Alfred Robens, Baron Robens of Woldingham

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Alfred Robens, Baron Robens of Woldingham, PC (18 December 1910 – 27 June 1999) was an English trade unionist, Labour politician and industrialist. His political ambitions, including an aspiration to become Prime Minister, were frustrated by bad timing; but his energies were diverted into industry: he spent a decade as chair of the National Coal Board, and later headed a major inquiry which resulted in the Robens Report on health, safety and welfare at work. His outlook was paternalistic, but in later life, he moved away from his early socialism towards the Conservative Party. His reputation remains tarnished by his failure to have foreseen and prevented the Aberfan disaster, followed by actions widely regarded as insensitive during this disaster's aftermath.

Early life[edit]

Robens was born in Chorlton-cum-Hardy, Manchester, the son of George Robens, a cotton salesman and Edith Robens née Anderton. He left school at 15 to work as an errand boy but his career truly began when he joined the Manchester and Salford Co-operative Society as a clerk, becoming a director when he was 22, one of the first Worker/Directors in the Country. He was an official in the Union of Distributive and Allied Workers from 1935 to 1945 and, being certified medically unfit for military service in the Second World War, he served as a Manchester City Councillor from 1941 to 1945. He married Eva Powell on 9 September 1936 and the couple adopted a son, Alfred (born 1935).[1]


Following the war, in the dramatic Labour landslide-victory of 1945, Robens was elected Member of Parliament (MP) for the mining constituency of Wansbeck, Northumberland. Robens started on a sustained rise through the parliamentary ranks, serving in junior posts at the Ministry of Transport (1945–1947) and at the Ministry of Fuel and Power under Hugh Gaitskell. Robens moved to the new constituency of Blyth, later Blyth Valley, in 1950 following boundary changes. In 1951, Robens was briefly Minister of Labour and National Service but the Conservative Party won the general election later that year.[1]

In opposition, Robens continued to rise in the party, being appointed shadow Foreign Secretary by Clement Attlee, and starting to be considered as a future candidate for party leader. Robens himself "yearned to become Prime Minister".[2] However, Robens failed to impress during the Suez crisis of 1956 and party leader Gaitskell felt him too left wing.[citation needed] He was replaced as shadow foreign secretary by Aneurin Bevan and felt that his political ambitions had been frustrated. Thus, in 1960, when Conservative Prime Minister Harold Macmillan offered him the chairmanship of the National Coal Board (NCB) he accepted enthusiastically. Gaitskell died in January 1963 and Tweedale has expressed the view that, had he persisted in politics, Robens, rather than Harold Wilson, would likely have become Prime Minister.[1]

National Coal Board[edit]

Robens took up his appointment at the NCB in 1961 and was created a life peer as Baron Robens of Woldingham, of Woldingham in the County of Surrey, on 28 June.[3][1] Amongst those critical of this sudden elevation were his successor as MP for Blyth, Eddie Milne.[citation needed] Robens' leadership of the NCB was high-handed. He expected unflinching loyalty from colleagues and subordinates alike, and was confrontational with politicians. He enjoyed the trappings of power including a Daimler with registration "NCB 1", an executive aeroplane and a flat in Eaton Square, London. His behaviour earned him the nickname "Old King Coal", a pun on Old King Cole. However, he threw himself into the job with vigour and enthusiasm, visiting pits, arguing with miners at the coalface and developing a deep knowledge of the industry.[1] In 1963 he was invited to deliver the MacMillan Memorial Lecture to the Institution of Engineers and Shipbuilders in Scotland. He chose the subject 'Coal - Its Place in the National Economy'.

As Chairman of the NCB, Robens oversaw substantial cuts in the mining industry, many of them reflecting market forces and government policies originated before he assumed the post. Although he lobbied to protect the industry, his reputation as a socialist necessarily suffered—when he took over as NCB chair there were 698 pits employing 583,000 miners, but by the time he left the post ten years later there were only 292 pits employing 283,000 miners. For a while, Robens had a constructive working relationship with miners' leader Will Paynter but he had a combative relationship with the Wilson Labour government. Industrial relations deteriorated during his tenure,[1] and there was an unofficial strike in 1969 that lost £15 million and 2.5 million tonnes of coal as a result of a walkout by 140 of the 307 NCB collieries.[4]

Robens expressed concern at the poor health and safety record of the coal industry and championed campaigns to reduce accidents and to counter chronic occupational diseases, such as pneumoconiosis. Although the number of fatal and serious accidents fell by over 60% during his tenure, there was also a fall in the workforce of over 50%, from 583,000 to 283,000.[1]

Aberfan Disaster[edit]

The largest single blow to his reputation came from his reaction to the catastrophic 1966 industrial accident at Aberfan. On the morning of 21 October a massive spoil heap from the nearby Merthyr Vale Colliery collapsed onto the village of Aberfan, burying 20 houses and the Pantglas Junior School in a 30-foot deep landslide of water-saturated slurry, killing 116 school children and 28 adults.

