The Crown : The True Story Behind Queen Elizabeth's Visit to Aberfan

The Queen and Prince Philip visiting Aberfan. 29th October 1966.

The third season of The Crown tackles a dark moment in the history of the United Kingdom: In 1966, a coal waste tip collapsed and slid into a school in the mining village of Aberfan in Wales, claiming the lives of 144 people . Queen Elizabeth II (played by Olivia Colman) did not immediately visit the village, but she eventually decided to go eight days later, and ended up returning several times throughout her life.

While The Crown depicts its version of events, we're diving into what really happened in Aberfan, and what the Queen did in response.

The Disaster and Its Aftermath

Aberfan

The Queen's Visit

As the show correctly depicts, at first Queen Elizabeth II neglected to visit Aberfan, sending Prince Philip instead. She ended up visiting the village almost a week after the disaster occurred, and later said her delayed response was her biggest regret as queen. History.com reports that while in the village, the monarch showed "poignant grief"—an atypical response for the usually stoic Elizabeth.

The Queen At Aberfan

Marjorie Collins, an Aberfan woman who lost her son in the disaster, remembered the queen's visit in a 2015 interview with ITV : "They were above the politics and the din and they proved to us that the world was with us, and that the world cared." Another mother told ITV that no one judged the queen for her delayed response. "We were still in shock, I remember the Queen walking through the mud," she said. "It felt like she was with us from the beginning."

Throughout her life, the Queen visited Aberfan another four times.

queen aberfan

How The Crown Recreated the Visit

According to the BBC , The Crown recreated the queen's first visit to Aberfan by filming in the small Welsh village of Cwmaman . The BBC characterized the 1966 visit as "one of the most touching moments of the queen's reign that is still remembered by the victims."

One onlooker who was watching the filming told the news site, "It was all very dignified, Olivia Colman is clearly taking her role very seriously. There was a very sombre mood. I think everyone involved in the production realizes what an awful tragedy Aberfan was."

3

The BBC also reports that, while on set at Big Pit National Coal Museum in Wales, The Crown director Benjamin Caron said, " Every series of The Crown looks at major political events and moments in history, and this is one of them. Of course we should do this. This story in particular affected the whole of Wales, the United Kingdom, and the queen."

He continued, "Peter Morgan, the writer and showrunner, and I thought this was a story we wanted to tell. And that we wanted to do that with truth and dignity, and also to make sure that it is never forgotten."

While they did not end up filming in Aberfan, Caron said they had some actors who grew up close to the village involved with the show: "We have, as much as possible, been trying to involve the local community."

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How Queen Elizabeth's Reaction to the Aberfan Mining Disaster Became Her Biggest Regret

The 1966 disaster features prominently in season three of The Crown .

Queen Elizabeth

On October 21, 1966, the students and teachers of Pantglas Junior School in Aberfan, a small village in Wales, were about to begin their lessons when disaster struck. A nearby "spoil tip" (or surplus of mining waste) collapsed on a school, burying everyone trapped inside in an avalanche of slurry, and eventually killing 116 children and 28 adults.

This tragedy, and the Queen's delayed response to it, are at the heart of the third episode of The Crown 's third season . Here's the real story behind the drama on screen.

Aberfan is said to be the Queen's biggest regret.

While the Queen was made aware of the tragedy shortly after it happened, she waited eight days to visit the Welsh community, a delay, which she is said to regret immensely.

"Aberfan affected the Queen very deeply, I think, when she went there. It was one of the few occasions in which she shed tears in public," Sir William Heseltine, who served in the royal press office at the time, revealed in the documentary Elizabeth: Our Queen .

"I think she felt in hindsight that she might have gone there a little earlier. It was a sort of lesson for us that you need to show sympathy and to be there on the spot, which I think people craved from her."

Aberfan Disaster, Prince Philip Visiting The Tragic Village At Wales In United Kingdom On October 22Nd 1966

According to Sally Bechdel Smith's biography Elizabeth the Queen , the monarch's caution wasn't a decision made out of coldness, but rather practicality. "People will be looking after me, she said according to Smith. "Perhaps they'll miss some poor child that might have been found under the wreckage."

And despite numerous suggestions that she should make the trip, the Queen stayed resolute in her opinion.

"We kept presenting the arguments," an advisor of the Queen's told her biographer Robert Lacey , "but nothing we said could persuade her."

Instead, the Queen sent her husband Prince Philip. Her brother-in-law Lord Snowdon, traveled there on his own as well.

"When I heard the news of the disaster on the wireless I felt I should be there because I was Welsh and thought the Welsh should stick together. So I just got on a train and went straight down," Snowdon told WalesOnline in 2006, for a story about the 40th anniversary of the tragedy .

He wrote to Princess Margaret, "Darling, it was the most terrible thing I have ever seen."

the crown

The Queen finally decided to visit to Aberfan eight days after the disaster.

Despite the monarch's remorse over her initial reaction to to the tragedy, for many survivors, her eventual presence was a comfort.

"If the Queen does regret not coming here straight away, I think that is misplaced," Jeff Edwards, who survived the disaster when he was eight years old, told the South Wales Echo in 2002 . "When she did arrive she was visibly upset and the people of Aberfan appreciated her being here...She came when she could and nobody would condemn her for not coming earlier, especially as everything was such a mess."

The Queen and Prince Philip visiting Aberfan. 29th October 1966.

In truth, some locals didn't even notice that she wasn't there immediately after the tragedy. There was simply so much else to pay attention to.

"We were still in shock, I remember the Queen walking through the mud," one woman told ITV reporter Penny Marshall . "It felt like she was with us from the beginning."

Generally speaking, the Queen is rarely emotional in public, instead maintaining a stereotypical British stiff upper lip. But in Aberfan, she let her guard down, even crying a little.

“The one thing I recall about the Aberfan disaster was the arrival of the Queen and how it made her cry,” Sir Mansel Aylward said in 2012.

Royalty - Queen Elizabeth II - Aberfan, Wales

Aylward was a doctor who had come to Aberfan to help identify the bodies of the children. His cousins had died in the school.

“For the Queen to do what she did, to show sympathy in the way that she did with the people she had only just met, must’ve been very difficult," he said.

“She was very moved by what she saw. She tried to hold back tears but it did make her cry."

The Queen has since returned to Aberfan four more times.

"The people here admire her and I think they have a strong affinity with her," Coun Edwards, a surviver of the disaster, said in 2002.

Queen Elizabeth in Aberfan

In 2016, the Queen sent a personal message, delivered by Prince Charles, to the people of Aberfan to mark the 50th anniversary of the tragedy.

As you come together as a community today to mark fifty years since the dreadful events of Friday 21st October 1966, I want you to know that you are in my own and my family’s thoughts, as well as the thoughts of the nation.
We will all be thinking about the 144 people who died – most of them children between the ages of seven and ten – and the hundreds more who have lived with the shock and grief of that day, summed up by one poet who said simply, “All the elements of tragedy are here.”
I well remember my own visit with Prince Philip after the disaster, and the posy I was given by a young girl, which bore the heart-breaking inscription, “From the remaining children of Aberfan.” Since then, we have returned on several occasions and have always been deeply impressed by the remarkable fortitude, dignity and indomitable spirit that characterises the people of this village and the surrounding valleys. On this saddest of anniversaries, I send my renewed good wishes to you all.

The producers of The Crown worked with survivors of the disaster to ensure that the series handled the topic sensitively.

queen elizabeth aberfan in the crown

Edwards told the BBC that he has been in touch with the show's production team, and that he also helped set up meetings for members of the community to discuss the show.

"Following these meetings the production team decided to put on a public meeting which was held earlier this month and at which a dozen or so residents turned up and they outlined their proposals to them," Edwards said in September of last year.

The producers also released a statement about the show's portrayal of the disaster, "The third season of The Crown will cover the major historical events of Elizabeth II's reign from 1963-1977 and all strongly felt the Aberfan disaster and the events that followed must be included, especially as it continues to hold a deep resonance for the nation and the Queen herself. "

The statement continues, "As producers, we feel a responsibility to remain true to the memory and the experience of the survivors, so have met with community leaders, as well as the people of Aberfan on a number of occasions as part of our in depth research and to discuss our approach." They have not filmed in Aberfan; instead, Cwmaman reportedly serves as the backdrop for these scenes.

"It was all very dignified, Olivia Colman is clearly taking her role very seriously," one onlooker told the BBC about the film set .

"There was a very sombre mood. I think everyone involved in the production realizes what an awful tragedy Aberfan was."

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Watch the trailer for show's trailer below:

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History | November 15, 2019

The True Story of the Aberfan Disaster

The 1966 Welsh mining tragedy claimed the lives of 116 children and 28 adults and features heavily in the third season of Netflix’s “The Crown”

Queen Elizabeth Aberfan wreath

Meilan Solly

Associate Editor, History

Jeff Edwards’ primary school teacher had just started the day’s math lesson when an ominous rumble sounded in the distance.

