The Aberfan coal disaster was a distinctively Welsh tragedy

Miners search for survivors in Aberfan in October 1966. Image: Getty.

On October 21, 1966, a coal tip on the hillside above the town of Aberfan in south Wales collapsed, creating a tidal wave of slurry that descended on to houses and a primary school below.  Some144 people were killed, 116 of whom were children.

Across the world, there was a sense of shock and horror; a disaster fund quickly raised £1.75m to help the community. Many also wrote letters of sympathy, some 50,000 of which survive today. The writings show how mothers who had lost children in accidents or illness and people from other coal mining communities felt particularly touched by the Welsh disaster. People with Welsh relatives, backgrounds or even just holiday memories wrote of the warmth of the nation and its people.

Media coverage at the time contributed to the idea that this was a Welsh event rather than purely local one, partly because it needed to describe where Aberfan was. But newsreels and other reports added to this by employing Welsh narrators, choral music and references to the nation’s tragic history of mining accidents.

For a few, the events had a political edge, and the disaster took place at a time when Welsh nationalism was beginning to become a serious political force. In parliament, Gwynfor Evans, Plaid Cymru’s newly-elected MP, claimed that the government’s response would have been stronger had the tip collapsed on Hampstead, in London, or Eton.

The security of Labour’s hold on south Wales and the government’s shameful marginalisation of the village’s needs after the disaster meant he was probably quite right. Indeed, the disaster played a key role in convincing some in Wales that both the nationalised coal industry and Labour governance were no longer operating in the interests of the working-class communities they were supposed to represent.

This did not mean they saw Welsh nationalism as the solution, and Evans’ claim that the disaster might not have happened at all had Wales had its own coal board was less convincing. Nonetheless, there continues to be people who see the disaster as another example of English mismanagement of Wales.


Cultural significance

More common than interpreting Aberfan through the lens of Welsh nationalism is a continuing sense that the disaster is a part of a distinct national history. Even the Welsh national football squad visited the memorial garden in October, a recognition of both their own and the disaster’s cultural significance to the Welsh nation.

Such gestures are more than simply the product of Welsh national identity. In a small and mobile nation, it is not difficult to find people whose relatives lived in Aberfan or were among the hundreds who went there to assist in the rescue operation. Similarly, there are thousands upon thousands of Welsh people with personal or family connections to the coal industry, and for them the disaster is not simply something that happened in another time and another place. It is part of their own family history.

The disaster also sums up the schizophrenic relationship Welsh society has with its coal mining heritage. At one level, there is an immense popular pride in the work miners undertook and the sacrifices they endured. There is also a recognition that it was coal that made modern Wales. Without it, communities such as Aberfan would not have existed at all. Indeed, the knowledge that it was their labour that created the waste above the village added guilt to the grief felt by some bereaved fathers.

1909 report of the death of a child in a Rhondda tip slide.

Coal’s community price

Aberfan was just one example of the huge environmental and human cost that coal extracted, and which represented the other side of coal’s significance for the Welsh people. Mining polluted landscapes and, as a 1909 news report showed, 1966 was not even the first time a coal tip slipping had killed a child in Wales.

Nor was Aberfan even close to being the deadliest accident experienced by the industry in Wales. Communities across the coalfield suffered pit disasters; in 1913 an explosion at Senghenydd, near Caerphilly, killed as many 439 men and boys. By the 1960s safety underground had improved, but in that decade alone 429 miners were killed in accidents in south Wales. Aberfan was, of course, different to nearly all other mining accidents in Wales, befalling mostly innocent children at school not those in the pits, but the tragedy it evoked was all too familiar.

The Aberfan disaster led to a gradual but significant programme of clearing land given over the colliery waste heaps and the tragedy played a part in the greening of the mining valleys again. But coal has not yet been consigned to the past. Nothing has replaced the scale of jobs that it created and Aberfan looms close in Welsh memories because large parts of Wales have yet to find a new economic future.

Coal mining itself might be gone but the economic impact of the failure to replace it is everywhere in the south Wales valleys. Just as Aberfan was let down by the government in the 1960s, it, and mining communities across Wales, continue to feel let down by the authorities. The tragedy of coal is multifaceted, and that makes Aberfan as much a part of the Welsh present as the Welsh past.The Conversation

Martin Johnes is a reader in history and classics at Swansea University.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

 
 
 
 

Urgently needed: Timely, more detailed standardized data on US evictions

Graffiti asking for rent forgiveness is seen on a wall on La Brea Ave amid the Covid-19 pandemic in Los Angeles, California. (Valerie Macon/AFP via Getty Images)

Last week the Eviction Lab, a team of eviction and housing policy researchers at Princeton University, released a new dashboard that provides timely, city-level US eviction data for use in monitoring eviction spikes and other trends as Covid restrictions ease. 

In 2018, Eviction Lab released the first national database of evictions in the US. The nationwide data are granular, going down to the level of a few city blocks in some places, but lagged by several years, so their use is more geared toward understanding the scope of the problem across the US, rather than making timely decisions to help city residents now. 

Eviction Lab’s new Eviction Tracking System, however, provides weekly updates on evictions by city and compares them to baseline data from past years. The researchers hope that the timeliness of this new data will allow for quicker action in the event that the US begins to see a wave of evictions once Covid eviction moratoriums are phased out.

