After the disaster at Aberfan colliery in October 1966, in which 116 children died when a spoil tip collapsed and buried their primary school, it emerged that the tragedy had been widely predicted. The public inquiry into the causes of the disaster heard that a 1939 engineering report had shown sliding colliery tips to be a serious risk across the Welsh valleys and that in 1944 a nearby tip had slid 1,800 feet down a mountain. Aberfan’s tip number seven, the one involved in the disaster, had partially collapsed in 1963, since when its toe had been creeping ominously forward, driven by an underground stream.
For the psychiatrist John Barker, however, the most striking predictions of the disaster had come in precognitive dreams and the visions of psychics. The day after the disaster, he visited Aberfan and interviewed the parents of some of the children killed, among them the mother of a ten-year-old girl who had dreamed two nights before the event that ‘something black’ had descended on the school, and the mother of an eight-year-old boy who had recently drawn a group of figures digging in the hillside. The evening before the collapse, a woman at a spiritualist meeting in Plymouth had experienced a vision of ‘an avalanche of coal’ rushing down a mountain, while a film technician in Hillingdon had been haunted all week by ‘the smell of death’ and was seized by panic fifteen minutes after the school had been buried.
Barker approached the science editor of the Evening Standard, Peter Fairley, a curious-minded investigator and keen gambler who chose his racing bets on the basis of hunches about names, colours and numbers. In 1967, the Standard established the Premonitions Bureau, a dedicated desk in the newsroom where the