Two rows of white arches near the top of Aberfan cemetery mark the graves of the children killed in the colliery tip disaster of 1966.
|Date||21 October 1966|
|Location||Aberfan, near Merthyr Tydfil, South Wales|
|Deaths||28 adults, 116 children|
|Inquiries||Lord Justice Edmund Davies|
|Awards||1966: 90,000 contributions for Aberfan Disaster Memorial Fund, £1,606,929
1997: Labour Government pay back £150,000 to ADMF, taken by Gvt/NCB
2007: Welsh Assembly donate £2 million to ADMF, as recompense for the money requisitioned by Gvt/NCB
|Passing of the Mines and Quarries (Tips) Act 1969|
The Aberfan disaster was a catastrophic collapse of a colliery spoil tip in the Welsh village of Aberfan, near Merthyr Tydfil, on 21 October 1966, killing 116 children and 28 adults. It was caused by a build-up of water in the accumulated rock and shale, which suddenly started to slide downhill in the form of slurry.
Over 40,000 cubic metres of debris covered the village in minutes, and the classrooms at Pantglas Junior School were immediately inundated, with young children and teachers dying from impact or suffocation. Many noted the poignancy of the situation: if the disaster had struck a few minutes earlier, the children would not have been in their classrooms, and if it had struck a few hours later, the school would have broken up for half-term.
Great rescue efforts were made, but the large numbers who crowded into the village tended to hamper the work of the trained rescue teams, and delayed the arrival of mineworkers from the Merthyr Vale Colliery. Only a few lives could be saved in any case.
The official inquiry blamed the National Coal Board for extreme negligence, and its Chairman, Lord Robens, for making misleading statements. Parliament soon passed new legislation about public safety in relation to mines and quarries.
For 50 years up to 1966, millions of cubic metres of excavated mining debris from the National Coal Board's Merthyr Vale Colliery were deposited on the side of Mynydd Merthyr, directly above the village of Aberfan. Huge piles, or 'tips', of loose rock and mining spoil had been built up over a layer of highly porous sandstone that contained numerous underground springs, and several tips had been built up directly over these springs. Although local authorities had raised specific concerns in 1963 about spoil being tipped on the mountain above the village primary school, these were largely ignored by the NCB's area management. Photographs, diagrams and an analysis of the 1966 flowslide, as well as locations of earlier slides at Aberfan are given in a paper by Prof. Alan Bishop. 
Early on the morning of Friday, 21 October 1966, after several days of heavy rain, a subsidence of about 3–6 metres (10–20 ft) occurred on the upper flank of colliery waste tip No. 7. At 9:15 a.m. more than 150,000 cubic metres (5,300,000 cu ft) of water-saturated debris broke away and flowed downhill at high speed. It was sunny on the mountain but still foggy in the village, with visibility only about fifty metres (160 ft). The tipping gang working on the mountain saw the landslide start but were unable to raise the alarm because their telephone cable had been repeatedly stolen – although the official inquiry into the disaster later established that the slip happened so fast that a telephone warning would not have saved any lives.
The front part of the mass became liquefied and moved down the slope at high speed as a series of viscous surges. 120,000 cubic metres (4,200,000 cu ft) of debris were deposited on the lower slopes of the mountain, but a mass of over 40,000 cubic metres (1,400,000 cu ft) of debris smashed into the village in a slurry 12 metres (39 ft) deep.
The slide destroyed a farm and twenty terraced houses along Moy Road and slammed into the northern side of the Pantglas Junior School and part of the separate senior school, demolishing most of the structures and filling the classrooms with thick mud and rubble up to 10 metres (33 ft) deep. Mud and water from the slide flooded many other houses in the vicinity, forcing many villagers to evacuate their homes.
The pupils of Pantglas Junior School had arrived only minutes earlier for the last day before the half-term holiday. They had just left the assembly hall, where they had been singing "All Things Bright and Beautiful", when a great noise was heard outside. Had they left the assembly for their classrooms a few minutes later the loss of life would have been significantly reduced, as they would not have reached their classrooms when the landslide hit: the classrooms were on the side of the building nearest the landslide.