“The next thing I remember was waking up,” he later recalled . “My right foot was stuck in the radiator and there was water pouring out of it. My desk was pinned against my stomach and a girl’s head was on my left shoulder. She was dead.”

Over the next hour and a half, the then-8-year-old Edwards struggled to breathe as his classmates, trapped under a torrent of liquefied coal waste, cried out around him. With every passing minute, he said, “They got quieter and quieter, … buried and running out of air.”

Around 11 a.m., someone spotted a tuft of Edwards’ blonde hair amid the rubble. A fireman used a hatchet to free the young boy from beneath his desk, then passed him along to safety via a human chain . Edwards, the tenth child rescued that morning, would be the last survivor pulled from the debris.

In total, the October 21, 1966, disaster killed 144 people, 116 of whom were students at the Welsh town of Aberfan’s Pantglas Junior School. The tragedy, according to BBC News ’ Ceri Jackson, was a “mistake that cost a village its children”; in the words of a tribunal commissioned to investigate the incident, the deadly accident “could and should have been prevented.”

The Aberfan disaster features heavily in season three of Netflix’s award-winning series “ The Crown ,” which returns to viewers’ screens this Sunday after a two-year absence. To ensure the television biopic portrayed the incident “truthfully and responsibly,” the cast and crew consulted survivors and current residents of Aberfan. Per a statement from the show’s producers, “All strongly felt the Aberfan disaster and the events that followed must be included, especially as it continues to hold a deep resonance for the nation and the queen herself.”

Aberfan disaster mountain of sludge

Much like the days that preceded it, the morning of the disaster found Aberfan, a southern Wales village home to some 8,000 coal miners and their loved ones, blanketed in a wet fog. The 240 students enrolled in the school walked to class in the rain, but few were focused on the weather. Instead, the children’s conversations centered on plans for the coming half-term holiday: Following an early afternoon assembly, all students would be dismissed for vacation.

Several years earlier, the local council had contacted the National Coal Board, which ran the nearby Merthyr Vale Colliery mine, to express concerns regarding the spoil tip —a massive pile of accumulated coal waste material removed during mining—situated just above the Pantglas school.

“I regard it as extremely serious as the slurry is so fluid and the gradient so steep that it could not possibly stay in position in the winter time or during periods of heavy rain,” one engineer wrote in a June 1963 letter .

The NCB not only ignored these complaints, but implicitly threatened the town’s livelihood. Per BBC News , the unionized mining giant made its intentions clear: “Make a fuss and the mine would close.”

Rescue workers break

At the time of the disaster, the tip in question, number seven , rose 111 feet aboveground and contained nearly 300,000 cubic yards of waste. Set atop an underground spring covered by porous sandstone, the heap was precariously placed and, thanks to the recent rainy weather, extremely oversaturated.

At 7:30 a.m., workers assigned to the tip discovered that it had started to slide. Although the crew opted not to move forward with the day’s planned tip operation, they were unable to prevent further slippage, and at 9:15 a.m., a “ glistening black avalanche ” of liquefied coal waste, or slurry, began hurtling toward the village below.

“I thought I was seeing things,” crane driver Gwyn Brown later told investigators . “Then it rose up pretty fast, at a tremendous speed. ... It sort of came up out of the depression and turned itself into a wave—that is the only way I can describe it—down toward the mountain.”

According to History Extra ’s Steve Humphries, the 30-foot-tall “tsunami of sludge” raced down the hill at a speed of more than 80 miles per hour. Sweeping past a canal and an embankment, the landslide tore into the Pantglas Junior School, breaching the walls of four classrooms and trapping those inside in a flood of thick, quicksand-like sludge.

Aberfan disaster funeral

In the immediate aftermath of the onslaught, an eerie silence settled across the area.

“Everything was so quiet,” Cyril Vaughan, a teacher at the nearby senior school, said. “[It was] as if nature had realized that a tremendous mistake had been made and nature was speechless.”

Rubble and water from burst pipes exacerbated the already dire situation. As fireman Len Haggett recounted, rescuers who arrived on the scene found rising waters threatening to engulf 10-year-old Phil Thomas, who had been caught in the sludge as he was walking to school. “The water was rising and coming up to his head,” Haggett said. “We thought he might drown.” But a group of seven firefighters managed to lift the wall that had collapsed on Thomas, and he became one of the few to successfully escape the debris.

Five students survived the disaster thanks to the quick thinking of dinner lady Nansi Williams, who sacrificed herself by shielding them from the sludge with her own body. Another staff member, teacher David Beynon, died while cradling five of his pupils . None of the students in Beynon’s class survived.

Eight-year-old Jeff Edwards, rescued from the rubble around 11 a.m., was the last person found alive. But shocked parents, miners, police officers, firefighters and volunteers continued digging long after the last child’s cry could be heard. As Alix Palmer, a reporter who arrived to survey the mayhem the following day, wrote in a letter to her mother , “Men who had started digging at 9:30 the previous morning were still digging, with shirts off and bodies sweating despite the cold.”

Charles Nunn, a detective tasked with cataloging the bodies brought to the makeshift morgue in Aberfan’s Bethania Chapel, sorted through the deceased’s pockets in search of “a handkerchief, sweets, anything that might help with identification.” Parents walked along the rows of corpses laid on pews, lifting blankets covering the bodies until they spotted a familiar face. Those whose children hadn’t yet been found repeated the ritual daily, leaving the chapel to stand in line once again, “mother relieving father, to keep their place outside waiting in the rain.”

Survivors of Aberfan disaster

Fifteen days after the landslide, Nunn and his team finally left Aberfan. They had identified 144 bodies, including those of 116 children, 5 teachers and 23 locals whose homes were destroyed by the deluge. According to Johnson, the victims ranged in age from three months to 82; of the 116 students, most were aged 7 to 11.

Episode three of “The Crown”’s new season finds Elizabeth II, played by newly minted Oscar laureate Olivia Colman, debating how best to address the situation . England’s prime minister, Harold Wilson (Jason Watkins), urges her to visit the mining village and console its grieving residents in person, but the queen is reluctant to do so, suggesting her presence would distract from the tragedy at hand. Describing Wilson’s directive to “comfort people” as simply a “show,” she declares, “The Crown doesn’t do that.”

The real Elizabeth didn’t visit Aberfan until eight days after the disaster. Decades later, the queen reportedly deemed this decision her “ biggest regret .”

Elizabeth’s time in the village— biographer Robert Lacey said her “gaunt features, etched with grief, were the more moving for being so clearly genuine”—signaled a shift in the monarchy’s long-held tradition of stoicism. As Jen Chaney writes for Vulture , the moment dramatized in “The Crown” offers “one of multiple hints that modern times are beginning to demand more transparency and outward empathy from the royal family.”

Aerial picture Aberfan

A tribunal tasked with investigating the Aberfan disaster published its findings on August 3, 1967. Over the course of 76 days , the panel had interviewed 136 witnesses and examined 300 exhibits. Based on this evidence, the tribunal concluded that the sole party responsible for the tragedy was the National Coal Board.

“The Aberfan disaster is a terrifying tale of bungling ineptitude by many men charged with tasks for which they were totally unfitted, of failure to heed clear warnings, and of total lack of direction from above,” the investigators wrote in their report . “Not villains but decent men, led astray by foolishness or by ignorance or by both in combination, are responsible for what happened at Aberfan.”

Per History Extra , the NCB’s chairman, Lord Robens, denied all wrongdoing. He attributed the accident to previously unknown springs located below the spoil tip and refuted testimony suggesting the tip had shown signs of slipping in the years prior to the disaster. Both of these claims were at odds with the physical evidence examined by the tribunal.

Photographs and footage of the deadly slurry avalanche generated sympathy across the globe, and in the months following the disaster, donors contributed a total of £1,750,000 . (Today, this equates to around £20 million pounds, or more than $25 million USD.)

Much of this money failed to reach the villagers whose lives had been devastated by the tragedy. As BBC News reports, the commission in charge of distributing the funds allocated £150,000 toward removal of the town’s remaining tips after the NCB refused to cover the costs; meanwhile, the fund’s managers actually considered distributing compensation on the basis of how close parents had been to their deceased children. Thankfully, the commission soon moved away from this plan, instead offering bereaved parents £50 each. Later, this figure was raised to the “generous offer” of £500.

Queen Elizabeth Prince Philip Aberfan

The psychological scars suffered by survivors endured long beyond the 1966 disaster. Edwards, the last child pulled from the razed school, told Wales Online that he relived the trauma in the “days, the weeks and the months after.”

“I was afraid of noise, I was afraid of crowds, I was afraid of going to school,” he added, “and for many years I couldn’t go to school because I was afraid that something would happen to me.”

