Advertisement

  1. ITV Report

Who was George Thomas? And what was his role in the Aberfan tragedy?

George Thomas remains one of the most controversial Welsh politicians of the 20th century.

Born in a humble miner's home in Port Talbot, he rose to become Speaker of the House of Commons, but it is his role in Aberfan which has, over time, diminished his reputation.

George Thomas, later Lord Tonypandy, was one of the most high profile politicians from the 1960s until his death in 1997 Credit: PA

The story of the Aberfan disaster has been retold in an episode in the latest Netflix series of The Crown.

Born in Port Talbot, his family settled in Tonypandy in the Rhondda. He was a preacher and a teacher, and became MP for Cardiff Central in 1945, before representing Cardiff West from 1950 until 1983.

When coal slurry crashed into a school in Aberfan in 1966, George Thomas was the Welsh Secretary - Wales' voice in the British cabinet.

116 children and 28 adults were killed in the disaster.

116 children and 28 adults were killed at Aberfan. Pantglas school was demolished by the coal slurry which was dumped on the hill behind it. Credit: PA

Sympathy came from all corners of the world for this Welsh village. Over £1.5 million pounds had been raised from contributions to help the village.

The villagers wanted the coal tip which rested on a hill overlooking Aberfan removed. A section of it crashed into the school.

The state-owned National Coal Board which ran British coal mines and was responsible for the coal tip refused to pay for the removal.

Eventually, the Government forced the families to contribute £150,000 out of the funds which had been donated to them.

George Thomas, the son of a miner who came from a mining community stood by the Government's decision.

George Thomas in 1966 Credit: PA

Seen as a grotesque decision, it was heavily criticised for decades. Eventually, the money was returned to the memorial fund.

But what was George Thomas' role?

Historian Martin Johnes has written that George Thomas initially objected to the decision but "his lone voice in the cabinet was not sufficient and in the end he acquiesced in the plan and placed strong moral pressure on the disaster fund to ensure it too gave in."

His biographer Martin Shipton wrote, "he let the community down badly at its time of need."

George Thomas as Mr Speaker Credit: PA

Politically, George Thomas went on to become more influential.

Between 1976-1983 the MP was Speaker of the House of Commons, one of the highest offices of state.

He also had high profile friendships with Margaret Thatcher and the Prince of Wales. He gave a reading at the wedding of Prince Charles and Princess Diana.

Eventually he was elevated to the house of Lords, taking the name of Lord Tonypandy, named after his home town.

George Thomas was friends with Princess Diana and Prince Charles Credit: PA

But since his death aged 88 in 1997, George Thomas' reputation has suffered.

There was an investigation into allegations of historic sexual offences. That investigation was later dropped.

A restaurant and a charity which both carried his name later dropped it.

George Thomas died without any children. He rose from humble origins to being close friends with members of the Royal Family.

But history has cast a shadow over his reputation, partly because of Aberfan.