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Premonitions of Aberfan


I now cite a rather different example, and one much more recent. I will, provide you with examples from the collection of ostensible premonitions of the Aberfan disaster compiled by the late Dr. J. C. Barker.

At approximately 9:15 a.m. on October 21, 1966, a huge coal tip, rendered unstable by underground water, slid down a mountainside in Wales, United Kingdom on to the little mining village of Aberfan. The avalanche of black slurry killed one hundred and forty four people of which one hundred and twenty eight were schoolchildren. They were mainly from the Pantglas Junior School, which was partially covered by the avalanche, in some places to a depth of forty feet. The children while at their desks or playing were buried under the black slag. Other people were killed when the avalanche destroyed houses in Moy Street burying their unfortunate occupants alive.

Wales is a land inured to tragedy as so many of its families have been struck by loss of loved ones in a long succession of mining disasters. But the Aberfan tragedy had an agony peculiar to itself in its terrible toll of one hundred and twenty eight little children swept from life by the sable liquid avalanche of slag that poured down the mountain on to their school. The horror and poignancy of the subsequent scenes, when anguished parents and helpers tore at the massive mound trying to reach their buried children, was transmitted to all parts of the British Isles and abroad by the cameras of television teams. No one who saw these scenes will ever forget them.

Dr. J.C. Barker visited Aberfan on the day after the disaster. He was appalled by the devastation and suffering that he saw everywhere. While he helped, it occurred to him that there might have been people who had had premonitions of the disaster. Having been a keen student of psychical phenomena for many years it struck him that the unusual and especially tragic features of the Aberfan tragedy might provide an excellent opportunity to investigate precognition.

At Barker’s request the science correspondent of the London Evening Standard, Peter Fairley, made an appeal in that newspaper on October 28, 1966, asking anyone who felt they had had any foreknowledge of the Aberfan disaster to communicate with him, describing their experiences. Many other newspapers, including psychic ones, syndicated the appeal. In addition the Psychophysical Research Unit at Oxford ran a press release asking for any cases of precognition of the disaster to be sent to them. In all, about 200 people claimed to have had some foreknowledge of the Aberfan disaster.

Dr. Barker himself received seventy six letters and began the long, tedious but necessary, process of replying not only to the writers but also to those witnesses who could offer confirmation, if possible, that the writer’s experience had been told to them before the Aberfan disaster occurred. In due course, Dr. Barker received confirmation in twenty-four cases. His report appeared in the Journal of the Society for Psychical Research in
December 1967. A more comprehensive report is lodged within the archives of the Society.

Space forbids reproduction of the majority of the cases but I will present three of them in addition to a table summarising some others.

Case 1

Eryl Mai Jones, aged ten, was a pupil at Pantglas School. She was the youngest daughter of Trevor and Megan Jones. Unfortunately she died on that fateful day. A local minister, the Rev. Glannant Jones, compiled a report of the case. Both parents read it and signed it as correct in the minister’s presence.

She was an attractive dependable child, not given to imagination. A fortnight before the disaster she said to her mother, ‘Mummy, I’m not afraid to die’. Her mother replied, ‘Why do you talk of dying, and you so young; do you want a lollipop?’

‘No’, she said, ‘But I shall be with Peter and June’. (Schoolmates.) The day before the disaster she said to her mother, ‘Mummy, let me tell you about my dream last night’. Her mother answered gently, ‘Darling, I’ve no time now, tell me again later’. The child replied, ‘No, Mummy, you must listen. I dreamt I went to school and there was no school there. Something black had come down all over it!’

The next day she went off to school as usual in her normal happy manner. After the tragedy it transpired that she was subsequently buried in a communal grave with Peter on one side and June on the other. This last point may not, however, be significant, since the order of burial was apparently influenced by parents’ requests.

Case 2

This case seemed to involve clairvoyance and/or clairaudience. Mrs. Constance Milder, aged forty seven, of Trevone Gardens, Manodan Vale, Plymouth wrote,

‘I actually “saw” this disaster the night before it happened and the next day I had already told my next door neighbour about it before the news was broadcast.

‘First, I “saw” an old school house nestling in a valley, then a Welsh miner, then an avalanche of coal hurtling down a mountain-side. At the bottom of this mountain of hurtling coal was a little boy with a long fringe looking absolutely terrified to death. Then for a while I “saw” rescue operations taking place. I had an impression that the little boy was left behind and saved. He looked so grief-stricken I could never forget him, and also with him was one of the rescue workers wearing an unusual peaked cap’.

Mrs. C.M. described her vision at a “Private Circle Meeting” held in a church on 20th October, 1966. This was confirmed in writing by six witnesses, and Mrs. C.M.‘s neighbour Mrs.V.M. testified that Mrs. C.M. informed her of her vision at 8:30 a.m. on the 21st October, forty-five minutes before the actual disaster.