Melvyn Walker, 8 years old at the time of the disaster, echoed Edwards’ sentiments, saying, “[The sound of children playing] gives me flashbacks. I get very anxious even to this day. If I hear children’s voices it takes me straight back.”

Speaking with ITV News ’ Juliet Brenner on the 50th anniversary of the tragedy, Edwards concluded, “Most of my friends in my class died. … Basically we were happy-go-lucky children, looking forward to the half-term holidays, and at 9:15 our childhood stopped.”

Since the Aberfan disaster, the queen has returned to the tiny Welsh town three more times . Although Elizabeth was unable to attend a memorial ceremony held on the 50th anniversary of the tragedy, her son Prince Charles read a statement from his mother detailing the “ heart-breaking inscription ” written on a posy given to her by a young girl during the 1966 visit: “From the remaining children of Aberfan.”

“On this saddest of anniversaries,” the queen added, “I send my renewed good wishes to you all.”

Queen Elizabeth Aberfan wreath

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Meilan Solly is Smithsonian magazine's associate digital editor, history.

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How the 1966 Aberfan Mine Disaster Became Elizabeth II’s Biggest Regret

By: Erin Blakemore

Updated: June 29, 2023 | Original: January 4, 2019

did queen visit aberfan

The avalanche raced down a steep hill in Aberfan, Wales, sucking everything in its path into the chaos: landscape, buildings, an entire schoolhouse. When David Evans, the owner of a local pub, heard about it from a neighbor, he ran into the street. “Everything was so quiet, so quiet,” he told historian Gaynor Madgewick. “All I could see was the apex of the roofs.”

The avalanche wasn’t snow—it was coal waste that had slid down a rain-saturated mountainside. On October 21, 1966, nearly 140,000 cubic yards of black slurry cascaded down the hill above Aberfan. It destroyed everything it touched, eventually killing 144 people, most of them children sitting in their school classrooms.

The tragedy in Aberfan would become one of the United Kingdom’s worst mining disasters—and it was completely avoidable.

Queen Elizabeth II's Response to the Aberfan Disaster

did queen visit aberfan

Despite the magnitude of the calamity, Queen Elizabeth II at first refused to visit the village, sparking criticism in the press and questions about why she wouldn’t go. Finally, after sending her husband, Prince Philip, in her place for a formal visit, she came to Aberfan eight days after the disaster to survey the damage and speak with survivors. Nearly four decades later, in 2002, the queen said that not visiting Aberfan immediately after the disaster was “her biggest regret.”

The Foundation of the Disaster

The foundation of the disaster was laid nearly a century before, when the Merthyr Vale Colliery, a coal mine, was opened in the area. Wales had become famous for coal mining during the Industrial Revolution , and at its peak in 1920, 271,000 workers labored in the country’s coal pits. By the 1960s, coal mining was in decline, but was still a lifeline for some 8,000 miners and their families around Aberfan.

Coal mining creates waste, and the waste rock was dumped in an area called a tip. Merthyr Vale had seven tips. By 1966, the seventh tip, which was begun in 1958, was about 111 feet high and contained nearly 300,000 cubic yards of waste. It was precariously placed on sandstone above a natural spring, which lay on the steep hill above the village.

As mining progressed, the heaps of waste grew and grew. In 1963 and 1964 residents and local officials had raised concerns about the seventh tip’s location with the National Coal Board, which owned and operated the mine. They were especially worried because the tip was located right above Pantglas Junior School, which was attended by about 240 students.

Those concerns were all too prescient, but the National Coal Board ignored them. “The threat was implicit,” notes the BBC: “make a fuss and the mine would close.”

did queen visit aberfan

Devastation and Rescue Efforts of the Aberfan Disaster

On October 21, students at Pantglas were only scheduled for a half day of school ahead of a mid-term break. It had been a rainy day, but that wasn’t unusual—not only had it been raining for weeks, but the area got at least 60 inches of rain annually. The children had just arrived at school when it happened: Saturated by rain, the fine coal material piled on the hill liquefied into a thick slurry and began hurtling toward them.

It happened so quickly that nobody could prepare. Students heard a sound like a jet plane. It was black quicksand burying everything in its path. The slurry hit the school, slamming its walls to rubble and pouring in through the windows. Pipes burst and water began flowing outside the school.

Down the hill, the town, which had begun to flood from streams clogged with debris, sprang into action. Emergency workers and volunteers ran up toward the school to help. “Civil defense teams, miners, policemen, firemen and other volunteers toiled desperately, sometimes tearing at the coal rubble with their bare hands, to extricate the children,” reported   The New York Times . “Bulldozers shoved debris aside to get to the children. A hush fell on the rescuers once when faint cries were heard in the rubble.”

Alix Palmer, a young journalist on his first major assignment, went to Aberfan to report on the rescue efforts. It had been hours since anyone had been pulled out alive. “The fathers straight from the pit were digging,” he wrote to his mother afterward. “No one had yet really given up hope, although logic told them it was useless.”

How Many People Died During the Aberfan Disaster?

did queen visit aberfan

In the aftermath, the true scale of the disaster became clear. One hundred and forty-four people were dead, 116 of them children. Half of the village’s children had been killed. “All our friends were gone,” Jeff Edwards, who survived the disaster pinned beneath his desk, told the BBC in 2016.

A tribunal later concluded that the National Coal Board was responsible for the disaster after examining 300 exhibits and interviewing 136 witnesses. “The Aberfan disaster could and should have been prevented,” said the tribunal in its report. The disaster was a matter “not of wickedness but of ignorance, ineptitude and a failure in communications,” it wrote.

The Aftermath of Aberfan

Great Britain quickly mobilized on behalf of the people in Aberfan. The Aberfan Disaster Memorial Fund, which was set up on the day of the disaster, raised the equivalent of $16.6 million in modern dollars. The money was used to pay for repairs in the village and the care of those who were injured and bereaved in the disaster.

But the money also had to help pay for the removal of the remaining tips that lurked above the village. The head of the National Coal Board refused to visit Aberfan and parents of children had to prove they were “close” to their children to receive a payment of £500 from the board. The funds for removing the tips were only repaid in 1997—without interest.

Someone else had lingering heartache about the Aberfan disaster: Elizabeth II. Instead of visiting herself, she sent Prince Philip in her stead. “We kept presenting the arguments,” an advisor told biographer Robert Lacey, “but nothing we said could persuade her.” Finally, she had a change of heart and visited eight days after the slide, speaking with village residents and showing poignant grief—an uncharacteristically emotional display for the usually stoic queen.

For the people of Aberfan, the visit was part of the healing process. “They were above the politics and the din and they proved to us that the world was with us and that the world cared,” Marjorie Collins, who lost her eight-year-old son in the disaster, said in 2015. But nothing could make it less bitter to lose a child. “I lost my daughter and we were lucky to save the lad,” an Aberfan father told LIFE in 1967. “No amount of money will fetch any of them back, will it?” 

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The Tragic True Story Behind The Crown 's Aberfan Mining Disaster Episode

Queen Elizabeth II is said to regret delaying her trip.

The Queen At Aberfan

  • On October 21, 1966, a mining accident occurred in the South Wales village of Aberfan.
  • The Aberfan disaster killed 144 people, including 116 children.

In its three seasons, The Crown has educated many of its viewers on events that their history books may have skipped, such as the Profumo affair , the Great Smog of 1952 , and the life and death of Princess Alice . "Aberfan," the third episode of season 3, tells the story of a particularly horrifying day in U.K. history: The Aberfan mining disaster, which killed over 100 children at the Pantaglas Junior High School. The Netflix series also attempts to explain why it took eight days for the queen to pay a visit to the site of the tragedy.

Here's what really happened at the Aberfan disaster portrayed on The Crown , and how Queen Elizabeth II reportedly feels about her reaction years later.

How did the Aberfan disaster happen?

It was a Friday morning on October 21, 1966, shortly after 9:00 a.m. In the South Wales coal mining village of Aberfan, students at the Pantglas Junior School had just began their day's lessons after singing the hymn " All Things Bright and Beautiful ," as they did on every other school day before it.

And then, as a woman who lost both her brother and sister in the disaster told England's Channel 4 News in 2016, there was "just a traumatic loud, loud banging noise, and it just got louder and louder and louder. Something was coming." The approaching sound was in fact a landslide of liquified coal waste descending down a mountain slope above, and it decimated several farm cottages on the slope before it reached the school.

The Disaster scene at Aberfan, South Wales.  21st October 1966

There had been weeks of heavy rainfall in the village, according to The Independent , and rainwater had saturated the colliery tip . For those whose knowledge of mining could fit in a thimble (ahem), a colliery tip is a pile made of spoil—a.k.a. coal mining waste material—and the rain buildup caused that particular colliery tip to collapse. The ensuing slurry engulfed the Pantglas Junior School with sludgy waste too quickly for anyone to stop what happened next.

