As Gaynor is "one of the locals" she'll have been able to locate and interview more people than any "day rate journalist" could ever have done.
Gaynor will know whose stories need to be told and it looks to be a fascinating read and if you're only ever going to buy ONE book on Aberfan then this is probably going to be the best book on Aberfan available.
She was there, it happened to her. She lost a brother and a sister in the tragedy. She was dug out of the rubble and debris and survived against the odds, as an 8 year old. Her credentials are faultless.
A secondary source of names/survivors would be from IC Rapoport's book.
Gaynor Madgwick's Books on Aberfan:
- 1996: Aberfan, Struggling Out of the Darkness: A Survivor's Story. Published in 1996, 20 years after the disaster, this book was based on the notebook that Gaynor wrote in when she was aged 12, four years after the Aberfan disaster.
- 2016 - Aberfan - A Story of Survival, Love and Community in One of Britain's Worst Disasters.
Launched on 13 July 2016, Gaynor's launch was attended by the Ynysowen Male Voice choir, a choir set up by the survivors and community after the tragedy to bring them together and give them an interest outside of the home.
There is no definitive list of Aberfan survivors - but you'll soon find yourself absorbed in compiling your own list based on old newspapers, modern books and online resources.
RIP to all those who lost their lives at Aberfan on 21 October 1966 - and our thoughts are with those who have to live with that day in their memory.
Jim Adams on September 21, 2019:
I remember the disaster of Aberfan, I recall the horror, the deep feelings of sadness and the tears that followed. I visited the village a year later and was deeply moved at the feeling of just being there, it was an overwhelming feeling of sadness and I cried openly as I walked the street. If it were within my power I would love my ashes to be scattered nearby so that I could share forever the loss.
RadiumGrrl on October 22, 2016:
It is confusing with 'survivors'; Some press reports make it sound as if only 25 were left in the entire village, but it means 25 of a possible 200 in attendance from the Jnr school? - Most of the Seniors did escape, thankfully, & children too young to be at school, unless caught up in the slip. There were many children left & I feel so sad at how their lives were blighted; they're alive but there's the survivor guilt, losing friends, trauma, not talking 'cos you just didn't back then, avoiding some bereaved parents who couldn't bear to see you playing out, media intrusion, the tests done on you by authorities to ascertain if you deserved compensation..! I hope & pray they've all found happiness & some kind've peace, & we must never forget.
Margaret Scanlon on October 21, 2016:
My Husband volunteered to go to the disaster to help with the mechanical machinery fro The British Steel works at Port a Talbot ,he was there for Three days,he came home looking like a coal miner,I will always remember that tragic time .We had a little boy nearly Two at the time who will be 52 in November. It must have been a horrendous time for that little village .
Geoff. on October 09, 2016:
I remember Aberfan as though it was only yesterday...... I was 5 years' old at the time, and in England we were on half term holiday; my mother and myself were watching something on the old black and white TV when news of this disaster came through: I did not fully understand as I was so young, but I do now, and and the name 'Aberfan' still haunts me, the following Thursday (27th), I lost my Father to leukemia, It is hard to think that these events took place 50 years ago, I for one, will never forget them.
Dianna Mendez on July 19, 2016:
Thank you for this interesting view of Aberfan survivors. As you say, if we do not capture these stories we will be at a great loss.
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