Coventry Memorial the covering up and unearthing of victims in aberfan, wales

In October of 1966 Aberfan, Wales experienced a disaster as the result of environmental negligence on the part of the UK’s National Coal Board, which allowed 150,000 tons of coal mining debris to accumulate on an unstable ridge above the village of Aberfan. A landslide of debris was triggered after several days of heavy rainfall, demolishing Pantglas Junior School and a row of 18 houses. This took the lives of 116 children and 28 adults. To remember the tragedy, the Coventry Memorial playground was erected at the site of Pantglas Junior School where the majority of victims perished.

Representation of Victims

When reflecting on the Coventry Memorial dedicated to those lost in the Aberfan disaster, it is also important to consider the victims who are not represented in the memorial. The disaster claimed the lives of 144 people, but also imprisoned the minds and hearts of an entire village of grievers and survivors.

This analysis will focus upon three heterotopic spaces occupied by: the coal miners, the living victims, the Crown, and the British government. As victims and oppressors are identified through understanding the events surrounding the disaster, I will use Propen’s notion of walkers transforming memorial space to show how groups transform the function of memorial space as each become walkers of that space.

Coventry Memorial, at Pantglas Rd.

The Covenant Memorial was built on the site of the destroyed primary school. The school was situated on the boarder of the coal waste site to the east, and the village to the west. The image above is an ordinance survey of the damage to the school and village. For the purpose of analyzing the places represented on the map, colored lines have been added to mark the boundaries of the landslide (red), the school (blue), the village (green). It also marks Pantglas Road (purple).

Navigating Heterotopic Space: Victim Action and Emotion

Heterotopias are spaces which are socially different from the supposedly normal spaces that surround them. Occupation of heterotopic space, however, is not determined by otherness but rather membership that either “is compulsory” or “to get in one must have a certain permission” and “submit to rites and purifications” (Foucault, 7). Therefore, heterotopias are both isolated and penetrable through this “presupposed system of opening and closing” (Foucault, 7). This access that is both open and limited allows for transformation of space as the walkers of these spaces consider and negotiate socio-spatial norms.

In Propen’s chapter Navigating the Mediated, Posthuman Body she says “when humans use the GPS to mediate their personal navigation, they arguably engage in acts of resistance, negotiation, and embodied experience that at once ‘embraces the possibilities of the information technologies’ while implicitly remaining mindful of the complex material world to which Hayles refers. These engagements with the GPS and with their physical surroundings constitute acts of purposeful decision-making that, again, for Kim et al., are also related to the idea of agency” (Propen, 124). Postings on a digital map or in a physical place act as cues to act and therefore attempt to influence human thought and behavior. For example, on a digital map a posting for a restaurant cues the navigator’s possible hunger, just as a memorial cues a viewer’s possible thought and emotion. The freedom to accept or reject these digital or physical cues allows the navigator of a space to exercise agency, where the navigator recognizes their individual right to self-government.

Victims Find Agency While Navigating and Mediating Heterotopic Space

Coal miners had long been victims of systematic oppression by the government and class system; with little choice but to earn a living in the perilous mines, subjected to mine collapses and work related illness, these miners occupied a space between crisis heterotopia and deviation heterotopia. Foucault gives examples of other groups within the crisis heterotopia: military servicemen, menstruating or pregnant women, the elderly. The commonality between these groups is that they straddle the boundary of life and death. It is therefore appropriate to include coal miners in this heterotopic space. Coal miners’ crisis heterotopia overlaps the heterotopia of deviation, as this space includes “rest homes, psychiatric hospitals, and of course prisons” (Foucault, 5).

Devastated miners still digging, 25 October 1966 (Image: Gamma-Keystone via Getty Images)

In the face of disaster, the coal miners find agency and the right to self-govern after the social and physical boundary of the mines, and in turn government authority, penetrated the heterotopic space of the village. The rescue was initiated by Aberfan’s miners, who due to experience in the mines possessed the knowledge and capability for removing debris to rescue those buried alive. Though the mine had made victims of the miners and now their children and village as well, they worked tirelessly to recover survivors and the dead. Miners from surrounding mining villages trekked along Welsh roads to aid Aberfan. These unifying acts were also the first acts of mediation and renavigation of heterotopic space that work to transform the would-be Coventry Memorial playground.