The disaster killed 116 children and 28 adults.

"I knew as soon as I came out of the class that my sister was gone," Brian Williams, who was 7 years old at the time, told Wales Online . "You only had to look up the top end of the school and it was just...well, it wasn’t there." Jeff Edwards, who was the last child to be lifted from the school's rubble alive after 90 minutes, told the BBC that he "could hear crying and screaming. As time went on they got quieter and quieter as children died, they were buried and running out of air.”

The rescue effort included first responders, and village residents including the coal miners who ran down to help. Welsh journalist John Humphrys told The Telegraph what he saw reporting on the scene: "And there they were when I arrived, their faces still black—save for the streaks of white from the sweat and the tears as they dug and prayed and wept. Most of them were digging for their own children.” Though they continued to dig for a week, no survivors were found after the first day.

Aberfan Funeral

The accident was preventable.

Prior to the disaster, Aberfan residents had already voiced concern about the fact that there was essentially an 100-foot tall pile of waste hovering above a school full of young children—even in letters to the National Coal Board (NCB). England's House of Lords launched an inquiry that found the NCB largely responsible for the disaster in a report published the following year. As politician Emlyn Hooson said in 1967 , "It was the unanimous view of the Tribunal that this great tragedy could and should have been prevented, and the responsibility fell fairly and squarely on the great public body, the National Coal Board."

However, the NCB refused to acknowledge their role in the tragedy and pay for the remaining colliery tips above the town to be removed; that money had to be taken out of the Aberfan Disaster Fund. According to the BBC , the NCB also first offered only £50 to each parent of a child lost in the landslide, "before raising it to the 'generous offer' of £500."

Queen Elizabeth II allegedly considers her delayed visit her greatest regret.

Prince Philip visited Aberfan on the day after the tragedy. Her brother-in-law Lord Snowdon, who was of Welsh heritage, headed there early that next morning as well. But the queen decided to delay her own appearance there, despite advice to the contrary. In Elizabeth the Queen , royal biographer Sally Bechdel Smith claims this was because she feared her presence would be a distraction to the rescue efforts. "Perhaps they'll miss some poor child that might have been found under the wreckage," she allegedly said.

As depicted on The Crown , Queen Elizabeth II arrived at Aberfan on October 29, 1966 to tour the site and speak with victim's families. Though The Crown paints Elizabeth's reaction as somewhat callous, with Prime Minister Harold Wilson chastising her for the choice to wait, the queen does look duly rattled in photos of her visit with the grieving villagers (on the show, Olivia Colman's queen claims to have faked it).

Queen Elizabeth

Members of her inner circle at the time have said the queen does regret not visiting sooner. "I think she felt in hindsight that she might have gone there a little earlier," Sir William Heseltine, who worked in the royal press office at the time, said in the documentary Elizabeth: Our Queen, according to Town & Country . "It was a sort of lesson for us that you need to show sympathy and to be there on the spot, which I think people craved from her."

Per an account published by the South Wales Echo in 2002, Lord Charteris, the Queen's former private secretary, allegedly confided to British author and broadcaster Gyles Brandreth on the matter: "In a diary Brandreth has compiled to mark the Queen's Golden Jubilee year, he recalls a conversation he had with Lord Charteris 10 years ago, asking him if the Queen felt she had ever put a foot wrong - he immediately replied: 'Aberfan.'"

3

Marjorie Collins, whose 9-year-old son Wayne died in his classroom, told ITV that "people were very pleased that she came here." Queen Elizabeth II has gone back to Aberfan four times since.

Many fans of The Crown say they'd never heard of the Aberfan disaster before.

Despite the horrific scope of the tragedy—and the NCB's despicable lack of response in its wake—the Aberfan disaster is a lesser-known story outside the U.K. Yet those who did know what happened are glad it was shared on The Crown. According to The Guardian , the production team used people who lived in Aberfan at the time, as well as relatives of the deceased, as extras in certain scenes. In an effort to respect their trauma, they were offered counseling by the makers of the show.

"We had a therapist to help all the people who were recreating such a horrific scene," producer Oona O' Beirn told The Guardian. “People who live there are still traumatized, of course, and we found they’d never been offered help before. Now we are trying to arrange more.”

Check out reactions to the Aberfan episode below.

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The Real Story Behind the 1966 Aberfan Disaster, Depicted in The Crown Season 3 

By Emma Specter

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Warning: This story contains spoilers for season three of The Crown .

If you’re all caught up on The Crown , you might have been somewhat shaken by the third episode of season three . Titled “Aberfan,” the episode gives the viewer a look inside the catastrophic collapse that devastated the community of Aberfan, South Wales, in 1966. The disaster is depicted in detail on The Crown , with the show providing a look at normal life in Aberfan to underscore the severity of the collapse’s effect on the town.

Younger viewers might not know that the tragedy was very real; its effects are still being felt by Aberfan survivors, some of whom still suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder. If the Aberfan episode of The Crown ’s third season moved you, here is the true story about the real-life disaster.

What led to the disaster in Aberfan?

A colliery spoil tip, or a pile of waste material removed during mining, was overlaid atop a natural spring on a mountain slope in Aberfan. Heavy rain led the buildup of water in the tip to turn into a slurry and slide downhill, with fatal consequences.

How many people died?

The slurry caused by the spoil tip’s collapse engulfed the nearby Pantglas Junior School, and the resulting death toll was high; 116 children—half the village’s children, in total—and 28 adults were killed, and an additional six adults and 29 children were injured. “Civil defense teams, miners, policemen, firemen and other volunteers toiled desperately, sometimes tearing at the coal rubble with their bare hands, to extricate the children,” reported the New York Times .

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Who was responsible for the catastrophe?

There are several possible answers to this question, but the tip was the official responsibility of the National Coal Board. An official inquiry chaired by Lord Justice Edmund Davies criticized the NCB and its chair, Lord Robens, for not being transparent about their knowledge of the presence of water springs on the hillside, but there was no official censure regarding the landslide. However, the disaster was seen as symptomatic of the monarchy not being sufficiently invested in Wales.

Did Queen Elizabeth II really fail to respond?

Not quite—as pictured on The Crown , the queen sent a message of support to the victims—but she didn’t actually visit Aberfan until eight days after the disaster, sending Prince Philip in her place shortly after the collapse occurred. As seen on The Crown , the queen was criticized for not visiting the site of the tragedy earlier, and these criticisms appeared to stay with her; in 2002 it was reported that the queen had told her former private secretary that not visiting Aberfan immediately after the disaster was “her biggest regret.”

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How The Crown portrayed the Aberfan disaster in Wales

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At around quarter past nine on the morning of Friday 21 October 1966, disaster struck the coal mining village of Aberfan in South Wales .

What began as a typical morning 56 years ago escalated quickly into tragedy when a colliery spoil tip located directly above the village slid downhill.

The devastating event – which became known as the Aberfan disaster – resulted in 144 people losing their lives, 116 of whom were children.

Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Philip travelled to Aberfan to pay their respects to the deceased and their loved ones on 29 October 1966, a day after the final victim was recovered from the debris.

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In 2019, the tragedy was portrayed in the third season of Netflix’s The Crown .

How did the Aberfan disaster occur?

The colliery tip – a pile of mining waste material – that caused the Aberfan disaster had been created eight years prior on a point of high ground that overlooked the village.

Despite the official regulations of the National Coal Board (NCB), the tip was placed on an area of ground that was partly above underground water springs.

By the day of the incident, the tip had reached approximately 111 feet in height, containing just under 300,000 cubic yards of spoil.

Concerns had previously been voiced about the danger of the spoil tip being located directly above the village’s local junior school, such as in a letter written in 1963 to the NCB regarding the “danger from coal slurry being tipped at the rear of the Pantglas Schools”.

However, measures were not put into place by the NCB to prevent the calamitous event from occurring.

As such, plenty of anger felt by the grieving village was directed towards the NCB as members of the community struggled to come to terms with the Aberfan disaster.

In the weeks leading up to the preventable tragedy, the village experienced a significant amount of rainfall. This led to rainwater building up within the colliery tip, causing it to collapse and cause a slurry.

Travelling at a high speed, the landslide rushed down the mountain slope, destroying two farm cottages on the land before reaching Pantglas Junior School.

The academic institution was struck by an avalanche of thick mud and sludge just as the day’s lessons had commenced.

Had the landslide occurred just half an hour earlier, before the children had arrived at school, or three hours later, when they would have broken up for half-term, many of the children may not have lost their lives.

Five teachers and 109 children lost their lives in the school, which was engulfed by the contents of the colliery tip. The total number of fatalities reached 144.

In their final moments, several members of staff at Pantglas Junior School did all they could to protect the pupils in their care.

Nansi Williams, a dinner lady at the school who perished in the disaster, used her body to shield five children, all of whom survived thanks to her selfless act.

