Like many people, I’ve delighted in watching the Netflix series The Crown. I was a couple of years behind the band wagon, however, as soon as I converted I became a strong convert. When reading a Guardian article about the third season I was pleased to see the plaudits provided to Olivia Colman pulling off her role as Elizabeth II. However, I became more interested when reading how the season devoted an entire episode to the Aberfan Disaster of 1966. I paused on reading it. Then I asked myself, ‘What was the Aberfan Disaster?’
I immediately searched for it online and came across a catastrophic event which saw the collapse of a colliery soil tip, which hit the local town. There was a shocking loss of life, with over 100 children at the local school killed. On reading about this disaster I was utterly shocked; although this happened more than half-a-century ago it was all new to me.
Then I thought, ‘How come I never knew about this.’
Of course, anyone who studies history cannot be expected to know everything. This was something I realised when studying at university at the vast complexities of the past, although some friends seemed to think that after obtaining a degree in it I would be able to instantly recall all the leaders of Zimbabwe or the economic history of Peru. So, no, one cannot know everything; but I’ve personally been reading about 20th Century British history for a very long time and continue to do so every year. Therefore I was shocked at having never come across Aberfan before. How was this possible?
Well, firstly, I had come across it. On checking my book shelves and opening up various history books about recent British history I saw that it was mentioned. However, the mention was just there: mere and brief. And so I was left to consider the reasons as to why a disaster such as this never obtained a greater voice around all of the UK.
Perhaps it is another example of the Anglo-centrism of our history and culture. Historical events from around Britain are usually ignored in favour of events that happened in England. Having taught A-level History for ten years I now realise how often this occurs when reading various published textbooks; for example, the history book Britain 1483-1529 mentions Wales on a couple of occasions and if Scotland is referred to it is as the “enemy” of England.
As someone who is a big fan of Cornish history, this Anglo-centric dominance is one that cannot be simply explained away. As such, this has made me think about how I teach History in the classroom. Unfortunately, A-level History is contained to two key modules that learners study over the duration of two years; however, there is the coursework module which my college uses to focus on 20th century British history. There is a way, then, to include more taught overviews of other events from recent history in order to showcase how the past is not just dominated by Prime Ministers and wars. I’m hoping to use this summer to re-consider the material that I cover in order to provide sessions on the various regions of the UK: Wales, Scotland, the North, and yes – of course – Cornwall and the Westcountry.