The Lord Robens of Woldingham
Robens in 1947
Shadow Foreign Secretary
In office
14 December 1955 – 6 November 1956
LeaderHugh Gaitskell
Preceded byPosition established
Succeeded byAneurin Bevan
Minister of Labour and National Service
In office
24 April 1951 – 26 October 1951
Prime MinisterClement Attlee
Preceded byNye Bevan
Succeeded byWalter Monckton
Member of Parliament
for Blyth
In office
23 February 1950 – 30 October 1960
Preceded byConstituency established
Succeeded byEddie Milne
Member of Parliament
for Wansbeck
In office
5 July 1945 – 23 February 1950
Preceded byDonald Scott
Succeeded byConstituency abolished
Personal details
Born(1910-12-18)18 December 1910
Manchester, Lancashire, England
Died27 June 1999(1999-06-27) (aged 88)
Chertsey, Surrey, England
Political partyLabour (before 1979)
Conservative (1979–1999)

Alfred Robens, Baron Robens of Woldingham, PC (18 December 1910 – 27 June 1999) was an English trade unionist, Labour politician and industrialist. His political ambitions, including an aspiration to become Prime Minister, were frustrated by bad timing, but his energies were diverted into industry: he spent 10 years as Chairman of the National Coal Board, and later – despite the Aberfan disaster – headed a major inquiry which resulted in the Robens Report on occupational health and safety. His outlook was paternalistic; in later life, he moved away from his early socialism towards the Conservative Party. His reputation remains tarnished by his failure to have foreseen and prevented the Aberfan disaster, followed by actions widely regarded as grossly insensitive during the aftermath of the disaster.

Early life

Robens was born in Chorlton-on-Medlock, Manchester, the son of George Robens, a cotton salesman, and Edith Robens (née Anderton). He left school aged 15 to work as an errand boy, but his career truly began when he joined the Manchester and Salford Co-operative Society as a clerk; he became a director when he was 22, one of the first worker-directors in the country. He was an official in the Union of Distributive and Allied Workers from 1935 to 1945; certified medically unfit for military service in the Second World War, he was a Manchester City Councillor from 1941 to 1945. He married Eva Powell on 9 September 1936; the couple adopted a son, Alfred (born 1935).[1]


Following the war, in the dramatic Labour landslide victory of 1945, Robens was elected Member of Parliament (MP) for the mining constituency of Wansbeck in Northumberland. He started to rise through the parliamentary ranks, serving in junior posts at the Ministry of Transport (1945–1947) and at the Ministry of Fuel and Power under Hugh Gaitskell. In 1950, following boundary changes, Robens moved to the new constituency of Blyth, later Blyth Valley. He briefly replaced Aneurin Bevan as Minister of Labour and National Service following the former's resignation in protest of National Health Service prescription charges in 1951, but the Conservative Party won the general election later that year.[1][2]

In opposition, Robens continued to rise in the party, being appointed Shadow Foreign Secretary by Clement Attlee while Bevan was indisposed, and he began to be considered as a future candidate for party leader. Robens himself "yearned to become Prime Minister".[3] However, he failed to impress during the Suez Crisis of 1956 because he had been briefed in confidence by the Conservative Prime Minister, Anthony Eden, on the night before the invasion; sworn to secrecy, he was unable to oppose the invasion effectively in the debate in the House of Commons. Furthermore, Gaitskell felt him too left-wing.[citation needed] He was replaced as Shadow Foreign Secretary by Bevan, and felt that his political ambitions had been frustrated.

Thus, when Harold Macmillan (Eden's successor as Prime Minister) offered Robens the chairmanship of the National Coal Board (NCB) in 1960, he accepted enthusiastically. Gaitskell died in January 1963. Geoffrey Tweedale, writing in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, has expressed the view that, had Robens persisted in politics, he, rather than Harold Wilson, would have become Prime Minister.[1] Indeed, George Brown (the runner-up to Wilson in the election to succeed Gaitskell) stated in his autobiography that had Robens been in Parliament he himself would not have opposed him, and even if he had, Robens would have defeated him.[4]

National Coal Board

Robens took up his appointment at the NCB in 1961 at a salary believed to be £10,000 a year (which was never increased throughout his ten years in office) and was created a life peer as Baron Robens of Woldingham, of Woldingham in the County of Surrey, on 28 June.[1][5] Amongst those critical of this sudden elevation were his successor as MP for Blyth, Eddie Milne.[citation needed] Robens's leadership of the NCB was high-handed. He expected unflinching loyalty from colleagues and subordinates alike, and was confrontational with politicians. He enjoyed the trappings of power including a Daimler with the vehicle registration number "NCB 1", an executive aeroplane (a six-seater De Havilland Dove which he and other Board members used to visit the far-flung coalfields) and a flat in Eaton Square. His behaviour earned him the nickname "Old King Coal", a pun on Old King Cole. He threw himself into the job with vigour and enthusiasm, visiting pits, arguing with miners at the coalface and developing a deep knowledge of the industry.[1] In 1963 he was invited to deliver the MacMillan Memorial Lecture to the Institution of Engineers and Shipbuilders in Scotland. He chose the subject "Coal - Its Place in the National Economy".[6]