Mrs. C.M. continued: ‘Now this is probably stranger still. Whilst looking at “The Mountain that Moved” on television on Sunday evening I saw both the terrified little boy talking to a reporter and also the rescuer I had seen in my vision. Of course it was not until I heard the tragic news that the full force of what I had seen came to me. It took me quite a while to get over the shock. This is not the first time I have foreseen events before they have occurred. Although the Aberfan disaster was the most outstanding’.

Case 3

Mrs. Mary Hennessy, aged 54, of 6 Chester Terrace, Barbican Road, Barnstaple, North Devon wrote:

The night before the Aberfan disaster I dreamt of a lot of children in two rooms. After a while some of the children joined some others in an oblong-shaped room and were in different little groups. At the end of the room there were long pieces of wood or wooden bars. The children were trying somehow to get over the top or through the bars. I tried to warn someone by calling out, but before I could do so one little child just slipped out of sight. I myself was not in either of the rooms, but was watching from the corridor. The next thing in my dream was hundreds of people all running to the same place. The look on peoples’ faces was terrible. Some were crying and others holding handkerchiefs to their faces. It frightened me so much that it woke me up.

‘I wanted to get out of bed and telephone my son and his wife and ask them to take special care of my two little grand-daughters. When I did get up it was 6.45 a.m. I told my brother-in-law that I had had this terrible dream and that I was going to telephone my son and daughter-in-law but he said it was too early. I therefore waited until 8.45 a.m. and telephoned, telling them about my dream and that I was very worried as the dream was about children. I told them it wasn’t our two little girls in the dream, as they looked more like schoolchildren.

The dream upset me very much all the next day. I did not hear about the Aberfan disaster until 5:I5 p.m.

Mrs. M.H’.s dream was verified in detail by her daughter-in-law Mrs. P.H. who confirmed that Mrs. M.H. had telephoned her before 9:00 a.m. on the day of the Aberfan disaster requesting her to take special care of her two small daughters.

In a careful analysis of the set of cases, Dr. Barker drew attention to a number of features that seemed noteworthy to him. Thirty-six of the letters were from dreamers. Others said they had had visions of the disaster or parts of

it; some felt various degrees of unease for a period of time before the event. In some instances the dreams were so vivid and the feelings of horror and fear invoked in the dreamer so intense that the dreamer woke screaming. In a number of cases the dream was so impressive it haunted the dreamer for days. A number reported the screaming of children as a feature of their dream.

In seven cases, from four men and three women, Barker noted that ‘they developed non-specific symptoms of acute mental and physical unease from four days to a few hours before the Aberfan disaster. Symptoms were in general characteristic of an acute anxiety state, and in five instances were either witnessed or reported to others before the disaster occurred, or before the percipients became aware of it. Three percipients developed a sense of oppression and two experienced dyspnoea, choking sensations and feelings of suffocation before the disaster. Their distress was in all instances apparently relieved by the occurrence of the disaster or upon hearing news of it’.

Many of his correspondents told him that they had had previous premonitions in their lives about other disasters and some claimed that the attendant feelings Barker called the Pre-disaster Syndrome accompanied them. It was in fact a stamp of authenticity for the premonition.

In this respect a case brought to my notice is of interest and is by no means unique. A young lady, whose father worked with building contractors, became convinced one morning by her feelings of acute anxiety that her father would be in extreme danger later that day. There was no reason for her to entertain this fear but as the morning passed her distress increased to such an extent that she was driven to phone his company to warn him to take care.

Unfortunately the father’s work was such that he himself planned which building sites he would visit at any given time and head office was unable to help her very much. She kept trying to ring various phone numbers, her acute forebodings by now causing her to drop any work of her own. She continued until four o’clock without success when suddenly the feelings left her, she calmed down and only then realised how irrational her efforts had been. Later that day the family was notified that at four o’clock her father had been in a car accident in which he had suffered serious injuries.

J. Gaither Pratt has conjectured that ‘individuals who have convincingly precognitised one or more future events are at least as common as left-handed people’. Barker called such people ‘human seismographs,’ reacting by dream, vision and associated pre-disaster syndrome to a future catastrophe. He argued that if such people existed it might be possible to set up a Disaster Early Warning System and quoted Louisa Rhine who wrote in 1961, ‘If the precognitive ability is developed and directed and if imperfect ESP impressions, especially those suggesting disaster ahead could be clarified, intelligent preventative action could follow to the untold advantage of mankind’.

This idea that a central bureau should collect and collate ostensible forewarnings of disasters raises a number of important questions, the most basic of which is that of querying the authenticity of such alleged premonitions.

Confining ourselves to the Aberfan disaster we may ask how convinced we are by the evidence that one or more people received is ‘glimpses’ of the future tragedy. The word ‘glimpses’ is perhaps very appropriate when we appreciate that not one person got a complete picture of the event.