Nobody in the village was able to see it, but everyone could hear the roar of the approaching landslide. Some at the school thought it was a jet about to crash and one teacher ordered his class to hide under their desks. Gaynor Minett, then an eight-year-old at the school, later recalled:
It was a tremendous rumbling sound and all the school went dead. You could hear a pin drop. Everyone just froze in their seats. I just managed to get up and I reached the end of my desk when the sound got louder and nearer, until I could see the black out of the window. I can't remember any more but I woke up to find that a horrible nightmare had just begun in front of my eyes.
After the landslide there was total silence. George Williams, who was trapped in the wreckage, remembered:
"In that silence you couldn't hear a bird or a child."
After the main landslide stopped, frantic parents rushed to the scene and began digging through the rubble, some clawing at the debris with their bare hands, trying to uncover buried children. Police from Merthyr Tydfil arrived soon after and took charge of the search-and-rescue operations; as news spread, hundreds of people drove to Aberfan to try to help, but their efforts were largely in vain. A large amount of water and mud was still flowing down the slope, and the growing crowd of untrained volunteers further hampered the work of the trained rescue teams who were arriving. Hundreds of miners from local collieries rushed to Aberfan, especially from the nearby Merthyr Vale Colliery, as well as miners from Deep Navigation Colliery and Taff Merthyr Colliery in the neighbouring Taff Bargoed Valley, and also from pits across the South Wales coalfield, many in open lorries with their shovels in their hands, but by the time those miners reached the site, there was little they could do. A few children were pulled out alive in the first hour, but no survivors were found after 11 a.m.
By the next day, 2,000 emergency services workers and volunteers were on the scene, some of whom had worked continuously for more than 24 hours. Rescue work had to be temporarily halted during the day when water began pouring down the slope again, and because of the vast quantity and consistency of the spoil, it was nearly a week before all the bodies were recovered.
Bethania Chapel, 250 metres (820 ft) from the disaster site, was used as the temporary mortuary and missing persons bureau from 21 October until 4 November 1966 and its vestry was used to house Red Cross volunteers and St John Ambulance stretcher-bearers. The smaller Aberfan Calvinistic Chapel was used as a second mortuary from 22–29 October and became the final resting-place for the victims before their funerals.
Two doctors were given the job of making death certificates and examining the bodies; the causes of death were typically found to be asphyxia, fractured skull or multiple crush injuries. A team of 400 embalmers arrived in Aberfan on Sunday and under police supervision they cleaned and prepared over 100 bodies and placed them in coffins obtained from South Wales, the Midlands, Bristol and Northern Ireland. The bodies were released to the families from the morning of Monday 24 October. Due to the cramped conditions in the chapel/mortuary, parents could only be admitted one at a time to identify the bodies of their children. One mother later recalled being shown the bodies of almost every dead girl recovered from the school before identifying her own daughter.
The final death toll was 144. In addition to five of their teachers, 116 of the dead were children between the ages of 7 and 10 – almost half of the children at the Pantglas Junior School. Most of the victims were interred at the Bryntaf Cemetery in Aberfan in a joint funeral held on 27 October 1966, attended by more than 2,000 people.
Actions of Lord Robens
The chairman of the National Coal Board (NCB) at the time of the disaster was Lord Robens of Woldingham. Robens had been a senior union official in the 1930s and then served as a Labour MP, briefly becoming Minister of Power in the final days of the Attlee Labour government. His actions immediately after the Aberfan disaster and in the years that followed have been the subject of considerable criticism.
When word of the Aberfan disaster reached him, Robens did not immediately go to the scene; he instead went ahead with his investiture as Chancellor of the University of Surrey, and did not arrive at the village until the evening of the following day (Saturday). NCB officers covered up for Robens when contacted by the Secretary of State for Wales, Cledwyn Hughes, falsely claiming that Robens was personally directing relief work when he was not present.
When he reached Aberfan, Robens told a TV reporter that nothing could have been done to prevent the slide, attributing it to 'natural unknown springs' beneath the tip, a statement which the locals challenged – the NCB had in fact been tipping on top of known springs that were clearly marked on maps of the neighbourhood, and where villagers had played as children.
