The True Story Of The Aberfan Disaster, Featured In Season 3 Of ‘The Crown’

As the event that dominates the third episode of Season 3 of The Crown, the Aberfan Disaster remains one of the most devastating losses of human life in Welsh history. On the morning of October 21, 1966, the collapse of a soil tip triggered a slurry slide that ended 116 children and 28 adults in the village of Aberfan, Wales.

Located in Southern Wales, Aberfan was devastated by the disaster. Life revolved around nearby mining operations. As Aberfan residents carried out recovery and relief efforts, Queen Elizabeth II issued a statement – resisting the advice of Prime Minister Harold Wilson to visit the site of the tragedy. 

The events leading up to and in the aftermath of the Aberfan Disaster ultimately changed the role of royalty, the lives of countless Welshmen and women, and mining safety in Britain.

The Mine Near Aberfan Was Under The Authority Of The National Coal Board Of Britain

The Merthyr Vale Colliery included seven tips, the first of which dated back to 1869. In 1966, the colliery encircled Arberfan, a village that served as home to miners and their families. The Merthyr Vale Colliery was regulated by the National Coal Board (NCB), the overseeing body that was formed in 1947. The NCB nationalized mining in the United Kingdom, promoting the industry and setting production and distribution guidelines.

When Tip 7 of the Merthyr Valley Colliery was begun in 1958, it was built over an underground spring, creating an intrinsic instability. There were several tips at the mine built over these springs, resulting in several slips during the 1960s. In 1963, for example, an engineer at the mine noted, “danger from coal slurry being tipped at the rear of Pantglas School,” but the NCB failed to act on the warning. 

Aberfan Experienced Heavy Rains That Caused A Great Amount Of Ground Instability

October 1966 was a particularly rainy month for Aberfan and the surrounding region, with roughly 60 inches falling in the weeks preceding the disaster. As water filled streams and underground springs, the slag heap – where the mine discarded its waste – were susceptible to heavy rain, as well. 

Tip 7 began to show signs of weakness during the early hours on October 21, 1966. At around 7:30 am, mine workers observed settlement at the tip, something that increased over the subsequent hours. First 10 feet, then 10 feet more – the top of the tip was slowly giving way. Reportedly, the crew took a break, intent on working to remedy the problem as soon as they were done. 

A Collapse At Tip 7 Of The Mine Triggered A Slurry Surge That Struck A Nearby School

The students at Pantglas Junior School arrived for classes on Friday, October 21, 1966, expecting to enjoy the last day of school before their midterm break. The night before, 9-year-old Eryl Jones dreamed that school had been canceled for that day, describing “something black came down all over it” to her mother before she left home that morning.

When the school opened at 9 am, 240 students entered. However, within minutes, they heard what survivor Gaynor Madgewick described as:

A terrible, terrible sound, a rumbling sound. It was so loud. I just didn’t know what it was. It seemed like the school went numb, you could hear a pin drop. I was suddenly petrified and glued to the chair. It sounded like the end of the world had come. 

What Madgewick heard was a flood of slurry – a mixture of water, mud, and coal debris – descending the mountain as it approached the school. Other survivors described the sound as akin to, “a jet plane screaming low over the school in the fog.”

As the slide began, one of the workers at Tip 7 observed, “It started to rise slowly at first, sir… I thought I was seeing things. Then it rose up pretty fast, sir, at a tremendous speed. Then it sort of came up out of the depression and turned itself into a wave… down towards the mountain… towards Aberfan village… into the mist.”

Children Later Recalled Struggling To Breathe While Buried Under Waste

When the slurry hit Pantglas Junior School, children and teachers alike were immediately buried under “a [slurry] wave over 12 meters high and 7 meters wide traveling at speed down the valley.” 

There had been no warning since the telephone cables leading to the tip had been taken. As it approached the school, it wiped out the entire landscape, eventually leaving 6 to 9 meters of debris. Brian Williams, 7 years old at the time, “watched the classroom wall split from the bottom to the top. The wall came through and stopped. And the next thing I remember was it went very quiet, and then a lot of screaming and crying.” Williams had escaped being under the crumbling wall, having been shifted to another desk across the room moments before.

Survivor Jeff Edwards remembered “waking up [and] 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. Because all the debris was around me I couldn’t get away from her. The image of her face comes back to me continuously.”

Edwards spent the next 90 minutes listening to the “crying and screaming” of his classmates, but “as time went on they got quieter and quieter as children died, they were buried and running out of air.” He, too, struggled to breathe as he lay under the mixture of coal, water, and mud. 

Residents And Professional Miners Alike Tried To Dig To Find Survivors

Miners, bystanders, and municipal authorities frantically rushed toward the school. When police officer Yvonne Price, 21 years old at the time, arrived, she “was rigid with shock… you could see doors, tables, kitchen utensils floating in” black water. She witnessed “people from the village passing saucepans and buckets full of debris.”

The New York Times later reported, “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. Bulldozers shoved debris aside to get to the children. A hush fell on the rescuers once when faint cries were heard in the rubble.”

Due to her small size, Officer Price was sent through a hole in the ground to see if she could find any survivors. She found none. 

Recovery efforts continued long after cries from under the debris could be heard. Alix Palmer, a journalist at Aberfan, saw, “the fathers straight from the pit… digging… no-one had yet really given up hope, although logic told them it was useless.” Every time a body was found, people would pause as a doctor made his way to check for signs of life. The last surviving child, Jeff Edwards, was pulled to safety at around 11 am.

Men and women continued to dig, pulling 67 bodies out of the rubble on the first day. One of the teachers, David Beynon, was discovered with five children in his arms. He had tried to protect them in their final moments. Nansi Williams, the school’s dinner lady, was collecting money when the slurry hit the school and she, too, lost her life protecting several students. All of the five children she covered with her body survived. 