Several dreams undoubtedly resembled the disaster or part of it, a number of dreamers claiming to have subsequently recognised some of the harrowing TV and press pictures shown later. Most of the dreams were straightforwardly narrative; only a few were symbolic. The usual dream mechanisms – substitution of members of the dreamer’s family or her home for the actual victims or place – seemed to occur. In summary, the following elements are among those that occurred in the ostensible premonitions: children screaming; wearing Welsh national costume; dying; Wales; a Welsh miner; mountains; valleys; Aberfan and desolate rows of houses; a black mountain slipping; horror; buried houses; a school; hundreds of black horses thundering down a hillside dragging hearses; avalanche of coal burying screaming children, etc.

Such a summary does not produce the impression of a strong correlation gained on reading the individual accounts. A simple test is instructive. If such detailed dreams and visions, accompanied by the feelings of horror, depression and misery, had occurred after the Aberfan tragedy, most people would probably conclude without hesitation that they were effect and the tragedy was the cause. But because of the fact that they were reported as having occurred prior to the disaster, we hesitate – rightly – at ascribing them to premonitions of Aberfan.

Certainly, they provide all the elements of the disaster. If, moreover, a Premonition Bureau had received them within a period of a week or two before the event, there seems little doubt, especially if the Bureau had already recognised the psychic reliability of some of its correspondents, that some action could have been taken to prevent the coming disaster or at least prevent the appalling loss of young children’s lives at Aberfan.

And there, of course, we encounter again the intriguing Chinese puzzle-box question of whether or not a premonition’s warning can be acted upon to avoid or prevent a disaster. Can one prevent a disaster from a premonition?

This leaves us in a Catch 22 situation. Ideally, what would constitute the perfect premonition, as far as the parapsychologist and a Premonitions Bureau are concerned? We can do no better than start with G.W. Lambert’s five criteria, laid down in 1965 that he considered necessary to establish an undoubted connection between a dream and a future event.

1. The dream should be reported to a credible witness before the occurrence of the event to which it appears to relate.
2. The time interval between the dream and the event should be short.
3. The event should be one in which the circumstances of the dreamer seemed improbable at the time of the dream.
4. The description in the dream should be of an event destined to be fulfilled literally and not merely symbolically foreshadowed.
5. The details of the dream should tally with the details of the event.

The following comments seem relevant.

We have to remember that not all ostensible premonitions occur in dreams although sleep does appear to be the state in which most occur. People have claimed to have had these precognitive experiences in that peculiar state of consciousness just before falling asleep or just before a full awakening from sleep. The former often provides the subject with so-called hypnogogic phenomena; the latter provides similar phenomena termed hypnopompic. In addition, ostensible precognitions have been reported as being experienced in a fully awake, but relaxed, detached state when the subject is day-dreaming or reading or watching TV, etc. when the mind is calm. The restriction of the criteria to ‘dreams’ is therefore unnecessary and with that thinking we might lose a number of good cases.

Certainly any experience should be reported to more than one witness if possible: it should also be written down as soon as possible and a copy posted to the Society for Psychical Research in London. Dr. Donald J. West, a former research officer of the SPR remarked: ‘If the impression is strong enough for the percipient to tell other people about it at once (as is often the case, according to the published accounts), there is no reason why he should not also tell the Society. He is in fact assuming that percipients have ever heard of the SPR.

The second criterion’s stipulation is that the time interval between the dream and the event should be short is sensible. The longer the time interval, other things being equal, the more probable it is that coincidence would be the likely explanation. Certainly most ostensible premonitions occur within a few weeks before the event, which they are alleged to be related to, although there are on record some striking ones where many years have elapsed between premonitions and fulfilling events. Perhaps the difference between premonitions and revelations, as earlier discussed.

The third criterion states that really unusual events predicted are of more value than everyday examples while the last two criteria are also sensibly tailored to lend weight to the authenticity of the premonition. Having said that, we must admit that it would be the greatest of good fortune from the psychical researcher’s point of view to find a case that satisfies all five criteria.

Many of the Aberfan cases are seen to satisfy several of the five criteria as shown from the data. Fourteen of the dreams fulfil number 1, while two others were pre-recorded. Most of the dreams occurred within a week of the Aberfan disaster, thus definitely fulfilling the short time interval defined in criterion number 2. And certainly criterion 3 is satisfied by the majority of cases and in many cases, the remaining two criteria were also satisfied.

All in all, the investigation carried out by Dr. Barker would seem to stand as a body of convincing evidence that for some human beings there is such a thing as a sort of ‘timequake’ that sends out its reverberations against the accepted direction of time’s arrow, providing them with the knowledge of the forthcoming event. Or has it to do, in some way, with the depths of the subsequent emotions that are about to erupt? Who knows?

If a tragedy such as Aberfan with a death-toll of 148 can somehow cause premonitions, great wars and revolutions with their mass slaughter of human beings should likewise arouse anticipatory distress. There is actually some evidence in support of this view.
Y ou may remember I previously mentioned that emotion appears to be necessary within some areas of paranormality. This appears to be one of these situations, as though a wave of impending sadness sweeps before the actual event.

“Aberfan” is an extract from It’s Life And Death, But Not As You Know It!: From the Unbelievable to the Bizarre by Tricia. J. Robertson.


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