Jeff Edwards, the last child to be rescued alive from the remains of the school, recalled hearing the “crying and screaming” of his classmates in the landslide’s aftermath.

“As time went on they got quieter and quieter as children died, they were buried and running out of air,” he said.

What happened after the Aberfan disaster?

Following the aftermath of the Aberfan disaster, local residents of the village, miners and emergency responders carried out a rescue effort to try to retrieve as many people from the rubble as possible, with the assistance of thousands of volunteers.

While the rescue effort continued for a week, the last survivor was discovered at 11am on the day of the landslide.

Welsh broadcaster John Humphrys, who was present on the scene, vividly remembered the despairing efforts of the miners and parents as they desperately dug for survivors.

“The moment the terrible news reached them, the miners had abandoned the coalface at the colliery which had created that monstrous tip and raced to the surface,” Humphrys said .

“And there they were when I arrived, their faces still black – save for the streaks of white from the sweat and the tears as they dug and prayed and wept. Most of them were digging for their own children.”

The broadcaster described how the rescue effort continued even after the final cries of survivors were heard, their only motivation then being the recovery of the deceased.

“The men dug all day and all night and all the next day. They dug until there were no more faint cries, no more hope. But still they kept going. They were digging now for bodies.”

Following the destruction that occurred, many of the inhabitants of Aberfan developed medical conditions and several suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder later in life.

An inquiry was held to investigate who was to blame for the Aberfan disaster, with the first public meeting held on the 2 November.

Evidence was heard over 76 days which included the testimony of 136 witnesses, during the longest-running inquiry in British history.

The report concluded that the NCB bore much responsibility for the tragedy, stating : “Much of the time of the tribunal could have been saved if [...] the National Coal Board had not stubbornly resisted every attempt to lay the blame where it so clearly must rest – at their door.”

When the findings of the report were published on 3 August the following year, it stated that the blame for the disaster was to be “shared (though in varying degrees) among the National Coal Board headquarters, the South Western Divisional Board, and certain individuals”.

“Our strong and unanimous view is that the Aberfan disaster could and should have been prevented,” the report stated, highlighting the “ignorance, ineptitude and failure in communications” that led to the grave loss of life.

On the day of the Aberfan disaster, the Aberfan Disaster Memorial Fund was launched, receiving around 88,000 donations and raising approximately £1.75m.

However, further anger was sparked when £150,000 was taken from the fund to clear the remaining colliery tips.

The £150,000 was repaid to the fund by the British government more than three decades after the disaster.

A further decade later, the Welsh Assembly donated £1.5m towards the fund and half a million pounds to the Aberfan Education Charity .

Has the Aberfan disaster been portrayed on TV?

The Aberfan disaster was portrayed in the third season of The Crown , with many viewers commenting at the time that they had been unaware of the tragedy prior to its depiction.

“Watching the Aberfan disaster episode of #TheCrown and I had no idea... what a horrific event,” one person tweeted .

“I wasn’t even born when the Aberfan disaster struck, I was unaware of its existence. Which is why it’s so important to remember these disasters and to educate people,” another wrote .

Others recalled how the pain of the Aberfan disaster is “still felt today” in South Wales.

“Although only 10 years old at the time I remember it clearly as it was the first time I saw my father weep,” a Twitter user stated . “Such an absolute tragedy, heart-breaking.”

Some have criticised the way in which the late Queen, portrayed by Olivia Colman, is told in a scene of The Crown to “display emotion” during her visit to the disaster-struck Welsh village.

Colman later voices the line: “I dabbed a bone-dry eye and by some miracle no one noticed.”

One viewer stated that they found the portrayal of Queen Elizabeth II in the episode as “cold-hearted”.

“Shame on the #TheCrown’s producers! It’s ridiculous how they portrayed the Queen as unfeeling during the Aberfan disaster. There’s a video on YouTube of her visit and she is clearly upset,” another remarked .

It has previously been reported that waiting eight days to visit Aberfan following the colliery tip disaster was one of the Queen’s “biggest regrets”.

“I think she felt in hindsight that she might have gone there a little earlier. It was a sort of lesson for us that you need to show sympathy and to be there on the spot, which I think people craved from her,” said Sir William Heseltine, who worked in the royal press office at the time of the tragedy.

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The True Story of the Aberfan Disaster in The Crown Season 3

Olivia Colman as Queen Elizabeth in

While historically based shows often play loose with facts, the subject of The Crown ’s season-three episode “ Aberfan ” is all too real. In the episode, school children run outside in the rainy Welsh weather while a tall and forbidding hill of coal waste looms in the background. The next day, that hill collapses, sending around 300,000 cubic yards of coal slurry directly into the path of Pantglas Junior School and all the children and teachers inside.

The actual Aberfan disaster of October 21, 1966, killed 144 people; 116 of them were children. The Crown captures the awful scope of the tragedy — and how, infamously, Queen Elizabeth delayed her visit to Aberfan in the aftermath — but still, the story of the yearslong neglect that led to the disaster isn’t fully told.

What looks at first to be a Welsh mountain is in fact a spoil tip, a giant pile of accumulated waste material removed during mining. The mine in question, Merthyr Vale, was founded in 1869, and this particular tip had been created eight years earlier. Upon its collapse, 111 feet of extremely fine coal waste went crashing directly into Pantglas. If you’re wondering if anyone had voiced concerns over the danger of a spoil tip being located directly above a school — yes, they had. In 1963, just three years before the disaster, a letter was written to the National Coal Board discussing the “ danger from coal slurry being tipped at the rear of the Pantglas Schools .” Although previous tip slides happened in 1944 and 1963, as of 1966, no colliery inspector had visited Aberfan in four years.

It all seems shocking: Multiple previous tip slides, public fears about the tip collapsing, and still no inspection of the mines? But when viewed in the context of Welsh mining in the 1960s, the reasons for the neglect become clear. At the time, oil was quickly outpacing coal as an energy source that was both cheap and plentiful. While the National Union of Mineworkers was strong, the number of miners shrank from 583,000 to 283,000 between 1960 and 1970. Approximately one mine was closing every nine days, and with them, people’s livelihoods. Miners, engineers, and others involved with Merthyr Vale were aware that if water got into the base of a spoil tip, it became unstable and could collapse — and the National Coal Board had placed this tip partly above underground water springs. Despite all this knowledge, it was not drained. In 1965, a senior Coal Board official claimed that if tipping ended, coal mining would end. This deliberate avoidance of the industry’s inevitable decline cost 144 people their lives.

Did Elizabeth II wait eight long days to visit Aberfan, like she does in The Crown ? Yes. While the queen’s oft-portrayed personal diary is on display throughout the episode, her real diaries are private, and there is no way of knowing what she wrote or thought about in the days following the tragedy. Tony Snowdon drove down in the middle of the night, arriving at 2 a.m. Prince Philip came down the next day. The queen is reported to have initially resisted because of a worry that people would be looking after her instead of looking for the missing children. This concern is conveyed in “Aberfan,” along with the idea that the queen has a difficult if not impossible time feeling emotion, although the latter is obviously harder to factually corroborate.

did queen visit aberfan

While there are some reports that delaying her visit to Aberfan is the greatest regret in the queen’s life , survivors like Jeff Edwards, who was 8 years old when the disaster happened, harbor no blame: “She came when she could and nobody would condemn her for not coming earlier, especially as everything was such a mess,” he said in a 2002 interview.

In the aftermath of the disaster, a tribunal was held and the blame laid squarely on the National Coal Board, which was ordered to pay the victims’ families. (Their opening offer was £50, but they wound up paying £500 to each family.) Merthyr Vale itself stayed open a further 23 years until finally closing in 1989. The survivors of Aberfan were subsequently shown to suffer from PTSD , including nervousness, difficulty sleeping, and social isolation. The effects of this complete neglect of safety standards, down to a basic inspection, are thereby felt decades after the initial tragedy.

The queen has returned to Aberfan throughout her reign, including trips in 1973 to open a community center and in 1997, with Prince Philip, to plant a tree at the Aberfan Memorial Garden. In 2016, on the 50th anniversary of the disaster, she sent a note to the people of Aberfan: “I well remember my own visit with Prince Philip after the disaster, and the posy I was given by a young girl, which bore the heart-breaking inscription ‘From the remaining children of Aberfan’.”

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The Crown Season 3: The Devastating True Story of the Aberfan Mining Disaster

The queen once said her delayed response to the tragedy was her "biggest regret."

Event, Ceremony, Funeral, Tourism,

What exactly happened at Aberfan?

On the morning of October 21, 1966, a coal tip on a mountain slope above Aberfan collapsed. A coal tip is essentially a pile of mining waste material, and after several days of heavy rainfall in the area, this tip had become waterlogged and began to sink. The rainwater turned the coal waste into liquid slurry, which spilled out after the tip collapsed and slid down the mountainside, creating an avalanche that buried several buildings in Aberfan, including the Pantglas Junior School. In the end, 144 people were killed; 116 of them were children.

