It was a day – a disaster – many of us will never forget. Just after 9am on Friday October 21, 1966 an avalanche of half a million tons of mine waste descended on Aberfan in South Wales, destroying the village school and 20 houses and killing 116 children and 28 adults.
The tidal wave of waste was 40 feet high as it hit the village. The Pantglas Junior School was engulfed in seconds. Half of all its pupils and five teachers were killed. Aberfan was suddenly at the heart of one of the worst tragedies in British history – and life there would never be the same.
I was eight years old at the time, the same age as many of the children who lost their lives. I remember watching the dramatic and desperate rescue attempts on our old black and white television at home at Farthing Park Farm, Morchard Bishop. The grief and utter helplessness of parents and other villagers on that day – and the TV pictures of scores of tiny coffins lined up side by side for the victims after the funerals – are indelibly stamped on my memory.
Almost 50 years after that dreadful day, I discovered – through family history research I carried out, and from information supplied by a distant relative – that two of the children who lost their lives were cousins of mine.
They were eight-year-old Dennis Arscott and nine-year-old Avis Elizabeth Sullivan, who were at their desks in Pantglas School when the giant wave of coal, mud and water crashed down a hill into the building and neighbouring houses.
Dennis and Avis were the great-great grandchildren of Kings Nympton-born Samuel Arscott, who moved to Wales from Devon almost 120 years before the disaster. Samuel was a brother of my great-great grandfather, John Arscott (1807-1879).
Dennis, born in Aberfan in 1958, was one of eight children of William Arscott (1918-1989) and Catherine Ann Jane ‘Annie’ Brown (1922-2001). He is buried at the Aberfan Cemetery with his parents. Avis, born in 1957 in Aberfan, was the daughter of Olive Irene Parker and Christopher James Sullivan. Olive was the daughter of Mary Arscott (1882-1960) and William Parker (1883-1976).
I visited Aberfan for the first time in 2016, just before the 50th anniversary of the disaster. I walked up to the hillside cemetery where the children were buried and put flowers on Dennis’ grave and on a magnificent memorial cross on which Avis is commemorated.
THE FULL STORY OF DENNIS AND AVIS IS TOLD IN MY SPECIAL REPORT, ABERFAN: MY FAMILY TRAGEDY
My visit to the cemetery in Aberfan in 2016.
The grave of Dennis Arscott and his parents at Aberfan. (Picture from Find a Grave, used with the permission of Stephen Pye).