Music History #8: "New York Mining Disaster 1941"
“New York Mining Disaster 1941 (Have You Seen My Wife, Mr. Jones)”
Written by Barry and Robin Gibb (1967)
Performed by Bee Gees
When the Bee Gees debut US single was released in April 1967, a lot of people thought it was The Beatles masquerading as another band. Even the name Bee Gees was read as code for “Beatles Group.” But within a year, brothers Barry, Robin and Maurice Gibb established themselves not only as hit makers in their own right, but as chart rivals to the Fabs. “New York Mining Disaster 1941,” the first of thirty-some hits, is one of those rare pop songs in which the title never appears in the lyrics. Most people still refer to it by its subtitle “Have you seen my wife, Mr. Jones.” Inspired by the Aberfan mining disaster of 1966, the song was an international hit, reaching #14 on the US Charts. It has since been covered by David Essex, Chumbawumba and Martin Carthy.
On the morning of October 21, 1966, a massive heap of coal waste tumbled down a mountainside into the small village of Aberfan, South Wales, demolishing an elementary school and several houses, and burying three hundred townsfolk, most of them children.
As word of the disaster spread, hundreds of people from neighboring towns came to Aberfan, picks and shovels in hand, hoping to help with the rescue. 145 children were pulled and rescued from the rubble. Local miners continued to work around the clock for days to clear the debris.
In the end, 144 people died. 116 of them were kids, mostly between the ages of 7 and 10.
Coal and Water Don’t Mix
Coal mining in Aberfan began around 1869. A hundred years later, one of the biggest problems the town faced was how to dispose of the waste material generated from the mining. Their solution, as in many coal mining towns, was to pile it in trash heaps – or “tips,” as they’re called in the UK – close to the mines. In Aberfan, the tips were situated on the slopes of the mountains surrounding the town. It was a painstaking process to transfer tons of coal waste up the side of the mountain. A series of trolley cars hauled it to a crane, which then dumped the waste on the tip.
There was a problem though. South Wales has a generally wet climate, which keeps the soil moist. On top of that, many of the coal tips were placed over underground springs. In the years before the disaster, water from the slopes had been a perennial issue for Aberfan. Regular floods caused much damage, leaving behind slimy black deposits of coal sludge. The townspeople repeatedly asked the National Coal Board, who owned the mine, for help in addressing the water problem, but nothing was done.
The resulting wet ground made for an unstable base, and that’s ultimately what caused thousands of tons of coal sludge to break free of the tip and rush into the town below. The landslide was described as moving like water, but with twice the density.
After the disaster, Aberfan’s flooding problem was solved through the construction of a simple culvert.
Aberfan Then and Now
On October 25, 1966, a mass funeral was held for the children. The Aberfan Disaster Fund raised over $1 million with donations from around the world. The money was used to help rebuild the town and compensate the grieving families. (Shamefully, the National Coal Board demanded that a large chunk of the funds be used to pay for removal of the tips that they had built.) As a result of the disaster, The Mines and Quarries Act of 1969 was passed, which helped to ensure that no disused tips would pose a danger to other mining towns.
For Aberfan, it’s been a slow rebuilding process. After the tragedy, a sense of guilt settled over the town for not taking stronger measures to address the problem with the tips. Over half the survivors of the disaster have been diagnosed with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. As of 2011, all of the coal mines are closed. But that has robbed the town of its main source of income.
In April 2012, forty-six years after the disaster, Queen Elizabeth visited Aberfan to open a new primary school. Back in 1966, the Queen was criticized for waiting eight days to visit the scene of the catastrophe. She has called it her “biggest regret” in her sixty years on the throne.