File photo dated 22/10/1966 of rescue worker digging in the wreckage of the school (Background Image: Mirror.co.uk)

Navigating a memorial space such as the Coventry Memorial in Aberfan requires the same type of mediation and self-government as discussed by Propen. This navigation provides an opportunity to recognize that a designer has crafted this space in a response to an event with the intent of guiding human thought and emotion. When coming upon a memorial the viewer assesses what message is being sent to them; how that message is received determines the emotional effect upon the viewer. Foucault says that “heterotopic space is most often linked with slices in time,” which Foucalt calls heterochronies (Foucault, 6). A heterochronic space is identified when the viewer arrives at an “absolute break with their traditional time” (Foucault, 6). Such spaces exist in museums, libraries, and cemeteries. Coventry Memorial playground is also a heterochrony because it has a function to all the space that remains(Foucault, 8); one of these functions being a resting place for the dead. The playground is a heterotopic space which “exists in society as one function but became [another;]” victims reacted to the memorial in a similar way as a gravesite. Foucault says “people feel it is necessary to give more attention to the dead in the moment that we are unsure we have a soul or that the body will regain life.” This can be applied to Aberfan’s devastated community. Although the intent of the playground was to breathe new life into the village, the loss of life was too great for the living victims to “regain life” and emotionally recover. The 144 bodies may be laid to rest in the village cemetery, but for the remaining living victims, memories of the dead are still present at the site of the disaster transforming it into an extension of the cemetery.

The graves of the victims of the Aberfan disaster in the village's cemetery in Wales (Background Image: Mirror.co.uk)

Donated by the people of Coventry, a mining area in England, the memorial attempts to change how the viewer navigates their emotions in response to viewing the memorial. As most villagers must travel Pantglas Road daily, the memorial attempts to transform the space from one of tragedy to hope. In constructing a playground—a place of life and action—upon the former disaster site—a place of death and stillness—the memorial attempts to redirect negative thought and emotion toward positive aspects of life and the present. However, the living victims exist in a state of mental trauma, and navigate the memorial from their position within a heterotopia of deviation. Their membership of the mining community, whether that means being a wife, child, or family member of a miner, places them within a crisis heterotopia, causing their trauma to run deep and resurface a history of complex emotion. This memorial was intended to ease the trauma and grief of survivors and families by providing a place for happiness and play to take place once more. For viewers who lost children, however, masking the memory of the dead with the presence of surviving children would trigger feelings of sadness and despair. Likewise, surviving children were largely unable to play due to the severe trauma they experienced and from the guilt of surviving their friends, siblings, and cousins.

American photographer Chuck Rapoport took this photo of a lonely young boy on a merry-go-round in Aberfan weeks after the disaster (Background Image: BBC.com)

Elizabeth II at Coventry Memorial

Elizabeth II at Coventry Memorial, 1974

The visit from Queen Elizabeth II created a brief transformation in the Coventry Memorial space. The Crown carries with it a heterotopia in which Elizabeth the individual disappears through the theory of the body politic and becomes the embodiment of Britain and the British people. Her presence at the memorial brought not only a symbol of national solidarity, but enormous press coverage as well.


"Aberfan Book Reveals 'uncaring' Government." BBC News. BBC, 21 Oct. 2000. Web. 24 July 2017. < http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/wales/983056.stm>.

"How Close Were You to Your Dead Child?" Times Higher Education (THE). N.p., 22 May 2015. Web. 24 July 2017. <https://www.timeshighereducation.com/features/how-close-were-you-to-your-dead-child/145016.article>.

Brown, Colin. "Aberfan to be repaid pounds 150,000 taken from disaster fund." The Independent. Independent Digital News and Media, 31 July 1997. Web. 24 July 2017. <http://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/politics/aberfan-to-be-repaid-pounds-150000-taken-from-disaster-fund-1243121.html>.

Foucault, Michel. "Of Other Spaces: Utopias and Heterotopias." Trans. Jay Miskowiec. Architecture /Mouvement/ Continuité (1984): n. pag. Foucault. Web. <http://web.mit.edu/allanmc/www/foucault1.pdf>.

Propen, Amy D. Locating visual-material rhetorics: the map, the mill, and the GPS. Anderson, SC: Parlor Press, 2012. Print.

Shipton, Martin. "How the people of Aberfan were repeatedly betrayed after the disaster." Wales Online. N.p., 20 Oct. 2016. Web. 24 July 2017. < http://www.walesonline.co.uk/news/wales-news/how-people-aberfan-were-repeatedly-12025941>.

Completed by Elizabeth Sheri Bouse as coursework in Dr. Susan Garza's ENGL 5369, Topics & Genres in Rhetoric and Composition Visual Rhetoric: Memorial Spaces.

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