Despite the enormity of the disaster, Robens chose to go ahead with his installation as Chancellor of the University of Surrey before going to Aberfan, and he did not arrive until the evening of the following day,[1] a blunder that was compounded by the actions of NCB staff, who falsely informed the Minister of Power that Robens was at Aberfan. At first, Robens claimed that the disaster had been caused by "natural unknown springs" beneath the tip, but evidence emerged that the existence of these springs was common knowledge.

The report of the Davies Tribunal which inquired into the disaster was highly critical of the NCB and Robens. He controversially appeared in the final days of the inquiry and conceded that the NCB was at fault, an admission which would have rendered much of the inquiry unnecessary had it been made at the outset.[5] After the report was published in August 1967 he wrote to the then Minister of Power offering his resignation, but the Minister and PM Harold Wilson rejected it, although several cabinet members argued strongly that Robens should have been removed.

There have been allegations that the resignation offer was "bogus" and Robens had been assured that it would not be accepted.[6] According to Ronald Dearing, then a senior member of staff who briefed the Minister of Power, Richard Marsh, on the matter that as 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.[7]

In the wake of the disaster Robens refused to allow the NCB to fund the removal of the remaining tips from Aberfan, despite the Davies Tribunal having concluded that the NCB's liability was "incontestible and uncontested".

Despite this conclusion, Robens refused to pay the full cost. This put the Trustees of the Disaster Fund, which had been raised by public appeal, under "intolerable pressure". Robens then "raided" the Fund for £150,000 (£1.8 million at 2003 prices[8]) to cover the cost of removing the tips – an action that was "unquestionably unlawful" under charity law – and the Charity Commission took no action to protect the Fund from Robens's dubious, indeed dishonest, misappropriation of funds.[9]

There is no evidence that prosecution for corporate manslaughter was considered at the time.[10] Robens was exonerated by the official history of the NCB[11] but he remains condemned in other quarters.[1]

Robens Report[edit]

In 1969, he was selected by Barbara Castle to chair a committee on workplace health and safety. This led to the 1972 Robens Report which controversially championed the idea of self-regulation by employers. The Report itself led to the Health and Safety at Work etc. Act 1974 and the creation of the Health and Safety Commission and the Health and Safety Executive.[12][13]

Later life[edit]

Following the Conservative victory in the 1970 general election, Robens found the new administration's distaste for nationalisation at odds with his own rather paternalistic views. He fell into conflict with Prime Minister Edward Heath and Minister of State for Industry Sir John Eden. Robens left the NCB in 1971 but always insisted that his tenure was a success.[1]

Robens had become a director of the Bank of England in 1966[1] and a member of the board of directors of Times Newspapers in 1967.[citation needed] He was Chairman of Vickers from 1971 to 1979, opposing the Labour plans for nationalisation that led to the Aircraft and Shipbuilding Industries Act 1977. He was Chairman of Johnson Matthey from 1971 to 1983, and a director of Trust House Forte and several other companies. His lifestyle was increasingly at odds with his socialist beginnings and by 1979, he had become aligned with the Conservative Party.[1]

He left public life in 1982, retiring with his wife to Laleham Abbey, once the home of Richard Bingham, 7th Earl of Lucan. Robens suffered the first of two debilitating strokes in 1992 and ultimately died in 1999 aged 88.[1]

Other public appointments[edit]


  1. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m Tweedale (2008)
  2. ^ Robens (1972) p.4
  3. ^ The London Gazette: no. 42401. p. 4841. 30 June 1961.
  4. ^ Routledge, Paul (1994). Scargill: the unauthorized biography. London: Harper Collins. p. 59. ISBN 0-00-638077-8. 
  5. ^ UK Resilience website - National Recovery Guidance - Case Studies: The Aberfan Disaster
  6. ^ McLean (1997)
  7. ^ "Aberfan aftermath, Sir Ron replies: 'I believe advice was disinterested and just' ", Times Higher Education Supplement, 7 February 1997
  8. ^ O‘Donoghue, J.; et al. (2004). "Consumer Price Inflation since 1750". Economic Trends 604: 38–46, March. 
  9. ^ Jacint Jordana & Dav id 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
  10. ^ McLean & Johnes (2000) p.41
  11. ^ Ashworth (1986)
  12. ^ "Factory safety Bill should await committee's report". The Times. February 13, 1971. p. 19, col A. 
  13. ^ Cullen (1996)


External links[edit]

Parliament of the United Kingdom
Preceded by
Robert Scott
Member of Parliament for Wansbeck
Constituency abolished
New constituency Member of Parliament for Blyth
Succeeded by
Eddie Milne
Political offices
Preceded by
Aneurin Bevan
Minister of Labour and National Service
Succeeded by
Walter Monckton
Other offices
Preceded by
Jim Bowman
Chairman of the National Coal Board
Succeeded by
Derek Ezra