His evidence to the Tribunal of Inquiry was unsatisfactory; so much so that counsel for the NCB in their closing speech to the Tribunal asked for Robens' evidence to be ignored. He took a very narrow view of the NCB's responsibilities over the remaining Aberfan tips. His opposition to doing anything more than was needed to make the tips safe (even after the Prime Minister had promised villagers the tips would have to go) was overcome only by an additional grant from the government and a (bitterly opposed and subsequently much resented) contribution from the disaster fund of £150,000 (nearly 10% of the money raised).
The traumatic effects of the disaster on the village of Aberfan were wide-ranging and profound, as the first-hand accounts gathered by Iain McLean and Martin Johnes indicate. During the rescue operation, the shock and grief of parents and townspeople were exacerbated by the insensitive behaviour of the media – one unnamed rescue worker recalled hearing a press photographer tell a child to cry for her dead friends because it would make a good picture. The Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh visited Aberfan on 29 October to pay their respects to those who had died. The Queen received a posy from a three-year-old girl with the inscription: "From the remaining children of Aberfan". Onlookers said she was close to tears.
Anger at the National Coal Board erupted during the inquest into the death of 30 of the children. The Merthyr Express reported that there were shouts of "murderers" as children's names were read out. When one child's name was read out and the cause of death was given as asphyxia and multiple injuries, the father said "No, sir, buried alive by the National Coal Board". The coroner replied: "I know your grief is much that you may not be realising what you are saying" but the father repeated:
I want it recorded – "Buried alive by the National Coal Board." That is what I want to see on the record. That is the feeling of those present. Those are the words we want to go on the certificate.
Aberfan's social worker later noted that many people in the village were on sedatives but did not take them when it was raining because they were afraid to go to sleep, and that surviving children did not close their bedroom doors for fear of being trapped. An Aberfan doctor reported that although an expected surge in heart attacks did not occur, the trauma of the disaster manifested itself in other ways – the birth rate went up, alcohol-related problems increased, as did health problems for those with pre-existing illnesses, and many parents suffered breakdowns over the next few years.
Many suffered from the effects of guilt, such as parents who had sent children to school who did not want to go. Tensions arose between families who had lost children and those who had not. One of the surviving school children recalled that they did not go out to play for a long time because families who had lost children could not bear to see them, and they themselves felt guilty about the fact that they had survived.
A study into the long-term psychological effects of the disaster was published in the British Journal of Psychiatry in 2003. It found that half the survivors of the Aberfan disaster suffered from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) at some time in their lives, that they were over three times more likely to have developed lifetime PTSD than a comparison group of individuals who had experienced other life-threatening traumas, and that 34% of survivors who took part in the study reported that they still experienced bad dreams or difficulty sleeping due to intrusive thoughts about the disaster.
On 26 October 1966, after resolutions by both Houses of Parliament, the Secretary of State for Wales appointed a tribunal to inquire into the causes of and circumstances relating to the Aberfan disaster, chaired by respected Welsh barrister and Privy Councillor Lord Justice Edmund Davies. Before the tribunal began, the UK Attorney General imposed restrictions on speculation in the media about the causes of the disaster.
The Tribunal sat for 76 days – the longest inquiry of its type in British history up to that time – interviewing 136 witnesses, examining 300 exhibits and hearing 2,500,000 words of testimony, which ranged from the history of mining in the area to the region's geological conditions.
Lord Robens made a dramatic appearance during the final days of the Tribunal to give testimony, at which point he conceded that the National Coal Board had been at fault; had this admission been made at the outset, much of the tribunal's inquiry would have been unnecessary.
The Tribunal retired to consider its verdict on 28 April 1967. Its report, published on 3 August, found that the blame for the disaster rested entirely with the National Coal Board, and that the basic cause was the NCB's "total absence of [a] tipping policy".
The report also noted that the NCB was:
…following in the footsteps of their predecessors. They were not guided either by Her Majesty's Inspectorate of Mines and Quarries or by legislation" and also found that there was "no legislation dealing with the safety of tips in force in this or any country, except in part of West Germany and in South Africa."
…we reject out of hand Mr. Ackner's observation that what has been revealed here is "callous indifference" by senior National Coal Board officials to the fears of a tip-slide expressed to them. Callousness betokens villainy, and in truth there are no villains in this harrowing story. In one way, it might possibly be less alarming if there were, for villains are few and far between. But the Aberfan disaster is a terrifying tale of bungling ineptitude by many men charged with tasks for which they were totally unfitted, of failure to heed clear warnings, and of total lack of direction from above. Not villains, but decent men, led astray by foolishness or by ignorance or by both in combination, are responsible for what happened at Aberfan. That, in all conscience, is a burden heavy enough for them to have to bear without the additional brand of villainy.
