No Time For Football – The Story of Aberfan

During January of 1876, had you flicked through the broadsheets of ‘The Field’ newspaper, you may have read about the formation of the Essex Cricket Club formation or the opening of the ‘Glaciarium’ in London, the world’s first mechanically frozen ice rink.

At the back of the newspaper lay the advertisements and halfway down the page in clear, bold type was a proposal for a Welsh rugby team to be formed to play games against Scotland and Ireland. Llewelyn Kenrick of Druids football club in Wrexham took up the challenge, but decided the game should be an association football match instead.

Under the guidance of Kenrick Plasmadoc F.C. and Ruabon Rovers, a local colliery team had merged in the early 1870s to form Druids, one of Wales’s oldest football teams. In creating the first Welsh international side, practice matches took place at the Denbighshire County Cricket Club in Wrexham and the team became known as the ‘Cambrian Eleven’.

On the 25th March 1876 a timber merchant, two lawyers, a student, soldier, stonemason, two office employees, physician, chimney sweep and a miner became the first men to represent Wales at football, tipping off against Scotland at Hamilton Crescent in the Glasgow district of Partick, two hundred and fifty miles from home. The men from the valleys would lose four-nil, but Kenrick would go on to become known as ‘The father of Welsh football’ for his influential role in the advancement of the Welsh game.

Ninety years later in 1966, the old foes would meet again and kick off the 1966/67 British Home International Championship with, more importantly, the tournament also acting as a qualifying group for the 1968 European Nations’ Cup. In the land of Dafydd, hopes were high with Wales now under the guidance of former captain David Bowen who had led the John Charles-inspired principality to World Cup qualification in Sweden back in 1958.

Dave Bowen, manager of Wales 1966

As a football league manager Bowen had taken lowly Northampton Town from the fourth tier right to the top, briefly, of English football’s Division 1. The Cobblers toured the aristocrats of English football’s top flight during the 1965/66 season with Bowen sitting in the away dugouts of Old Trafford, Anfield and Highbury, the latter his old stomping ground where he had made 146 appearances for the Arsenal in his playing days.

On October 21st 1966, in the village of Maesteg in the borough of Bridgend, Bowen was putting the finishing touches to his side for the upcoming game against Scotland at Cardiff’s Ninian Park the following evening. That same morning a fifty minute drive away in the village of Aberfan, Howard Rees, a talented footballer and pupil of Pantglas Senior School, was making his way up the Moy road for his final day before mid-term.

On the junior side of the school Hettie Taylor, then aged twenty-two, had just joined the music department of the teaching staff and was preparing for her first-year class that morning. Five hundred feet above the village loomed ‘tip no. 7’ , consisting of three hundred and sixty thousand tonnes of colliery waste. For more than three weeks the village had suffered heavy rain which had saturated the tip and made it increasingly unstable.

As Hettie Taylor marked the register and Howard Rees went to join his friends on the school wall for a chat before the 9:30 senior bell, a thundering roar filled the air of the village as the tip collapsed and rushed down the mountain like an avalanche. It was 9:15 am.

The bewildered eyes of Howard Rees fixed on this massive deathly black wave, higher than the village houses and hurtling relentlessly towards him. At that same moment inside the junior school Mr Andrews, the caretaker, knocked at Hettie Taylor’s classroom door, urging her and the children ‘to get out’… Hettie led the children down the steps and told them all to go home.

On her return, Hettie realised the devastation that had taken place at the other end of the school: three classrooms had disappeared, buried underneath sixty thousand tonnes of slurry. Howard Rees escaped but his three friends on the wall were all killed instantly.

Paham mae dicter, O Myfanwy, Yn llenwi’th lygaid duon di?
A’th ruddiau tirion, O Myfanwy,
‘Myfanwy’ sung by the rescuers at Aberfan.

The local miners who had just finished their shifts took over the rescue effort and ferried buried children from the collapsed classrooms; sadly, by 11am, no-one else came out alive. That day in the village of Aberfan, one hundred and sixteen children perished alongside twenty-eight adults, five of them teachers.

Children praying in the aftermath of the disaster

At 4 o’clock the next afternoon as miners and locals continued their dig in search of bodies of loved ones, Wales and Scotland took to the Ninian Park pitch. The BBC’s Kenneth Wolstenholme announced both teams would be wearing black armbands to commemorate those who had died. As both teams stood for a minute’s silence, Wolstenholme declared the attendance was lower than expected as ‘many people in Wales have no heart for football today.’

In the 76th minute Gil Rees took a corner from the left and found the head of Wyn Davies who nodded the ball goalwards. It fell at the feet of his namesake Ron who poked the ball past Bobby Ferguson in the Scots net. From behind the goal, local Cardiff children invaded the pitch with Wolstenholme proclaiming to his BBC viewers ‘…I’ve never seen such an invasion..’ as the mining disaster seemed like yesterday’s news.

It’s incredible to think that as the cheers reverberated around Ninian Park, thirty minutes up the road dead children lay in the local church to be identified by devastated parents. One wonders how the game was allowed to go ahead. There was some acknowledgement of what had happened as a large blanket was carried around the pitch by stewards for fans to throw money into. £600 was duly collected for the Aberfan Fund.

Blanket at Cardiff City’s Ninian Park collecting funds after the disaster

The disaster fund collected £1.75million in total and would come under bureaucratic scrutiny as, incredibly, the charity commission decided the grieving families should be means-tested to assess their grief and thus, by extension, the requisite compensation payment. An official was summoned to Aberfan and told trustees that flat-rate payments were not to be made to bereaved families.

As like so many inquiries, the people of Aberfan received no justice from the then Labour government; there would be no criminal prosecutions and no resignations. The locals recognised the National Coal Board was to blame with past warnings of the dangers of tip slides, and the streams which were inside the tip having been ignored.

The NCB was an organisation then headed up by Lord Robens, a man who callously described the disaster ‘… as something out of the ordinary… a coincidence of geological factors’. Incredibly the disaster fund was asked to fork out £250,000 (later reduced to £150,000) to finance the removal of the remaining tips, a third of the total bill.

In 1997 Tony Blair’s ‘New Labour’ project came to power after eighteen years in opposition and Welsh member Ron Davies was handed the post of Secretary for State of Wales. He had been seventeen when the disaster occurred and would oversee the return of the money to the people of Aberfan which had been taken by Harold Wilson’s Labour government.

Ashley Williams visits the Aberfan Memorial Garden in 2016

Fifty years after the disaster, the Welsh international team and their manager Chris Coleman came to pay their respects at the village’s memorial garden. The team had been the first Welsh team to play at a European Championships in 2016, punching above their weight in reaching the semi-final stage. Among the trees and the benches where once Pantglas school stood, Coleman described the visit as ‘humbling’.

‘In a small way, we wanted to show our respect and reflect on the tragedy of fifty years ago – it puts everything into perspective’.

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