In one of several harrowing accounts in the BBC’s exhaustive oral history of the incident, survivor Jeff Edwards, who was eight years old at the time, recalls his experience inside the buried school. “It was black all around me but there was an aperture of light about 10ft above me,” he said. “I could hear crying and screaming. As time went on they got quieter and quieter as children died, they were buried and running out of air.”

Per The Independent , concerns had been raised about the danger of the tip’s location long before the disaster, and its placement on an area of ground that sat above underground water springs went against regulations. But the National Coal Board took no action to enforce its own regulations, which could have averted the disaster.

People, Crowd, Event, Community, Ceremony, Tourism,

How did Queen Elizabeth II respond?

As depicted in The Crown , the queen was conflicted over how to respond to the disaster. She initially refused to visit Aberfan, a decision that sparked widespread criticism in the press. Per Sally Bechdel Smith’s biography, Elizabeth the Queen , the decision not to visit was motivated by not wanting to distract from the essential rescue work. “People will be looking after me,” Smith reported the queen as saying. “Perhaps they’ll miss some poor child that might have been found under the wreckage.”

When the queen did eventually visit Aberfan eight days after the incident, she became visibly emotional as she surveyed the damage and spoke with survivors. “If the queen does regret not coming here straight away, I think that is misplaced,” Edwards told the South Wales Echo in 2002 . “When she did arrive she was visibly upset and the people of Aberfan appreciated her being here. She came when she could and nobody would condemn her for not coming earlier, especially as everything was such a mess.”

In 2002, the queen described her delayed response to the Aberfan disaster as “her biggest regret.” In 2016, the queen sent a personal message —delivered by Prince Charles, who is Prince of Wales—to Aberfan to mark the 50th anniversary of the disaster.

How was Antony Armstrong-Jones involved?

While The Crown takes some liberties with royal characters’ involvement in the Aberfan response—Philip is shown attending a funeral that he wasn’t at in real life, for instance—Antony Armstrong-Jones’s emotional visit to the village really happened. “When I heard the news of the disaster on the wireless I felt I should be there because I was Welsh and thought the Welsh should stick together,” Antony told WalesOnline in 2006. “So I just got on a train and went straight down.” He was deeply affected by what he saw in Aberfan and wrote in a letter to Princess Margaret, “Darling, it was the most terrible thing I have ever seen.”

Queen Elizabeth II Visits Wales - Day Two

Was the episode filmed in Aberfan?

The Crown didn’t film any scenes in Aberfan, but in the nearby village of Cwmaman. Edwards told the BBC that the show’s producers contacted him in advance to explain their plans, and he in turn put them in touch with community groups so that local residents could share their views. “Following these meetings the production team decided to put on a public meeting which was held earlier this month and at which a dozen or so residents turned up and they outlined their proposals to them," Edwards explained.

“The production team made spectacular efforts to show respect and consideration,” showrunner Peter Morgan told The Guardian . “But I underestimated how raw it still was. The best you have to rely on is your conscience and your own belief in what the truth is.”

Producer Oona O Beirn also revealed to The Guardian that some relatives and neighbors who lost loved ones in the Aberfan disaster took up an invitation to appear as extras in the episode. During the course of filming, they were offered counseling—for the first time in 53 years. “We had a therapist to help all the people who were recreating such a horrific scene,” O Beirn explained. “People who live there are still traumatised, of course, and we found they’d never been offered help before. Now we are trying to arrange more.”

In a statement, the producers of The Crown said , “The third season of The Crown will cover the major historical events of Elizabeth II’s reign from 1963–1977 and all strongly felt the Aberfan disaster and the events that followed must be included, especially as it continues to hold a deep resonance for the nation and the queen herself.

“As producers, we feel a responsibility to remain true to the memory and the experience of the survivors, so have met with community leaders, as well as the people of Aberfan on a number of occasions as part of our in depth research and to discuss our approach.

“We have been made to feel welcome by the residents who have been very helpful in providing insight into one of the most tragic events of the 20th century.”

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Emma Dibdin is a freelance writer based in Los Angeles who writes about culture, mental health, and true crime. She loves owls, hates cilantro, and can find the queer subtext in literally anything.

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Moy Road in Aberfan, where an avalanche of coal slurry in October 1966 destroyed a school and several houses, killing 116 children and 28 adults. Credit...

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  • Sept. 18, 2022

ABERFAN, Wales — As the days count down to Queen Elizabeth II’s funeral on Monday, Gaynor Madgwick has been of two minds: Should she watch the ceremony from her home in South Wales or join the crowds in London to pay her respects in person?

Her brain says stay. Ms. Madgwick, 64, has feared crowds and confined spaces since an avalanche of slurry — a mixture of debris from a coal mine and water — cascaded down the hillside above her village of Aberfan in 1966. One of the worst civilian disasters in contemporary British history, the avalanche crushed the village school, killed 144 villagers, 116 of them children, and left Ms. Madgwick trapped, but alive, beneath the rubble.

Her heart says go. The queen built an unusually strong relationship with Aberfan, beginning in the days after that very disaster and extending through four visits the queen made to the village.

“She was the guardian angel of Aberfan,” Ms. Madgwick said one afternoon last week. “It was a lifelong friendship.”

To many Britons, the death of Queen Elizabeth II — the ever-present backdrop to a century of dramatic social change — has felt like a rug snatched from beneath them, even if they never met or saw her.

did queen visit aberfan

The mood in Aberfan, with its rare connection to the queen, is an acute illustration of that feeling.

To be sure, the queen’s death and the resulting pageantry, set against fast-rising costs of living, have also been met by some in Aberfan with relative indifference and even frustration. As in other parts of Britain, it was a jolt that has awakened in some people a sense of alienation from the monarchy; frustration at the central government in London; and a gentle reassessment of national identity that, in Wales, includes calls for an independent Welsh state.

But the dominant mood in Aberfan — a village of gray roofs and sandstone walls in a narrow Welsh valley — is one of quiet loss. The four visits the queen made are an almost unimaginable number for a village of roughly 3,500 residents.

In the process, she made many villagers, hundreds of them still traumatized from the devastation of 1966, feel blessed and recognized by the highest person in the land, even as they felt betrayed by other arms of the British state.

“She looked over us, she protected us, she had sympathy, she had empathy,” Ms. Madgwick said. “The queen has never let us down.”

The queen first arrived in Aberfan, a village built mostly in the 19th century to serve the local coal mine, in October 1966. Her visit was later re-enacted in “The Crown,” the television series inspired by the queen’s life.

Eight days earlier, waste from the mine, dumped for years on the hilltop above the village, had suddenly slipped down after a period of heavy rainfall. It was shortly before 9:15 a.m. on the last day before the school year’s half-term break, and the students, aged 6 to 11, had only just arrived.

Ms. Madgwick was 8 at the time. As her class began a math lesson, a wave of debris — almost 10 yards high in places, and roughly the volume of 15 Olympic swimming pools — thundered through the school and the houses near it, killing just under half of the children there that day.

Ms. Madgwick survived, her leg broken by a dislodged radiator. Her sister and brother, Marilyn and Carl, both died.

The scale of the disaster quickly made it a moment of national introspection and trauma, and the queen soon decided to visit.

One of the biggest regrets of her reign was that she did not go sooner, a leading aide later said , and some villagers say the eight-day delay rankled the community at the time. But today, the residents largely remember her arrival as a moving gesture of solidarity from someone they never expected to lay eyes on.

Citing eyewitnesses, villagers say she briefly cried after receiving a bouquet of flowers from survivors — immortalizing her in village folklore by appearing as a mortal.

“When I close my eyes, I can see her,” said Denise Morgan, 67, who lost a sister in the disaster and was among the crowd that welcomed the queen.

“She didn’t come as a queen — she came as a mother,” Ms. Morgan said. “The loss, and the anguish, was just etched on her face.”

That alone would have been enough to guarantee the queen a place in the folklore of most villages. But she returned in 1973 to open a community center, in 1997 to plant a tree on the site of the disaster, and in 2012 to open a new school.

Over the years, she also hosted wives, mothers and sisters of the victims at Buckingham Palace, heard recitals by a choir led by male relatives of the victims, and gave chivalric honors to several villagers. The connection lasted until even the day before she died, when teachers at the new school opened a letter that courtiers had sent its students on the queen’s behalf.

Throughout those decades, changes to the economy and social fabric of Aberfan epitomized wider shifts in the country at large. The coal mine, once the hub of the community and driver of the local economy, shut — along with hundreds of mines across Britain. That drove many people to find work outside the village, often in the service industry, thinning out communal life. Several chapels and churches closed, amid a wider drop in religious belief, as did the village tailor shops and hardware store.