Blame for the disaster rests upon the National Coal Board. This is shared, though in varying degrees, among the NCB headquarters, the South Western Divisional Board, and certain individuals ... The legal liability of the NCB to pay compensation of the personal injuries, fatal or otherwise, and damage to property, is incontestable and uncontested.
The specific cause of the collapse was found to have been a build-up of water in the pile; when a small rotational slip occurred, the disturbance caused the saturated, fine material of the tip to liquefy (thixotropy) and flow down the mountain.
In 1958, the tip had been sited on a known stream (as shown on earlier Ordnance Survey maps) and had previously suffered several minor slips. Its instability was known both to colliery management and to tip workers, but very little was done about it. Merthyr Tydfil Borough Council and the National Union of Mineworkers were cleared of any wrongdoing.
The Tribunal found that repeated warnings about the dangerous condition of the tip had been ignored, and that colliery engineers at all levels had concentrated only on conditions underground. In one passage, the Report noted:
We found that many witnesses … had been oblivious of what lay before their eyes. It did not enter their consciousness. They were like moles being asked about the habits of birds.
The Tribunal also found that the tips had never been surveyed, and right up to the time of the landslide they were continuously being added to in a chaotic and unplanned manner. The disregard of the NCB and the colliery staff for the unstable geological conditions and its failure to act after previous smaller slides were found to have been major factors that contributed to the catastrophe.
The NCB was ordered to pay compensation to the families at the rate of citation needed]. Nine senior NCB staff were named as having some degree of responsibility for the accident, and the Tribunal report was scathing in its criticism of evidence given by the principal NCB witnesses. Lord Robens, addressing the National Union of Mineworkers in 1963 had said "If we are going to make pits safer for men we shall have to discipline the wrongdoer. I have no sympathy at all for those people—whether men, management or officials—who act in any way which endangers the lives and limbs of others." However, no NCB staff were ever demoted, sacked or prosecuted as a consequence of Aberfan or of evidence given to the Inquiry (one notably unsatisfactory witness had been promoted by the time Parliament debated the Davies Report),: Lord Robens and the entire Board of the NCB retained their positions.[
Following the publication of the Report, Lord Robens wrote to the then Minister of Power, Richard Marsh, offering his resignation. Although Robens had a combative relationship with the government and several cabinet ministers argued strongly that he should go, in September 1967 the Prime Minister Harold Wilson and Marsh rejected Robens's resignation offer. According to Ronald Dearing, then a senior member of staff at the Ministry of Power, who briefed Marsh on the matter, the fact that Robens was "taking the coal industry through a period of painful contraction without big strikes" and the strong support for him within the coal industry and the union movement were crucial to the decision to retain him. Leo Abse spoke for many other critics: "..when I saw what I regarded as the graceless pavane danced by Lord Robens and the Minister, as the Chairman of the Coal Board coyly offered his resignation and, equally coyly, the Minister rejected the offer, I thought that it was a disgraceful spectacle."
The public demonstrated their sympathy by donating money, with little idea of how it would be spent. Donations flooded in to an appeal initiated by the Mayor of Merthyr Tydfil and within a few months, nearly 90,000 contributions had been received, totalling £1,606,929 (£27.8 million in 2015, if adjusted for inflation). The management of this fund caused considerable controversy over the years. The Fund was put on a firm legal footing under the auspices of a permanent committee with clear local representation, and a trust deed which specified that the money was to be used:
1) For the relief of all persons who have suffered as a result of the said disaster and are thereby in need and
(2) subject as aforesaid for any charitable purpose for the benefit of persons who were inhabitants of Aberfan and its immediate neighbourhood (hereinafter called 'the area of benefit') on the 21st day of October 1966 or now are or hereafter become inhabitants of the area of benefit and in particular (but without prejudice to the generality of the last foregoing trust) for any charitable purpose for the benefit of children who were on the 21st day of October 1966 or who now are or hereafter may become resident in the area of benefit.
