Resources: Aberfan & Premonitions

The following resources accompany Christopher Laursen’s presentation, “Stopping Clocks: Precognition, Time, and Trauma around the 1966 Aberfan Disaster,” delivered to the Association for the Scientific Study of Anomalous Phenomena (May 5, 2022) and the Rhine (May 6, 2022). Check out these excellent resources to learn more about Aberfan and the accounts and studies into precognition that were conducted during that time, including skeptical perspectives.

If you’re curious about other research resources, feel free to contact me.

Description of the talk: On the morning of October 21st, 1966, around 100,000 tons of coal waste slid a third of a mile down a Welsh hillside. It engulfed a village school and 16 houses. In this, 144 people lost their lives, 116 of them children, mostly aged 7 to 11. The impact of the flowslide stopped a clock at 9:13 a.m.

Responding to the scene in Aberfan, an English psychiatrist, John Barker, heard local people tell of dreams and omens of the disaster before it happened. Wondering if others had foreseen the tragedy, Barker worked with the London Evening Standard science correspondent Peter Fairley to seek premonitions from people across the United Kingdom. That, along with a parallel call by the Oxford Institute for Psychophysical Research, garnered a collection of 150 precognitive dreams, visions, and uncanny feelings.

Speculation arose: what if a mass collection of potentially precognitive experiences could provide an early warning system that could prevent such tragedies? Could this defy time to save lives? Various organized attempts have been made to explore this possibility, including Barker and Fairley’s own Premonitions Bureau.

The social and cultural historian Christopher Laursen enhances the context to recent publications exploring premonitions around the Aberfan tragedy, including the writer Sam Knight’s new book The Premonitions Bureau and Alan Murdie’s study of the Oxford Institute for Psychophysical Research collection.

Often the premonitions are left out of the greater history of the Aberfan disaster. Likewise, narratives on the premonitions neglect the life-altering scope of the disaster. The two become separate stories. What can we learn when we consider them together? Could a unified narrative help clarify the nature of precognition, time, and trauma?

Books, Articles, and Documentaries

Gaynor Madgwick, Aberfan: A Story of Survival, Love and Community in One of Britain’s Worst Disasters (Y Lolfa, 2016)

Sue Elliott, Steve Humphries, and Bevan Jones, Surviving Aberfan: The People’s Story (Grosvenor House Publishing, 2016). The book accompanies a BBC film documentary, Surviving Aberfan (2016). Another BBC documentary worth watching, Aberfan: The Untold Story (2006).

Aberfan: Tip Number 7 (2021) is a 9-part radio documentary series produced by BBC Radio Wales, and can be streamed online or where you listen to podcasts.

The Ynysowen Male Choir formed by the men of Aberfan after the disaster to remember lives lost and raise money for charity.

For a briefer overview, I recommend the photo essay by Ceri Jackson, “Aberfan: The mistake that cost a village its children,” BBC News (2016).

The Life magazine photographer I.C. Rapoport shares images and commentary from his time on assignment in Aberfan on his website (2016). Katie Sands of Wales Online writes on Mel Parry, who took one of the most famous images of the rescue efforts at Aberfan.

British Pathé features many newsreels from the Aberfan disaster (1966, 1967) on their YouTube channel.

Images of the restored Aberfan Disaster Cemetery.

A BBC article on how the stopped clock recovered from the flowslide finds a home at the St Fagens Museum of History near Cardiff (2022).

The British Geological Society’s summary on the Aberfan flowslide.

Premonitions & Dream Studies

The original published article on the study of premonitions around the Aberfan disaster: J.C. Barker, “Premonitions of the Aberfan Disaster,” Journal of the Society for Psychical Research 44, no. 734 (December 1967), 169-181.

Sam Knight, The Premonitions Bureau: A True Account of Death Foretold (Penguin Random House in the US, 2022; Faber in the UK, 2022) covers the John Barker’s studies into premonitions, which began with the Aberfan disaster. You may also be interested in Sam Knight’s original 2019 article in The New Yorker. More recently, he has written on Barker and more broadly about premonitions in his article “The Vision Collector” for The Guardian (23 April 2022).

For the first published overview of the unpublished study of the premonitions around Aberfan conducted by the Oxford Institute for Psychophysical Research, see Alan Murdie, “Foreseeing a Disaster? Forgotten Dreams of Aberfan,” Fortean Times 350 (February 2017), 44-51.

To get a contextual sense of how people dream during disasters, check out Deirdre Barrett’s book Pandemic Dreams (2020). A 2020 interview with The Harvard Gazette and a 2021 article in The New York Times offers an overview. You might also check out Dr. Barrett’s presentation to the Museum of Science in Boston on YouTube. Dr. Barrett also famously expanded on the Dutch biologist Niko Tinbergen’s concept of supernormal stimuli in a 2010 book, which gives insights into public fascination into larger-than-life events and things.

Skeptical Perspectives

Richard Wiseman, Chapter 7, “Prophecy,” in Paranormality: The Science of the Supernatural (Pan Macmillan, 2011).

Joe Nickell, “Premonition! Foreseeing What Cannot Be Seen,” Skeptical Inquirer (July/August 2019), 17-20.

In Popular Culture

Season 3, Episode 3 of the Netflix series The Crown depicts Queen Elizabeth II’s initial reluctance to visit Aberfan. After her first visit, she has revisited Aberfan many times.

A playlist of songs dedicated to the memory of those lives lost in Aberfan. (Log in to Spotify to listen, or make note of the songs below to listen to in your preferred streaming service.)

  1. Karl Jenkins, “Cantata Memoria: Lament for the Valley,” Cantata Memoria: For the Children (2016)
  2. David Ackles, “Aberfan,” Five & Dime (1973)
  3. Snake Oil & Harmony, “Aberfan,” Hurricane Riders (2020)
  4. Laura Siersema, “Aberfan,” Love Flows Like the Blood of a River (2003)
  5. Tom Parrott, “The Aberfan Coal Tragedy,” Neon Princess (1968)
  6. Amy Goddard, “Remembering Aberfan,” Down in the Mine (2017)
  7. Cassette 50, “The Lights of Aberfan,” Solar Ship (2022)
  8. Bryn Yemm with the Morriston Orpheus Choir, “Aberfan,” Welsh Gold (2021)
  9. Filthy Thieving Bastards, “Aberfan,” A Melody of Retreads and Broken Quills (2022)
  10. Mike Hart, “Aberfan,” Mike Hart Bleeds (2008)
  11. Alex Weir, “Aberfan,” This Has Been Me Since Yesterday (2018)
  12. Beau, “Child of Aberfan,” Damascus Road (1969)
  13. Jo & Barrie Glenn, “Song for Aberfan,” Song for Aberfan (2021)
  14. Lorne Clarke, “Aberfan (When the Mountain Fell),” From My Window (2015)