Fifty-five years after Aberfan

It seems a long time ago that I last discussed Aberfan with anyone. In fact, I discovered that it is only two years.

In the last school in which i worked, each week during tutor time we had a word of the week. The word that week was “landslide.” Turning on the PowerPoint presentation, I asked someone to read the word and the definition.

The definition was the fall of rocks or earth from a mountain or cliff.

“There can be other forms of landslides,” I said, “once when I was six, a great big tip of rubble dug up from a coal mine in Wales slipped onto a primary school.”

“Did anyone die, sir?” asked one of the students.

“They did,” I said, “one hundred and sixteen primary school children died under that rubble. I know because my Dad was one of the rescue workers.”

I had paused, not knowing what to say next.

I pressed the button for the next slide in the presentation. I had not looked at it previously, it told the story of Aberfan. It told the story because the word of the week was chosen to coincide with the anniversary of the Aberfan disaster.

One of the most profound memories from my childhood comes from those days after my sixth birthday.

My father is standing in the farmyard talking to my grandfather, the only words I remember spoken by my father are “they were exhausted.” My father is wearing dark blue overalls and black Wellington boots, which are covered in black dust.

During the years that followed, the background to that scene slowly unfolded.

My father had been a member of the Civil Defence Corps and had gone to help with the digging at Aberfan, where on Friday, 21st October 1966, the day before the half-term holiday, a coal slag heap had slipped, engulfing a farm, several houses, and Pantglas Primary School. 144 people had died; 116 of them schoolchildren.

It was years later that I heard the story of the Reverend Kenneth Hayes, the minister of Zion Baptist church in Aberfan.

Hayes’ son, Dyfrig, had been one of the children buried in the school. Twelve hours after Dyfrig’s body had been found, on the Saturday night, Hayes stood up at Zion Baptist on Sunday, 23rd October to lead worship. The church was packed, the congregation was comprised of those too old or too young to help with the digging and journalists from around the world. Kenneth Hayes led the service and at the end announced the singing of Safe in the arms of Jesus, before sitting in his chair and weeping.

It is now fifty-five years later, and if I read the account of what happened and watch the black and white television interviews with those there, tears still well up in the eyes.


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A bigamist in the family

After a short life, lived in the shadow of illness, Ellen Miriam Poulton, my great grandmother died at the age of twenty-three, leaving behind three children. Her two sons, Sidney Herbert and Stanley George, for whom there are birth certificates were born in November 1906 and August 1908. Her daughter, Ida Frederica, had no birth certificate, in some places her date of birth is recorded as July 1907, elsewhere it is recorded as July 1909: the latter date seems more likely, although it does not accord with the age recorded on the 1911 Census return.

Ellen had children when she was eighteen, twenty and twenty-one, and it seems there was a further pregnancy when she was twenty-two. Her death certificate from Saint James infirmary in Balham is dated 5th March 1912.  Under “cause of death” William M. McCormac the doctor has written, “Pelvic Cellulitis (originally puerperal June 1910) Septic Peritonitis.” Ellen seems to have died from an infection associated with pregnancy and from inflammation of the peritoneum that was possibly caused by the infection from the year before.

Ellen’s death brought the dispersal of her three children. Ida stayed with her grandmother in Wandsworth, Stanley was sent to a Poor Law School in Hampshire and joined the Royal Navy at the age of fifteen. There is no record of where Sidney spent his childhood years.

Ellen’s death was registered by “E. Knox” who is recorded as “cousin.” Hoping the search would give me more clues about my great grandmother, I searched for “E. Knox.” There were not many cousins and I quickly discovered that Ellen’s cousin Emily had married Nathanael Knox in 1911. He was forty-three when they married and Emily was twenty-four. The marriage is on the returns for Medway in Kent and in the 1911 Census, they are shown as being married for less than a year.

What was baffling was that they are shown as being married again in 1926, when Nathanael was fifty-eight and Emily was thirty-nine. Why the second marriage?

Nathanael’s first wife had separated from him in 1907 and had left to go to Australia in 1910. Perhaps Nathanael felt that having been separated for four years and his wife having left the country, he was free to marry. However, he was never divorced.

The marriage in 1926 was after Nathanael’s first wife had died in Australia. Would it have been because the authorities knew the first marriage was not legal? If so, would he not have been prosecuted? Having seemed to have been married for fifteen years, was it the case of making sure the right thing was done for the sake of pension and inheritance and other matters?

The problem with records is that they don’t provide a narrative.


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Magpie songs

There were seventeen magpies on the roof of a house. Seventeen, never before have I seen so many magpies gathered together. Perhaps an evolutionary adaptation is taking place. Perhaps with the increasing incursions of scavenging gulls, the magpies that survive will be those with a capacity for collective action.

I could find no version of the magpie song that went up to seventeen birds.

Those of a certain age will remember the theme tune of the ITV children’s programme, Magpie. Intended to be a rival to the BBC programme Blue Peter, it never seemed as interesting to an earnest little boy who would sometimes sit and watch it. Both programmes had very distinctive theme tune. Blue Peter had a sailor’s hornpipe, while Magpie had an English folk song dating back to at least the Eighteenth Century.

The Magpie tune was accompanied by lyrics that are easily recalled fifty years later:

One for sorrow, two for joy,
three for a girl, four for a boy,
five for silver, six for gold,
seven for a secret, never to be told.