Many aspects of the aftermath of the Aberfan Disaster remained hidden until 1997, when the British Public Records Office released previously embargoed documents under the thirty year rule. These documents revealed new information about the doings of Lord Robens, the NCB and the Charity Commission in the wake of the Aberfan Disaster.
At one point the Charity Commission "duty-bound to uphold an outdated and inflexible law", intervened and obstructed payments by the charitable disaster fund to individual victims and for the cemetery memorial. Commission staff considered whether to insist that before any payment was made to bereaved parents, each case should be reviewed to ascertain if the parents had been close to their children and were thus likely to be suffering mentally. At another meeting, the Commission threatened to remove the Trustees of the Disaster Fund or make a financial order against them if they went ahead with making grants to parents of children who had not been physically injured that day, and the Trustees were forced to abandon these payments.
In the Commons debate on the Inquiry Report it was asserted by the Government (on the advice of the NCB and supported by comments in the Tribunal report) that the remaining tips above Aberfan were not dangerous and did not warrant removal (estimated by the Tribunal to cost £3m), but merely required landscaping (a much cheaper option). This was promptly contradicted by the local MP; as Margaret Thatcher pointed out the report noted that "One may conclude that No. 5" (tip) "has been standing and is standing at a very low factor of safety." Despite the initial Government opposition, public pressure led to a decision to remove the remaining tips: the Secretary of State for Wales stressed however, that they were safe " but I know from my contacts with the people of Aberfan that they constitute a pyschological, emotional danger ". If the tips were not physically dangerous, Robens saw no obligation on the NCB to pay the full cost of their removal. The government made a grant of £200,000 to the NCB towards the cost of removing the tips, and under "intolerable pressure" from the government, the Trustees of the Disaster Fund agreed to contribute £150,000. At the time, the Charity Commission made no objection to this action, but it has subsequently been criticised as "unquestionably unlawful" under charity law.
An important part of this fund is still alive and running. The Disaster Committee set up a fund to help students. This means that the output of the Committee's efforts is still available for students from the village or for children whose parents were living in Aberfan at the time of the disaster.
Shortly after the disaster children and staff at the primary school at Spellbrook, near Bishops Stortford, Hertfordshire, collected £20 16s for trees to be planted on a nearby tip. The forest plantation remains to this day.
As a result of the concerns raised by the Aberfan disaster, and in line with Finding XVII of the Davies Report, in 1969 the British government framed new legislation to remedy the absence of laws and regulations governing mine and quarry waste tips and spoil heaps. The Mines and Quarries (Tips) Act 1969. was designed "to make further provision in relation to tips associated with mines and quarries; to prevent disused tips constituting a danger to members of the public; and for purposes connected with those matters".
The new Act was an extension of the earlier Mines and Quarries Act 1954. As the Davies Tribunal had found, this Act did not mention tips at all in its provisions – in fact, the only reference to public safety in that Act was a section dealing with fencing abandoned or disused mines and quarries to prevent people falling into them. Moreover, under the terms of the 1954 Act, the Aberfan disaster was not even required to be formally reported to HM Inspectorate of Mines and Quarries because it did not take place on colliery property and no mine workers had been injured or killed.
To address the problem (of which the above was only one example) of safety legislation being largely reactive, UK health and safety legislation was put on a different footing with the passage of the Health and Safety at Work etc. Act 1974. This established a catch-all general duty on employers (with a similar clause for the self-employed) "to conduct his undertaking in such a way as to ensure, so far as is reasonably practicable, that persons not in his employment who may be affected thereby are not thereby exposed to risks to their health or safety.". The Act addressed the recommendations of a committee set up by Barbara Castle to look at modernising UK health and safety legislation. This committee was chaired by Lord Robens.
Merthyr Vale Colliery was closed in 1989.
In 1997 the incoming Labour government of Tony Blair returned to the Disaster Fund the £150,000 it had been induced by the Labour government of Harold Wilson to contribute towards the cost of tip removal.
In 2005 Imperial Tobacco settled out of court to end a wrongful dismissal suit brought against the company by Aberfan survivor Janice Evans, who had been employed by Imperial's Rizla cigarette paper factory near Pontypridd. Evans had been sacked after she refused to continue working night shifts, alleging that it had brought on flashbacks of her ordeal in 1966, when she had been buried waist-deep in the landslide while walking to school. Although Evans survived, a friend who had been walking with her was killed.