But, due to a lack of standardization in eviction filings across the US, the Eviction Tracking System is currently available for only 11 cities, leaving many more places facing a high risk of eviction spikes out of the loop.

Each city included in the Eviction Tracking System shows rolling weekly and monthly eviction filing counts. A percent change is calculated by comparing current eviction filings to baseline eviction filings for a quick look at whether a city might be experiencing an uptick.

Timely US eviction data for a handful of cities is now available from the Eviction Lab. (Courtesy Eviction Lab)

The tracking system also provides a more detailed report on each city’s Covid eviction moratorium efforts and more granular geographic and demographic information on the city’s evictions.

Click to the above image to see a city-level eviction map, in this case for Pittsburgh. (Courtesy Eviction Lab)

As part of their Covid Resource, the Eviction Lab together with Columbia Law School professor Emily Benfer also compiled a scorecard for each US state that ranks Covid-related tenant protection measures. A total of 15 of the 50 US states plus Washington DC received a score of zero because those states provided little if any protections.

CityMetric talked with Peter Hepburn, an assistant professor at Rutgers who just finished a two-year postdoc at the Eviction Lab, and Jeff Reichman, principal at the data science research firm January Advisors, about the struggles involved in collecting and analysing eviction data across the US.

Perhaps the most notable hurdle both researchers addressed is that there’s no standardized reporting of evictions across jurisdictions. Most evictions are reported to county-level governments, however what “reporting” means differs among and even within each county. 

In Texas, evictions go through the Justice of the Peace Courts. In Virginia they’re processed by General District Courts. Judges in Milwaukee are sealing more eviction case documents that come through their courtroom. In Austin, Pittsburgh and Richmond, eviction addresses aren’t available online but ZIP codes are. In Denver you have to pay about $7 to access a single eviction filing. In Alabama*, it’s $10 per eviction filing. 

Once the filings are acquired, the next barrier is normalizing them. While some jurisdictions share reporting systems, many have different fields and formats. Some are digital, but many are images of text or handwritten documents that require optical character recognition programs and natural language processors in order to translate them into data. That, or the filings would have to be processed by hand. 

“There's not enough interns in the world to do that work,” says Hepburn.


Aggregating data from all of these sources and normalizing them requires knowledge of the nuances in each jurisdiction. “It would be nice if, for every region, we were looking for the exact same things,” says Reichman. “Instead, depending on the vendor that they use, and depending on how the data is made available, it's a puzzle for each one.”

In December of 2019, US Senators Michael Bennet of Colorado and Rob Portman of Ohio introduced a bill that would set up state and local grants aimed at reducing low-income evictions. Included in the bill is a measure to enhance data collection. Hepburn is hopeful that the bill could one day mean an easier job for those trying to analyse eviction data.

That said, Hepburn and Reichman caution against the public release of granular eviction data. 

“In a lot of cases, what this gets used for is for tenant screening services,” says Hepburn. “There are companies that go and collect these data and make them available to landlords to try to check and see if their potential tenants have been previously evicted, or even just filed against for eviction, without any sort of judgement.”

According to research by Eviction Lab principal Matthew Desmond and Tracey Shollenberger, who is now vice president of science at Harvard’s Center for Policing Equity, residents who have been evicted or even just filed against for eviction often have a much harder time finding equal-quality housing in the future. That coupled with evidence that evictions affect minority populations at disproportionate rates can lead to widening racial and economic gaps in neighborhoods.

While opening up raw data on evictions to the public would not be the best option, making timely, granular data available to researchers and government officials can improve the system’s ability to respond to potential eviction crises.

Data on current and historical evictions can help city officials spot trends in who is getting evicted and who is doing the evicting. It can help inform new housing policy and reform old housing policies that may put more vulnerable citizens at undue risk.

Hepburn says that the Eviction Lab is currently working, in part with the ACLU, on research that shows the extent to which Black renters are disproportionately affected by the eviction crisis.

More broadly, says Hepburn, better data can help provide some oversight for a system which is largely unregulated.

“It's the Wild West, right? There's no right to representation. Defendants have no right to counsel. They're on their own here,” says Hepburn. “I mean, this is people losing their homes, and they're being processed in bulk very quickly by the system that has very little oversight, and that we know very little about.”

A 2018 report by the Philadelphia Mayor’s Taskforce on Eviction Prevention and Response found that of Philadelphia’s 22,500 eviction cases in 2016, tenants had legal representation in only 9% of them.

Included in Hepburn’s eviction data wishlist is an additional ask, something that is rarely included in any of the filings that the Eviction Lab and January Advisors have been poring over for years. He wants to know the relationship between money owed and monthly rent.

“At the individual level, if you were found to owe $1,500, was that on an apartment that's $1,500 a month? Or was it an apartment that's $500 a month? Because that makes a big difference in the story you're telling about the nature of the crisis, right? If you're letting somebody get three months behind that's different than evicting them immediately once they fall behind,” Hepburn says.

Now that the Eviction Tracking System has been out for a week, Hepburn says one of the next steps is to start reaching out to state and local governments to see if they can garner interest in the project. While he’s not ready to name any names just yet, he says that they’re already involved in talks with some interested parties.

*Correction: This story initially misidentified a jurisdiction that charges $10 to access an eviction filing. It is the state of Alabama, not the city of Atlanta. Also, at the time of publication, Peter Hepburn was an assistant professor at Rutgers, not an associate professor.

Alexandra Kanik is a data reporter at CityMetric.