A book of Somerset folklore revealed that the superstitions attached to the bird, and the songs sung about it, were less sanguine than the catchy song on the television:

Magpies are the rustic’s augur bird. If you see a magpie on your right hand as you go to market whatever business you do first will be very lucky. If it is on your left, turn round and go home, for nothing will prosper with you that day. If you see a single magpie when you are on a journey spit over your left shoulder to break the ill luck. An onion however, carried in the pocket will make this unnecessary, and the bird is only unlucky when one is travelling alone. A magpie perched on the house is unlucky, it brings illness to the hale and death to the sick.

A Somerset version of the song that was the origin of the Magpie television theme tune was overheard being sung by a carter boy in about 1890.

One is sadness, two is joy,
three a girl and four a bouy,
five a wedding, siz a loss,
Pyatt, don’t’ee steal my hoss.

“Pyatt” was the dialect word for a magpie, “py” being from “pie,” the French name for the bird, and “att” being a diminutive term.

The carter’s version of the song seems very different in its tone from the words of the theme tune. It has sadness, bereavement and theft in its lines.

Has sanitising songs been a modern development?

Magpie was first broadcast in 1968 and it was obviously thought necessary to adjust the lyrics of its theme tune. Five decades on from its airing, children no longer learn the rhymes of the past, or, if they do, they learn versions from which anything considered unpleasant has been excised by adults who fail to realize that children relish the gory and the macabre.

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My great grandfather was a good for nothing

It is some forty years since I first obtained a birth certificate for my grandfather Sidney Herbert Poulton. It shows that his mother as Ellen Poulton, a machinist of Chiswick, and that he was born in Isleworth Infirmary. The box for details of his father is blank.

Through online contacts since 2015, a bigger picture has developed.

Ellen Poulton was Ellen Miriam Poolton, the name spelt with a second ‘o’ instead of a ‘u,’ and that she had two other children George Stanley and Ida Frederica. The official documents telling the story of Ellen and her family are plentiful. They include full details of the military career of her father Hugh Henry Poolton.

For Ida, it has never been possible to find a birth certificate. Perhaps, in 1907 or 1909, her year of birth was never firmly established, it was possible for births to go unrecorded in the official records. Ida’s first appearance on an official document is on a return for the 1911 Census when she was living with Ada Poolton her grandmother in Wandsworth.

Only on the birth certificate of George Stanley does a father’s name appear. Born on 23rd September 1908, he is named as Fred Stratton who is described as a civil engineer. Under “name and maiden name of mother” there is entered “Ellen Miriam Stratton formerly Poolton.”

Fred Stratton was Frederick Robert Stratton from a family in Chelsea. Family memories recall visit by Ida to the home of her grandparents. They were not rich, but were considerably more affluent than Ellen.

Sadly, Ellen seems to have been deceived by Fred Stratton for a number of years. He could not have married her, or not done so legally, for he had married Marion Gwladys Williams of Bangor in North Wales in 1904.

The full nature of the deception is unclear. At one point, in one of the few letters that survive, Ellen writes to her mother about Ada having moved house. Ellen says that it was good of Mrs Carrington, a neighbour, to have helped Ada to move. Ellen asks, “how do you like your new flat?” and then says “you mustn’t forget to let Fred know your new address.”

Where was Fred at this time? Presumably at home with Marion, from where he went to his job each day at the railway clearing house, where the values of fares paid to travel on journeys involving trains of more than one railway company were divided between the companies concerned. It was a good job, but not as he had described himself to Ellen. What did he tell Marion when he was visiting Ellen?

Did he tell her he was working away? When did she find out that he had deceived her? Was it when she was in the workhouse again in 1911? Or when she died in 1912 at the age of 23 and a cousin had to register her death?

Fred Stratton lived until the age of 76, dying in North Wales in 1956. One wonders if Marion ever discovered the truth.

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I believed I could fly

The gradual advance in years bring moments when benches are welcome.

So it was that I sat on a wooden bench on steel legs that offered a place for weary shoppers to stop to catch their breath.

A line of steel bollards protected the pavement on either side of the entrance to the car park.  The bollards had been painted green at some point in the past, but the paint had suffered weathering and knocks, leaving a dull, metallic darkness. Moss and grass grew around both the bollards and the legs of the bench. The wood had once been stained, but had become grey and cracked and without beauty.

However, weathering and cracks did not catch the eye of the small boy who came running up to the bench and stepped up onto it. Perhaps three or four years old, he turned and smiled at his father who held out a hand to him.

The boy wanted to jump from the bench to the nearest bollard.

Even the most athletic of people would not have attempted such a jump. The tops of the bollards were spherical and there would have been nowhere to land on a firm footing.

The boy’s father did not demur from the request, instead placing his arms around the boy he lifted him high into the air before bringing him down so that the boy’s feet just touched the top of the bollard. The leap from bench to bollard was just the start of the flight as the boy was carried aloft to the car park, delighted at his aerial exploits.

There was a moment’s connection with the world of imagination before it fell under the shadow of reason and sternness; a moment’s recall of times when anything seemed possible.

The Standard car driven by my father could be transformed into something that had the capacity of a James Bond-vehicle. Household appliances could become devices for resisting alien attacks. Even the most ordinary things could be imbued with a sense of wonder and boundless possibility.

Had someone asked, “can this car become a boat?” or “can this food mixer become a ray gun?” of course, the answer would have been, “no.” Even a small boy knew the physical limitations of ordinary things, and yet there was always the possibility of holding the two dimensions in tension, always the possibility of clinging to the world of imagination.

Somewhere along the way, we lose our capacity to fly.

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