In February 2007 the Welsh Assembly announced the donation of £2 million to the Aberfan Disaster Memorial Fund, in part as recompense for the money requisitioned by the government in the immediate aftermath of the disaster.
"Aberfan: Under the Arc Lights," in The Spectator, 28 October 1966, reprinted in Best Poems of 1966: Borestone Mountain Poetry Awards: A Compilation of Original Poetry Published in Magazines of the English-Speaking World in 1966, Volume XIX, Pacific Book Publishers, Palo Alto California, 1967.
"Riddle of the Pyramids" by Kurt Mendelssonn, 1974, finds a clue to the construction of the Egypian pyramids in the physics of the Aberfan disaster.
- "The Aberfan Coal Tip Tragedy" by Thom Parrott, included on the Smithsonian Folkways CD set Best of Broadside.
- "Aberfan" by David Ackles, included on his album Five & Dime.
- "Grey October" by Peggy Seeger.
- "Sing To My Soul" by Welsh musician Martyn Joseph refers to his memories of October 1966.
- "Aberfan" by Ohio-based Celtic band Dulahan on their 2005 album Not against my Own.
- "Palaces of Gold" by Leon Rosselson.
- "A Mountain Moved" by John Sloman. from his album "13 Storeys" 2006
- The Aberfan disaster is included in the plot of David Lodge's novel How Far Can You Go.
- The 1966 single "Dead End Street" by the Kinks was partly inspired by the event.
- The Price of Coal sung by many people including Paul Child and David Alexander references the Aberfan disaster.
- According to the liner notes for their box-set Tales from the Brothers Gibb (1990), the disaster was the inspiration behind the Bee Gees' song "New York Mining Disaster 1941".
- "1966: Coal tip buries children in Aberfan". BBC. 21 October 1966. Retrieved 14 February 2013.
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- South Wales Police official website – The Aberfan Disaster
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- Obituary: Lord Robens of Woldingham, The Guardian, 29 June 1999
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- "[ARCHIVED CONTENT] Aberfan Disaster - Financial Support for Individuals". nationalarchives.gov.uk. Retrieved 30 July 2015.
- "Historic inflation calculator: how the value of money has changed since 1900". This is Money. Retrieved 30 July 2015.
- McLean, Iain; Johnes, Martin (September 1999). "Regulating gifts of generosity: the Aberfan Disaster Fund and the Charity Commission". Legal Studies 19 (3): 380–396. doi:10.1111/j.1748-121X.1999.tb00101.x. Retrieved 21 March 2015.
- McLean, Iain (12 February 1999). "How close were you to your dead child?". Times Higher Education Supplement. Retrieved 30 January 2011.
- Winding-up speech by George Thomas, Second Reading debate of the "MINES AND QUARRIES (TIPS) BILL". Hansard House of Commons Debates 772 (cc1137-99). 7 November 1968. Retrieved 21 March 2015.
- "Derelict Land Clearance (Grants)". Hansard House of Commons Debates 800 (cc2-3). 20 April 1970. Retrieved 21 March 2015.
- Jacint Jordana & David Levi-Faur: The Politics of Regulation: Examining Regulatory Institutions and Instruments in the Age of Governance (Edward Elgar Publishing, 2004) ISBN 1-84376-464-4, ISBN 978-1-84376-464-9, pp.54–58
- "Memorial to Aberfan lives on". Harlow Star. Retrieved 30 July 2015.
- Iain McLean & Martin Johnes, The Aberfan Disaster – Tribunal Summary
- Minerals UK website – Legislation & policy: mine waste
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- "Antiwar Songs (AWS) - Grey October". antiwarsongs.org. Retrieved 30 July 2015.
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- "David Alexander - Price of Coal Lyrics". Lyrics.com. Retrieved 30 July 2015.
- Iain McLean and Martin Johnes, Aberfan: Government and Disasters (Welsh Academic Press, 2000).
- Archives Network Wales – Glamorgan Record Office – Aberfan Disaster Inquiry, Chief Surveyor's Papers
- Old Merthyr Tydfil: Photographs of the Aberfan Disaster
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