Will Aberfan ever get its money?
by John Summers, published in the Daily Telegraph magazine, 4 October 1968
Another year has passed and the same question remains…
It is a year since Aberfan’s bereaved parents fought and won their extraordinary battle to obtain a £5,000 grant per family from their £1,800,000 disaster fund. A year – and the greenery of newly-planted grass is struggling up the sides of the great Aberfan killer tip; a year – and the grass has grown around the 144 graves of the disaster’s victims who lie in those pathetic straight lines below the great tip that two years ago on October 21, roared down into the village and killed them.
But still controversies on the most breathtakingly elementary decisions about what to do with the fund are tearing at Aberfan’s wounds. For instance, Aberfan’s bereaved parents complain that for two years, because they erected their own headstones over the graves of their dead children, they have been told that they can expect no grant from the Aberfan Disaster Fund to pay for those gravestones.
Protesting letters by the sackload are emptying on to the brand new maplewood desks in the luxuriously appointed offices of the Aberfan Disaster Fund administrators. They come from all parts of the world from the donors to the fund, protesting because the Government is appropriating out of it all of £250,000 – and possibly even more – towards the cost of removing Aberfan’s killer tips.
One industrial firm Bechtel International Ltd., has offered to take away the whole Aberfan tip at no charge at all to the Disaster Fund, and to pump the material to sites where the material is needed for filling.
Even before the disaster, Larry Ryan, a Canadian who has made himself a fortune by removing Welsh mining tips and selling the waste coal, offered to take away Aberfan’s tips for nothing.
Where is Aberfan’s money? demanded the hoarding that the Aberfan survivors and bereaved parents erected this time last year outside the cemetery below the tip. And where is Aberfan’s money now? Not invested in Merthyr Corporation any more, emphasises the assistant secretary of the Aberfan Disaster Fund, Mr Geoffrey Morgan.
Where now is the £1 million still left in the giant disaster fund?
‘It’s been loaned to anyone who wants money,’ said Mr Morgan. Most of the money is in Government securities, including ‘Savings Three Per Cent, 1960 to 1970.’
‘If critics used to think that we were supporting Merthyr by investing in Merthyr, well now they’re going to think we are supporting the Government. But that shows a total lack of comprehension of the money market…’
Now Aberfan’s stricken families complain that their £1 million fund, which has clearly been boosting the value of Government stock for a year, is being used by the Government still further – by paying for the removal of the NCB’s own coal waste.
If this attitude seems naive in terms of the ‘money market’, the Aberfan families retort that they have seen little enough of the money on the market in the two years since the disaster hit them.
The event which two years ago provided the material for any arguments about the ‘money market’ was the avalanching Aberfan tip which carried away schools and houses (two schools, a junior and an Infant, were destroyed) and killed 144 people, 116 of them children, and brought a worldwide flood of spontaneous offers of help to the stricken survivors which mounted up in hard cash to £1,800,000.
Now Aberfan’s own MP, Mr S. O. Davies, lifelong staunch Labour Party supporter – backed by the survivors of Aberfan – is rounding on the Government with accusations of ‘inhuman blackmail’ over the money that will be taken from the fund to remove the tip.
‘We were told simply that the tips could not be made safe if the full £250,000 was not made available, Mr Davies said.
‘Yet the Government has always insisted that the tips were already safe.’
Today the sheep with the coal dust in their wool graze on the mountainside alongside the tip, which has greened over in the past two years with the struggling grasses sown with the 750,000 £1 notes that have largely been spent in ‘landscaping’ it.
That first (uselessly spent) £750,000 has gone in consultants’ fees, soil-engineering experts’ and contractors’ fees, etc, etc.
Mr Gerald Davies – the barrister who took on the job of being secretary-treasurer for the £1,800,000 Aberfan Disaster Fund – after less than a year in office, twice threatened to resign, was finally taken at his word, and after refusing to appear on the David Frost show has gone off to write a book about it all.
Into his seat, but still remaining as assistant secretary, has moved Mr Morgan, a chartered accountant.
The original secretary-treasurer of the fund was getting £3,000 a year, plus expenses, plus car allowance.
How much is Mr Morgan getting?
‘I don’t think that’s anything that need worry the public,’ answers Mr Morgan.
Since the Aberfan fund office was opened last year, administration costs have been published as £24,000.
And public questions are still being asked all over the world by the many millions of people who gave their money so quickly and so generously to the stricken survivors of Aberfan.
A good deal of it came from auctioning off personal jewellery such as engagement rings which were donated by people like the Irish widow who sent her dead husband’s presentation gold watch and watchchain decorated with gold sovereigns.
‘It’s nothing to do with them at all,’ emphasises Mr Morgan. ‘It’s nothing at all to do with the people who gave the money. The management committee here are the only ones who will decide what to do with the money.’
Mr Morgan thinks that in two or three years the fund will cease to exist.
Will it all be spent on Aberfan?
‘Well, theoretically. By that time it will all have been allocated or spent.’ But he thinks the Aberfan Disaster Fund office will still exist, ‘as an administrative centre for the community of Aberfan’.
But he adds: ‘I don’t really know, it might take on some different form. I don’t know…’