FIRST PERSON: Gwent policeman tells of Aberfan horror
He has dedicated 65 years of loyal service to the local community through his police career and as a volunteer and says he has no regrets.
But there is one day in particular that stands out in the mind of Royce Gardener MBE.
Speaking from his Caerleon home, the 87-year-old told ALISON SANDERS about what he saw on the day 116 children were killed in Aberfan.
“IT WAS 9.15am on October 21, 1966, when the landslip at Merthyr Tydfil Colliery destroyed nearby houses and Pantglas Junior School in Aberfan.
One hundred and sixteen children and 28 adults died that day.
I was working for the number eight Regional Crime Squad at the time but had a day off.
They phoned me and told me to get up to Aberfan.
I didn’t even know where Aberfan was. But I went up there and was based in the temporary mortuary at Bethania Chapel for three weeks.
They just gave us a white coat and said ‘Get on with it’.
We had to strip all the bodies down, wash them, put a blank label on their big right toe and place them on pews until they were identified.
When the parents came in to identify the children they were weeping and crying.
Just imagine coming into identify your little boy or girl.
It wasn’t our job but we just had to do it. Someone had to see to it.
It’s an event that only happens once in a lifetime and it’s still very clear in my mind.
The following week was half term. If it had happened the day after, it would have been a Saturday.
But it happened on a Friday just after the children went into the school – it was a terrible, terrible sight.
We worked 13-hour shifts.
There was no overtime in those days, whatever had to be done you did it. When I came back, there was no such thing as counselling. Nobody asked you how you feel. It was just get on with it. I finished on the Friday and reported back to Cardiff.
I had always wanted to join the police force and it was the best thing I ever did.
My grandfather, Amos Walter Gardener, was in Monmouthshire Police Force and I have a photo of him taken in 1900.
My father Walter was a miner in Six Bells and worked hard all his life but it was a terrible job.
I left Abertillery Grammar School at 16 and started work in the laboratory at Six Bells Colliery. I worked there for five or six years before I joined the force at 23.
I was stationed at Abertillery, Ebbw Vale, Beaufort and Ty Graig and was then promoted to a detective constable at Blackwood.
For three years running I won the full uniform race at Monmouthshire sports day in Abertillery Park in the late 1940s. God, I was fit then.
Then I was a detective constable at Cwmbran for five years and a sergeant on a mobile at Abergavenny where I was in charge of five or six patrol cars.
After about three or fours years on a mobile, I was promoted to Caerleon.
I had eight men which included a detective constable and men stationed at Christchurch, Goldcliffe, Penhow and Magor.
We covered all around the borough and it was a busy job. The chief then sent for me and said they were starting up the number eight Regional Crime Squad.
This would be based at Cardiff but would cover all of Wales and I represented Monmouthshire.
It was during that time that I was Princess Margaret’s bodyguard and was with her for three weeks.
This was for her time spent in west and north Wales.
Wherever she went I had to go. If she took the children swimming I had to be there.
It was my job to look after her and make sure she was safe.
We were working round the clock and she was very good to me.
For my last six years in the force, I was the crime prevention officer for Newport.
You’d go around and advise people on safety measures. If someone had a break in I would go and install a temporary alarm.
This was a mat with a radio signal. They’d come in and step on the mat.
That would send a signal to the Civic Centre and we would catch them on the job.
Receiving my MBE in 2004 for service to Gwent Police was a proud moment for my wife Marion, who went with me to Buckingham Palace.
I am glad it came when she was alive because she was so proud.
We had 58 happy years together before she died seven years ago.
I met Marion at a Saturday night dance at Abertillery Market Hall when I was working at the lab.
As soon as I saw her I thought ‘I am going to mary her’ and it was love at first sight.
We were engaged and one day a girl came and sat on my lap at a dance when Marion was on the other side of the room. Marion came over and gave me her engagement ring back.
We got back together but I had sold the ring and had to buy her another one.
Looking back now it was funny, but not at the time.
We had two daughters, Vanessa, 60, who has just retired after working as a teacher, and Gay, 55, who is a nurse for St David’s Foundation Hospice Care.
Marion was marvellous and looked after the girls.
I always say that behind a good man there’s a good woman and that was Marion, because without her help and support I couldn’t have done the job I did and the long hours that came with it.
I had ten moves altogether in 30 years - each time for promotion but we settled in Caerleon, where I have now lived for 40 years.
When I retired from the police force in 1978 at 53 I started up my own driving school called Abetter Driving School.
I had it until I retired at 65 and gave it to my son-in-law who is still running it today.
After turning 65 I dedicated much of my time to voluntary organisations.
I was chairman for the Gwent branch of the National Association of Retired Police Officers for 30 years and am now its president.
I am also president of the Caerleon Retired Persons Welfare Club after being its chairman for 23 years and am a member of the Gwent Assoication of Voluntary Organisations, Newport Hard of Hearing Club and Newport Friendship Club.
I am also a founder member of a Newport forum, which represents local pensioners and met Prince Charles with the forum in 2007 at the opening of the Welsh Assembly in Cardiff. I was lucky enough to be invited to the 50th anniversary of the Six Bells colliery disaster in 2010 and saw the unveiling of the Guardian sculpture. My uncle Albert was one of the 45 men killed killed in the explosion at Six Bells in 1960.
He had worked there on afternoon shifts but was put on the turn-over shift for that day. If he’d stayed on his normal afternoon shift he would have survived the explosion.
Three or four years ago I went to New Zealand on holiday because my friend’s son was getting married, but I must have caught pneumonia on the plane. I was rough all the time I was there and had to come back early.
But they had to take me off the plane at Hong Kong and I was in hospital there for about ten days.
I have never been right since and my health has deteriorated.
I now have pulmonary lung disease and it’s a hard struggle.
At Christmas the doctor thought that was it but I thought ‘I’ve got to fight it’. I did and I came through.
As far as I’m concerned every day is a bonus, I’m making the best of it.
My daughters are marvellous – if it wasn’t for them I’d be in a home.
I also have five grandchildren and they’re great kids.
I have had a marvellous life and I don’t regret one thing.
I have worked hard all my life and I have done my best for everybody.
It’s been a good journey.”