The pivot from a coal economy “ripped the heart out” of the community, said Dai Powell, 61, a former miner and a childhood friend of several disaster victims. “Now we don’t want coal; it’s basically destroying the planet,” Mr. Powell added. “But it was livelihoods, wasn’t it?”

There were other costs as well. Nearly half of the survivors were found to have suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder, according to research published in the British Journal of Psychiatry.

Other wings of the British state angered the village by refusing to prosecute any coal industry officials for negligence. Successive governments also declined to cover the whole cost of removing other dangerous slurry tips near the village, forcing villagers to dip into donations intended for survivors, until they were finally fully reimbursed in 2007.

But the queen’s concern for Aberfan meant that she was seen as separate from the state’s indifference, despite being its titular head.

Elsewhere in Britain, people have debated whether the queen could really ever rise beyond politics, given the monarch’s interest in maintaining her own role in Britain’s political system. But in Aberfan, there was less doubt.

“There’s no political agenda there,” said Jeff Edwards, 64, the last child to be rescued from the rubble. “The queen is above all that.”

In Aberfan, most people expressed sympathy for her family and respect for her sense of duty. But there are those, particularly among young generations, who have had a more ambivalent response to the queen’s death.

For some, the accession of King Charles III — as well as the abrupt appointment of his son William to his former role of Prince of Wales — is more problematic.

“I should be Prince of Wales, I’m more Welsh than Charles or William,” said Darren Martin, 47, a gardener in the village, with a laugh. Of the queen, he said: “Don’t get me wrong, I admire the woman. But I do think the time has come for us in Wales to be ruled by our own people.”

The abruptness of the queen’s death was a psychological jolt that has prompted, in some, a rethinking of long-held norms and doctrines.

“If things can change drastically like that, why can’t things change here?” asked Jordan McCarthy, 21, another gardener in Aberfan. “I would like Welsh independence.”

Of a monarchy, he added: “Only if they’re born and raised in Wales — that’s the only king or queen I’ll accept.”

Generally, though, the mood in Aberfan has been one of quiet mourning and deference. The local library opened a book of condolence. Villagers gathered in the pub to watch the new king’s speeches and processions. Some left bouquets beside the tree planted by the queen.

On Monday night, a men’s choir, founded by grieving relatives half a century ago, gathered for their biweekly practice. Proud Welshmen, they were preparing for their next performance — singing songs and hymns, some of them in Welsh, on the sidelines of the Welsh rugby team’s upcoming game.

But halfway through, the choir’s president, Steve Beasley, stood up.

“We all know about the queen,” Mr. Beasley said. “Please stand up for a minute’s silence.”

Patrick Kingsley is the Jerusalem bureau chief, covering Israel and the occupied territories. He has reported from more than 40 countries, written two books and previously covered migration and the Middle East for The Guardian. More about Patrick Kingsley

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Inside the 1966 Aberfan Disaster, one of Britain's most tragic mining disasters, where a collapsing mountain of coal waste killed 116 school children

  • More than 50 years ago, Aberfan, a small coal mining town in Wales, was irreversibly changed in a few minutes when 144 people, mostly school children, were killed by a coal-waste landslide. 
  • What made it worse was that it was a mistake. An investigative tribunal found Wales' National Coal Board was entirely at fault for the slip. 
  • The disaster has come back into focus, because it's one of the key storylines in season three of "The Crown."
  • Visit Business Insider's homepage for more stories .

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It was one of the United Kingdom's worst tragedies, and it was a man-made disaster.

In 1966, 300,000 cubic yards of coal sludge buried a Welsh primary school, and 19 houses in Aberfan, Wales. Hundreds of people tried to dig the school children, teachers, and people who lived nearby, from out of the wreckage, but 144 people died.

In an in-depth article titled " Aberfan: The mistake that cost a village its children ," the BBC's Ceri Jackson, called the disaster and its lingering effects, an "obscenity," and "an upsetting reminder of perhaps why and how much our society changed so much in little over a generation."

A year after the disaster, an investigative tribunal ruled that the National Coal Board was entirely to blame, although it wasn't villainy, but ineptitude. 

The disaster has come back into the focus, because it's one of the key storylines in season three of " The Crown ." Queen Elizabeth held off visiting for eight days, and when she did, she cried in public, which was highly unusual. Taking as long as she did is meant to be one of her biggest regrets .

Here's how the tragedy happened, in photos. 

On October 21, 1966, it had been raining heavily for a week in Aberfan, a small mining town in south Wales, which sat in the shadow of the Merthyr Vale coal mine.

did queen visit aberfan

Source: Wales Online , BBC

It was a drizzly morning, with low clouds. Students walked to school, for the last half-day of term. Yvonne Price, a 21-year-old police officer at the time, told Wales Online the weather was "nasty," while Reverend Irving Penberthy, who was driving that morning, said it was so misty he could barely see across the valley.

did queen visit aberfan

Source: Wales Online

At the edge of the Merthyr Vale coal mine were seven massive sludge piles, or spoil tips, made of coal waste. Complaints had been made to the National Coal Board (NCB) multiple times. Three years earlier, in 1963, Pantglas school wrote a petition asking for it to be looked into. The tip that particularly raised concerns was 111 feet high, and a quarter of a mile above the school. All that separated them was a steep slope.

did queen visit aberfan

Source: BBC

But there was an uneven power dynamic, because mining was an important part of the town's economy. Coal mines provided a steady income for about 800 miners in the area. So complaints about the spoil tips, which were not solid, and sat precariously on sandstone and a natural spring, could be ignored. There was an implicit threat that if the complaints continued the mines would close.

did queen visit aberfan

Sources: BBC , Smithsonian

Despite being ignored, the complaints were well-founded. Aberfan had already had two coal-waste slides — in 1944 and 1963. But the NCB was well-liked, and was seen as one of the main reasons why the coal industry was still alive. Some who had concerns didn't speak out because unemployment was a bigger concern.

did queen visit aberfan

Sources: BBC , Telegraph

At 9 a.m. school began. Ros Bastow, who was seven at the time, told Wales Online she could remember she and her peers were damp, sitting inside. Jeff Edwards, who was eight at the time, remembered the lights in the classrooms, hanging on long wires, beginning to shake.

did queen visit aberfan

Everyone heard the sound. It was a deep rumble. One teacher told his class not to worry, that it was only thunder, while Brian Williams, who was seven at the time, told Wales Online the sound of the sludge was like an airplane about to land.

did queen visit aberfan

At 9.15 a.m., 300,000 cubic yards of coal sludge came sliding down the hill at more than 80 mph, and engulfed Pantglas Junior School, and 19 houses. Alun Davies, who was 16 at the time, told Wales Online, it was like a black cloak had enveloped the mountain.

did queen visit aberfan

Sources: Wales Online , Smithsonian

The damage was instant and terrifying. Four classrooms were breached by the waste.

did queen visit aberfan

People stood in the streets dazed, unable to comprehend what had happened. Cyril Vaughan, a teacher at the neighboring school, told BBC seconds after it hit it was quiet. "As if nature had realized that a tremendous mistake had been made and nature was speechless."

did queen visit aberfan

Source: Wales Online ,  BBC , Smithsonian

News reports said the scene looked like a bomb had gone off, or an earthquake had ripped through the town.

did queen visit aberfan

Hundreds of people began to dig. Miners still had their headlamps on.

did queen visit aberfan

Locals and arriving emergency services worked as quickly as they could, digging through the coal-waste for survivors. They formed lines to move buckets of the sludge. In the photo below, two men are using sand bags full of mud to make a wall in case of further landslides.

did queen visit aberfan

Source:  Wales Online ,  BBC ,  Smithsonian

Every time someone was found in the rubble, a whistle would go out, and workers went silent as they listened for any sign of life. When someone was found, they were passed through windows on stretchers.

did queen visit aberfan

Sources: Wales Online , BBC

Here, a policeman named Victor Jones carries a little girl named Susan Maybank from the wreckage while a woman looks to see if she recognizes her.

did queen visit aberfan

The last person found alive was a boy named Jeff Edwards at 11 a.m. but no one knew that, and no one stopped. The work would continue without rest, except for a quick bewildered cigarette.

did queen visit aberfan

Source: Smithsonian

Work went on late into the night. Life Magazine's London bureau chief told the BBC: "No one who endured this night would ever forget it – the phantasmagoria of coal dust and smoke."

did queen visit aberfan

Despite the hard work of miners, emergency workers, and civilians, 116 children, mostly aged between seven and 11, died. The majority died from asphyxiation, and others died from the impact. The police designated the local chapel for the mortuary.

did queen visit aberfan

Sources: BBC , Wales Online

Cliff Michelmore was one of the television reporters at the scene. In his first report, he said: "Never in my life have I seen anything like this. I hope I shall never see anything like it again. For years of course the miners have been used to … disaster. Today for the first time in history the roll call was called in the street. It was the miners' children."