As Chairman of the NCB, Robens oversaw substantial cuts in the mining industry, many of them reflecting market forces and government policies originated before he assumed the post. Although he lobbied to protect the industry, his reputation as a socialist necessarily suffered: when he took over as NCB chair there were 698 pits employing 583,000 miners, but by the time he left the post 10 years later there were only 292 pits employing 283,000 miners. For a while Robens had a constructive working relationship with the miners' leader Will Paynter, but he had a combative relationship with the Wilson Labour government. Industrial relations deteriorated during his tenure,[1] and there was an unofficial strike in 1969 that lost £15 million and 2.5 million tonnes of coal as a result of walkouts at 140 of the 307 NCB collieries.[7]

Robens expressed concern at the poor occupational health and safety record of the coal industry, and championed campaigns to reduce accidents and to counter chronic occupational diseases such as pneumoconiosis. Although the number of fatal and serious accidents fell by over 60% during his tenure, there was also a fall in the workforce of over 50%, from 583,000 to 283,000.[1]

Aberfan disaster

Main article: Aberfan disaster

The largest single blow to his reputation came from his reaction to the catastrophic 1966 industrial accident at Aberfan, in the Taff Valley, South Wales. On the morning of 21 October, a massive spoil heap from the nearby Merthyr Vale Colliery collapsed onto the village of Aberfan, burying 20 houses and the Pantglas Junior School in a landslide, 30 ft (9.1 m) deep, of water-saturated slurry that killed 116 schoolchildren and 28 adults.

Robens nonetheless went ahead with his installation as the first Chancellor of the new University of Surrey before going to Aberfan, and did not arrive until the evening of the Saturday following the day of the disaster, a blunder that was compounded by the actions of NCB staff, who falsely informed the Minister of Power, Richard Marsh, that Robens was at Aberfan. It was always his policy to send the most senior mining engineer to the scene of a disaster to coordinate rescue operations. Speaking to the media on the Sunday after the disaster, Robens was concerned that the initial shock and sorrow might give way to anger, possibly directed towards the men who worked at the top of the spoil heaps. To avoid this, he said that those men could not have foreseen what happened. A television interview, during which he made that comment, proved to be unacceptable for broadcasting, owing to the atmospheric conditions; instead, the interviewer broadcast a paraphrase of the interview that wrongly made it seem that Robens had claimed that no one in the NCB could have foreseen the disaster. This was later taken by the Aberfan disaster enquiry to imply that the Board was contesting liability, notwithstanding the 19th-century case of Rylands v Fletcher which meant that the Board had absolute liability for damage caused by a 'dangerous escape' of material. Conversely, in a later interview Robens claimed that the disaster had been caused by "natural unknown springs" beneath the tip; but evidence emerged that the existence of these springs was common knowledge.

The report of the Edmund-Davies Tribunal, which inquired into the disaster, was highly critical of the NCB and Robens. He had proposed to appear at the outset of the inquiry to admit the NCB's full responsibility for the disaster, but the Chairman of the Tribunal advised him that this would not be necessary. In the event, when it was clear that his earlier comments to reporters had been misinterpreted at the Tribunal as a denial of responsibility, he offered to appear at the inquiry to set the matter straight. He conceded that the NCB was at fault, an admission which would have rendered much of the inquiry unnecessary had it been made at the outset, notwithstanding the advice of Lord Edmund-Davies that his appearance was not necessary.[8] After the report was published in August 1967, Robens wrote to Marsh, the Minister of Power, offering his resignation; this was rejected by him and by the Prime Minister Wilson, although several cabinet members argued strongly that Robens ought to be removed.

There have been allegations that the resignation offer was "bogus" and Robens had been assured that it would not be accepted.[9] According to Ronald Dearing, then a part-time member of the NCB, Richard Marsh was advised that Robens was "taking the coal industry through a period of painful contraction without big strikes" and the strong support for him within the coal industry and the union movement were crucial to the decision to retain him. When Robens told a meeting of the full Board that he had offered his resignation, there was surprise and consternation; Cecil King, a part-time member of the Board, rose to his feet and told Robens that in doing so he had acted correctly.[10]

In the wake of the disaster, Robens was asked that the NCB should fund the removal of the remaining tips from Aberfan. He was advised, however, that the cost of doing so would have obliged the NCB to exceed its borrowing limits, set by the government. He had acceded to a request from the bereaved mothers of Aberfan to meet them to hear their views, and he was received by them with courtesy. Eventually the cost was met partly by the Board and partly by the Government, with a levy made on the charitable Aberfan Disaster Fund.

