Aberfan: The Man Who Lost Everything

Two men in Aberfan lost their houses and their families.
Two men in Aberfan lost their houses and their families.

The Aberfan Disaster of 1966

In 1966 an entire village, called Aberfan, in Wales, United Kingdom, was struck down by a terrible tragedy when a coal tip behind the village tumbled down, wiping out a farmhouse and its occupants, a row of terraced houses and smashed into the rear of a school, burying alive almost half of its pupils. As the floodwaters that accompanied the tip, added to the mains water pipe that burst, rushed down the road, others were swept off their feet and some were swept away from the senior school yard and the road outside.

There are many individual stories of personal tragedy within this one event - there were 116 children who lost their lives that day and 28 adults.

But, with a small, close-knit, village, some tragedies cut deeper than others.

Indeed, locally, it was considered that there was a little "pecking order of grief", whereby those who lost the most were given more "room for their grief" than those who had lost nobody or had lost less.

How do you measure grief when you've lost a child? How does that compare to the lady over the road who lost two? Or the widow round the corner that lost a husband?

From this turmoil, emerged some stories. At the time, in the mid-1960s, we're reliant on little written information. But one American photojournalist arrived the week after the tragedy and lived in the community for a month. He was writing for Life Magazine, who carried a series of articles about the tragedy. Forty years later, with the 40th anniversary looming, the photojournalist returned to the village and caught up with a few people's stories.

Aberfan, by IC Rapoport. Photo is of Jeff Edwards, Aberfan survivor.
Aberfan, by IC Rapoport. Photo is of Jeff Edwards, Aberfan survivor. | Source

At the time and, mostly, since, most of the residents have never spoken of their grief, never given their stories. A few were co-erced into sharing their grief at the time, but with 144 dead even a photojournalist living among the people got very little information out of anybody.

It's a shame that so many personal stories will have been taken to the graves of people.... but they were their personal stories and if they'd shared them at the time they'd have been bothered by journalists every time the papers wanted a story.

IC Rapoport

That photojournalist was IC Rapoport, who was stationed in the Pentagon and White House as military photographer during the JFK administration and has worked forLIFE, National Geographic,Newsweek, and TIME.

The book he published on the 40th anniversary was simply called Aberfan, with a sub-text of "The Days After. A Journey in Pictures".

130 pages long, is described as:

...this pictorial journey commemorates figures with the dignity of being people rather than victims. As social history, they construct a narrative of development that is ultimately positive even though some of the individual images are so delicately, tragically moving. These pictures show the community not only in its devastation but also in its social and historical particularity. The interiors, the clothes, the miners going underground, the woman holding a baby in a shawl—all paint a portrait of something lost.

The front image is of Jeff Edwards, who was the last survivor pulled alive from the wreckage of his school in 1966.

The Man Who Lost Everything

IC Rapoport coined this phrase when he referred to John Collins. John had lived at 78 Moy Road, Aberfan, with his wife Gwyneth and two children. Peter Collins was aged 10 and Raymond John Collins was aged 14 and are named Aberfan victims.

Also registered at the same address was a Michael Collins, he wasn't the son of John and Gwyneth, Michael was the son of Gerald and Sheila. I can only assume that Gerald and John were brothers and the lads were cousins.

John Collins had been determined not to be a miner and had studied hard to "better himself" and get a good job. His wife, however, didn't want to leave the area, so John settled in Aberfan with his family and took a more local job, working for an aircraft controls manufacturer as an Engineering Inspector.

That morning he'd gone off to work as usual - only to return home later that day to discover that his house had been flattened, it was no more; the slurry had squashed and squeezed it, killing his wife, who was inside. His two boys had also been killed at the same time, in two different places. Younger son Peter was at the junior school that was flattened and Raymond was along the road in the school yard of his school when he got swept away by the floodwater that came with the slurry - a mains pipe had been burst by the avalanche of coal debris, causing a lot of people to be swept off their feet.

John had nothing left except the clothes he stood up in. He didn't even have a photo of his wife and children.

John didn't even have anybody to attend the funeral with - and so he asked the local, new, vicar to go with him. He was given an exercise book from his son, that a teacher provided for him - and, another sad little snippet of information that can be gleaned from IC Rapoport's book is that son Raymond had been a School Prefect - he was wearing his prefect's badge when he died and John Collins removed it from his body.

At the time John broke down and said "The law of averages says I have 31 years left. What can I do with that? I can't live. I can only exist"

So, the man who had nothing was left with just the clothes he stood up in, one exercise book and a prefect's badge. I do hope that somebody did have some photos of his family they felt able to give to him at some future point :(

But, John Collins' story didn't end there! Mr Rapoport went off and got on with his life, however, recently, he was contacted by somebody wishing to know if he had a photo of John Collins that had appeared in Life Magazine! That person said that it was "the picture my mother first saw of him ....." - it turned out that a lady had read the Life Magazine article, carrying John's story and had got in contact with "the man who lost everything". She'd then married him and they'd had a child. John Collins had since passed away and his child was compiling the family history and wanted that particular photo.... so, there was "some good" in John's life, although he didn't actually end up living those "31 years" he'd originally spoken of in his grief.

So, on balance, John had a happy ending - but that wasn't the case for the second man who lost everything!

Bill Evans

Bill Evans also lost his wife, two children and his home. Looking at the records this one is harder to spot.

My apologies to the family if I have any of the details incorrect, or if I have misjudged something, that wasn't my intention at all. Comments can be left at the bottom of this page without registering to correct any errors.

From the information on the graves of Evans' deaths, there are three graves that appear to match this story.

  • Patricia Margaret Evans, aged 31.
  • Hywell Lloyd Evans, aged 6 years.
  • Gareth Victor Evans, aged just 3 months.

These are marked as the family of William Lloyd Evans, 81 Moy Road, Aberfan. As Bill is a short name for William and the family mix fits, plus the home address, I've assumed this is Bill's beloved family. It is also possible that he lost his father that day in the same tragedy.

This address is in the terrace of houses that was obliterated by the tip.

Bill Evans was a teacher before the disaster, at Queens Road school. After the disaster, for nearly ten years Bill relied on tranquilisers and drink to get him through his days. He had finally given those up, but still struggled to sleep at all. He also commented that his jaw often ached from gritting his teeth and hiding his feelings :( Poor Bill.

William Lloyd Evans died in October 1981, just 16 years after the Aberfan disaster.

Some stories have been left untold. Many stories were taken to their graves by the grieving. Without the opportunity, or desire, to tell their personal story, they kept it deep inside them, grieving quietly and remembering that day until the end of their days.

There are scraps of information that we can try to piece together to see "the person", but the world was a different place in the mid 1960s. In addition to a shortage of information, with nobody really wishing to tell their tale - and, even in IC Rapoport's situation, hearing 1000 tales, it would be impossible for every sad tale to be captured. I'm sure coming up to the 50th, with a lot of the older generation having passed, today's modern social-media-driven society will have relatives sharing the family stories with us via the Internet as they've heard the stories ever since they were small.

RIP Bill, reunited.

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