did queen visit aberfan

It was a horrifying process to identify the children. The blanketed bodies were taken into Bethania chapel, and it was mostly fathers came to check who they were, lifting the blanket and returning it, until they found their child. Because the chapel was so cramped, only two families could take a look at one time. It took up to six days for some families to find the bodies of their children.

did queen visit aberfan

It wasn't a total loss. Thanks to the relentless hard work, 28 children were dug out of the rubble and survived.

did queen visit aberfan

Source: Esquire

Eight days after the disaster, Queen Elizabeth II visited. She cried in public, which was rare. She later said she regretted not going right away, but she'd chosen not to on purpose, so that the attention would continue to be on recovery, and not on her. Instead, she sent her husband Prince Phillip before her.

did queen visit aberfan

Sources: Smithsonian , Town and Country Magazine

She's visited another three times over the years. Here she lays a wreath in 1973 to commemorate the disaster.

did queen visit aberfan

Source: Town and Country Magazine

Along with her visit, the disaster got a lot of attention — it was the first time such a disaster had been televised. 90,000 donations came pouring in from around the world, worth more than $25 million at current exchange rates. The only time it was eclipsed was by Princess Diana's memorial fund. Despite the generosity, this fund became known as Aberfan's "second disaster."

did queen visit aberfan

Sources: BBC , Esquire

Funerals took place for those who had died. But families had to fight for money from the fund for their children's gravestones.

did queen visit aberfan

Sources: Esquire , BBC

In regards to compensation, Wales' charity commission considered asking parents "exactly how close were you to your child?" It was looking to refuse compensation for those who weren't deemed close enough to their children. But the question was never asked. The commission ended up providing about $645 to each family, because it was advised anymore would ruin the lives of the working class people, who wouldn't be used to large sums of money.

did queen visit aberfan

There was also a struggle to get rid of the rest of the coal-waste tips. Locals argued it was a psychological burden to have the remaining tips looming over their town. But it took protesters dumping coal waste in the Welsh Office for the government to agree to get rid of them. But the NCB wouldn't do it, so the government had to, and it took about $165,000 from the disaster fund for the clean up.

did queen visit aberfan

In 1967, an investigative tribunal, looking at who was at fault, ran for 76 days — then the longest ever in Britain. The NCB said the disaster had been an act of god, while families said the opposite, and called for death certificates to say the cause was "buried alive by the coal board." The tribunal found it wasn't "villainy," but "bungling ineptitude." It found the NCB was entirely at fault.

did queen visit aberfan

One of the key figures was NCB chairman Lord Robens, who had argued it was impossible to predict, but then later admitted to being at fault. He made things worse for the families by making the tribunal go for several weeks longer than was necessary. He had already been criticized for not going straight to the disaster, and instead attending a ceremony establishing him as University of Surrey's chancellor.

did queen visit aberfan

Sources: BBC , Telegraph , Esquire

In the end, no one faced criminal sentencing, nor was anyone fired, or fined. Robens continued to have a political career, and ending up reviewing public health and safety for the British government.

did queen visit aberfan

And while the NCB faced no lasting repercussions, Aberfan couldn't move on. Dr Arthur Jones, a local doctor, told BBC the grieving town was consumed by things like guilt and alcoholism. He called it "a village of excessive sickness."

did queen visit aberfan

Jones said the disaster caused a rift in the town. There was a "strange bitterness between families who lost children and those who hadn't; people just could not help it," he said. It was also a time before people spoke about their feelings, and kept their thoughts to themselves. Many experienced post-traumatic stress disorder.

did queen visit aberfan

For those who had survived, it was a long-lasting psychological burden. Jones told the BBC that children had their childhoods taken from them. "Play is an important part of a child's development but that stopped. Most of the kids we played with were gone and play was frowned upon by some parents who lost children."

did queen visit aberfan

On the 50th anniversary, Wales remembered the tragedy with a minute of silence. Queen Elizabeth II also had Prince Charles read out a speech that said she was "deeply impressed by the remarkable fortitude, dignity and indomitable spirit that characterizes the people of this village and the surrounding valleys."

did queen visit aberfan

Now, to remember the tragedy, people can walk through Aberfan's well-tended cemetery and gardens of remembrance, which is shaped in classroom-sized rectangles. And, as journalist Huw Edwards wrote, no one can leave unmoved.

did queen visit aberfan

Source: Telegraph

did queen visit aberfan

  • Main content

How the Queen kept her promise to the families of the Aberfan tragedy

  • Tuesday 8 September 2015 at 1:19pm

Penny Marshall

Africa Correspondent

did queen visit aberfan

Aberfan may be the scene of the Queen’s greatest regret, but those who lived through the disaster in this small Welsh village say it is also the scene of the finest example of her constancy and care.

Video report by Penny Marshall, ITV News Social Affairs Editor

The Queen has always felt she left it too long after the disaster to visit the Welsh mining village and offer comfort to the bereaved.

Her first visit came eight days after the slag heap collapsed on the village school leaving 116 children and 28 adults dead.

She was a young mother then too and the disaster touched her deeply. Those there remember her visit in October 1966.

They remember she was moved to tears at the scene.

But they also say the Queen didn't come late.

"We were still in shock, I remember the Queen walking through the mud," one of the mothers told me. "It felt like she was with us from the beginning."

Elaine Richards lost her nine year old daughter Sylvia in the tragedy and when the Queen visited that October day, she promised she would return to open the new school when one was built.

Now 95, Mrs Richards told me how that had given the village hope; and how much it had meant to her that the Queen kept her promise and did return to open the new school in 2012.

"She kept her promise, she is a very gracious lady," she told me. "Now we have children playing in the village again."

Marjorie Collins’ son Anthony Wayne died in the tragedy too, aged just eight.

She last saw him waving as he disappeared in the early morning mist on his way to school.

She said the Queen’s visits had done more than anything to help heal the community.

"They were above the politics and the din and they proved to us that the world was with us, and that the world cared," she said.

The Queen has now been to visit this small village four times, proving her constancy says Marjorie.

The women who lost their children are now in their 80s and 90s, the same generation as the Queen.

They have watched the Queen grow old as they have grown old; they remember her engagement, her coronation, the birth and marriages of her children.

They feel they have been with her throughout her long reign and that, more importantly, she has always been with them.

IMAGES

  1. The Queen visits Aberfan days after the disaster: 1966

    did queen visit aberfan

  2. The True History Behind Elizabeth II and the Aberfan Disaster, as Seen

    did queen visit aberfan

  3. The Queen's visit to Aberfan in pictures: How The Crown compares to

    did queen visit aberfan

  4. How Did the 1966 Aberfan Disaster Happen? The Queen's Reaction

    did queen visit aberfan

  5. Olivia Colman recreates Queen's visit after Aberfan tragedy

    did queen visit aberfan

  6. What Really Happened When Queen Elizabeth Visited Aberfan

    did queen visit aberfan

COMMENTS

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  3. Why Queen Elizabeth Waited to Visit the Aberfan Disaster in 'The Crown

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  4. The True Story of the Aberfan Disaster

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  5. How the 1966 Aberfan Mine Disaster Became Elizabeth II's ...

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  6. How Did the 1966 Aberfan Disaster Happen? The Queen's Reaction

    Queen Elizabeth II is said to regret delaying her trip. On October 21, 1966, a mining accident occurred in the South Wales village of Aberfan. The Crown season 3 tells the story of the tragedy, and Queen Elizabeth II 's visit eight days later. The Aberfan disaster killed 144 people, including 116 children. In its three seasons, The Crown has ...

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  9. The True Story of the Aberfan Disaster in The Crown Season 3

    Queen Elizabeth really did wait eight long days to visit the site of an infamous coal-mining tragedy. Here's the true story of the Aberfan disaster of October 21, 1966, which killed 144 people.

  10. The Crown Season 3 Aberfan True Story

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  11. Queen Elizabeth II: Monarch's comfort to Aberfan disaster remembered

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  14. The Queen's lasting bond with the people of Aberfan

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  16. The Queen's message to the people of Aberfan

    On this saddest of anniversaries, I send my renewed good wishes to you all. ELIZABETH R. The Queen's message to the people of Aberfan, on the 50th Anniversary of the disaster, delivered by The Prince of Wales during a visit to Aberfan.

  17. Haunting Photos Show the Tragic Aberfan Disaster in 1966

    Queen Elizabeth II visits Aberfan in Wales, a few days after a coal tip collapsed on the local school, killing 141 children and four adults. ... Along with her visit, the disaster got a lot of ...

  18. Aberfan survivor: The Crown depicts Queen as "callous" after tragedy

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  19. How the Queen kept her promise to the families of the Aberfan tragedy

    The Queen returned to Aberfan for the opening of a new school there in 2012 Credit: Reuters. The Queen has now been to visit this small village four times, proving her constancy says Marjorie.