The Trustees of the Disaster Fund, which had been raised by public appeal, were put under "intolerable pressure" to make a contribution of £150,000 (equivalent to £3,000,000 in 2021) to cover the cost of removing the tips – an action that was "unquestionably unlawful" under charity law – but the Charity Commission took no action to protect the Fund from this misappropriation of funds.[11]

There is no evidence that prosecution for corporate manslaughter was considered at the time.[12] Robens was exonerated by the official history of the NCB[13] but he remains condemned in other quarters.[1]

Robens Report

In 1969, Robens was selected by Barbara Castle to chair a committee on workplace health and safety. This led to the 1972 Robens Report which controversially championed the idea of self-regulation by employers. The Report itself led to the Health and Safety at Work etc. Act 1974 and the creation of the Health and Safety Commission and the Health and Safety Executive.[14][15]

Later life

Following the Conservative victory in the 1970 general election, Robens found the new administration's distaste for nationalisation at odds with his own rather paternalistic views. He fell into conflict with Prime Minister Edward Heath and Minister of State for Industry Sir John Eden. Robens left the NCB in 1971 but always insisted that his tenure was a success.[1]

Robens had become a director of the Bank of England in 1966[1] and a member of the board of directors of Times Newspapers in 1967.[citation needed] He was Chairman of Vickers from 1971 to 1979, opposing the Labour plans for nationalisation that led to the Aircraft and Shipbuilding Industries Act 1977. He was Chairman of Johnson Matthey from 1971 to 1983, and a director of Trust House Forte and several other companies. His lifestyle was increasingly at odds with his socialist beginnings and by 1979, he had become aligned with the Conservative Party.[1]

He left public life in 1982, retiring with his wife (who died in 2008) to Laleham Abbey in Surrey, once the home of the 7th Earl of Lucan. Robens suffered the first of two debilitating strokes in 1992, and died in 1999 aged 88.[1]

In folk music

Robens's period at the National Coal Board was mentioned in the folk songs of the period. Ed Pickford, who was a miner in the Durham Coalfield, was highly critical of Robens: his song The Pound a Week Rise criticises the low wages paid to coal miners during Robens's reign, and his song One Miner's Life refers to the widespread pit closures. Jock Purdon, a miner who was made redundant on the closure of Harraton Colliery in Durham, wrote the song Farewell to Cotia about the migration of redundant miners across the country and particularly to Nottinghamshire, which he referred to as "Robens's promised land". The Pound a Week Rise has subsequently been covered by various folk and left-wing artists, including Dick Gaughan and Rathkeltaír.[16]

Other public appointments


This list is incomplete; you can help by adding missing items. (March 2022)


  1. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l Tweedale (2008)
  2. ^ Thorpe, Andrew (1997). A History of the British Labour Party. London: Macmillan Education UK. p. 133. doi:10.1007/978-1-349-25305-0. ISBN 978-0-333-56081-5.
  3. ^ Robens 1972, p. 4.
  4. ^ Brown, George. In My Way: The Political Memoirs of Lord George-Brown. pp. 91–92.
  5. ^ "No. 42401". The London Gazette. 30 June 1961. p. 4841.
  6. ^ "Hugh Miller Macmillan". Macmillan Memorial Lectures. Institution of Engineers and Shipbuilders in Scotland. Archived from the original on 4 October 2018. Retrieved 29 January 2019.
  7. ^ Routledge, Paul (1994). Scargill: the unauthorized biography. London: HarperCollins. p. 59. ISBN 0-00-638077-8.
  8. ^ "UK Resilience website - National Recovery Guidance - Case Studies: The Aberfan Disaster". Archived from the original on 19 November 2008.
  9. ^ McLean 1997.
  10. ^ "Aberfan aftermath, Sir Ron replies: 'I believe advice was disinterested and just'". Times Higher Education Supplement. 7 February 1997.
  11. ^ Jordana, Jacint; Levi-Faur, David (2004). The Politics of Regulation: Examining Regulatory Institutions and Instruments in the Age of Governance. Edward Elgar Publishing. pp. 54–58. ISBN 1-84376-464-4.
  12. ^ McLean & Johnes 2000, p. 41.
  13. ^ Ashworth & Pegg 1986.
  14. ^ "Factory safety Bill should await committee's report". The Times. 13 February 1971. p. 19, col A.
  15. ^ Cullen 1996.
  16. ^ "Music Monday: Pound a Week Rise". After Coal. 5 November 2018. Retrieved 19 September 2020.
  17. ^ "Honorary Fellows and Medallists". The Chartered Institution of Building Services Engineers. Retrieved 23 March 2022.
  18. ^ "MacMillan Memorial Lectures". The Institution of Engineers and Shipbuilders in Scotland. Retrieved 23 March 2022.
  19. ^ "Honorary Graduates". The University of Leicester. Retrieved 23 March 2022.
  20. ^ "Honorary Graduates". The University of Surrey. Retrieved 23 March 2022.
  21. ^ "HONORARY FELLOWS 1961-1980". The Institution of Mechanical Engineers. Retrieved 23 March 2022.


Parliament of the United Kingdom Preceded byDonald Scott Member of Parliamentfor Wansbeck 19451950 Constituency abolished New constituency Member of Parliamentfor Blyth 19501960 Succeeded byEddie Milne Political offices Preceded byNye Bevan Minister of Labour and National Service 1951 Succeeded byWalter Monckton New office Shadow Foreign Secretary 1955–1956 Succeeded byNye Bevan Trade union offices Preceded byJim Bowman Chair of the National Coal Board 1961–1971 Succeeded byDerek Ezra