The Bodies Of Children Were Identified By Items They Had In Their Pockets

When Reverend Irving Penberthy arrived on the scene of the Aberfan Disaster, he “stayed with the people who were watching and waiting” before taking his post at the Bethania Chapel. Soon, the chapel became a mortuary, one that received the bodies of children as they were extracted from under the slurry. Penberthy recalled watching as “fathers – it was mainly fathers, of course, not the women – just going around and lifting the blanket, and then going on further, and the shock when they finally found their own child. That was dreadful. And all we did was just cry together.”

As more and more bodies arrived, Charles Nunn, assigned as the senior identification officer at Aberfan, wrote, “a description of each child or adult and detail any possessions in their pockets – a handkerchief, sweets, anything that might help with identification. The little ones were laid on the pews, the adults on stretchers across the tops of the pews – males to the left and females to the right. By about the fourth or fifth day we had to start taking bodies up a difficult winding staircase to the upstairs gallery.”

While many of the children perished as a result of asphyxiation; there were some bodies that were deemed unsuitable for viewing due to extensive injuries. In a letter to her mother, journalist Alix Palmer wrote, “the slag had had time to corrode the skin of the children still buried and many brought out burned could only been identified by the clothing or things in their pockets. One little boy… was identified by a slip of paper with his name on deep inside his wallet.”

The Queen Resisted Efforts To Get Her To Visit The Site

As details of the disaster emerged and bodies continued to be pulled from the debris (dozens on the first day alone), Queen Elizabeth II resisted pleas to visit Aberfan. Just as it was depicted in the third season of The Crown, the monarch opted to send a proxy – her husband, Prince Philip.

In her initial statement, she expressed sadness and sorrow. While the show indicated a lack of emotion on the part of the queen, it’s been asserted that she didn’t want to pull attention and resources away from rescue efforts. She was said to have insisted, “People will be looking after me… perhaps they’ll miss some poor child that might have been found in the wreckage.”

The British government was represented by Harold Wilson, the Prime Minister, and Lord Snowdon Antony Armstrong-Jones, Princess Margaret’s husband. The latter, according to Prime Minister Wilson, “made it his job to visit bereaved relatives… sitting holding the hands of a distraught father, sitting with the head of a mother on his shoulder for a half an hour in silence.”

Prince Philip spent two hours with relatives of victims, surveying the site, and visiting the cemetery where more than 81 children had already been laid to rest. 

The Queen Did Make Her Way To Aberfan, Visiting The Day After The Last Body Was Recovered

Queen Elizabeth II arrived in Aberfan more than a week after the disaster struck and only one day after the last body was retrieved from the debris. When she and Prince Philip toured Aberfan on October 29, 1966, they were both visibly moved by the experience. As a young child handed Elizabeth a flower -“From the remaining children of Aberfan” – the stoic queen was said to have been on the brink of tears. According to Jeff Edwards, the last child to be found alive, “We know she did cry, because she went to Jim Williams’ house – and when she came down from the cemetery she was visibly crying.”

When the queen spoke to her subjects at Aberfan, she told them, “As a mother, I’m trying to understand what your feelings must be…  I’m sorry I can give you nothing at present except sympathy.” The queen’s former private secretary, Lord Charteris, told author Gyles Brandreth that not going to Aberfan earlier was one of her biggest regrets.

Survivors see her visit differently, however. Edwards, again, noted, “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.” Marjorie Collins, the mother of one of the victims, similarly saw the visit as a supportive endeavor, observing, “They [Prince Philip and Queen Elizabeth] were above the politics and the din and they proved to us that the world was with us, and that the world cared.”

The Disaster Could Have Been Prevented Had Earlier Concerns Been Addressed

In his comments about the disaster at Aberfan, the chairman of the National Coal Board (NCB), Lord Robens, noted the impossibility of knowing “that there was a spring in the heart of this tip [meaning Tip 7].” 

The inquest and tribunal into the cause of the slide that took 144 lives thought otherwise, calling the event “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 a total lack of direction from above.”

The tribunal took place over 76 days, interviewing 136 witnesses and examining 300 exhibits. Earlier concerns about the tips were made very clear, as was the lack of NCB policy when it came to safely installing tips. In his testimony, Lord Robens ultimately admitted fault by the NCB, something with which the tribunal agreed, concluding in 1967:

Blame for the disaster rests upon the National Coal Board. This is shared, though in varying degrees, among the NCB headquarters, the South Western Divisional Board, and certain individuals… The legal liability of the NCB to pay compensation of the personal injuries, fatal or otherwise, and damage to property, is incontestable and uncontested.

No malice or criminality was found, but it was determined that the entire disaster could have been avoided but for “ignorance, ineptitude and a failure in communications.”

New Legislation Was Introduced In 1969 To Tighten The Oversight Of Mines 

Mining regulations became increasingly stringent in the years after Aberfan. New legislation was, according to Prime Minister Harold Wilson in 1967, “desirable” in light of the recommendations made by the tribunal. When Wilson saw the findings of the Aberfan tribunal, he was shocked and deeply concerned by its “devastating nature.” 

In 1969, two years after the tribunal’s findings, Lord Robens headed efforts that resulted in the 1974 Health and Safety at Work Act, legislation that continues to regulate mining in the United Kingdom. Although Robens had offered his resignation to the NCB, it was dismissed by members of Parliament and Prime Minister Harold Wilson – something that only contributed to Robens’s villainy in the eyes of the victims of the disaster.

In addition to the 1974 act, the Mines and Quarries (Tips) Act of 1969 and subsequent Mine and Quarries (Tips) Regulations of 1971 also brought standardization of mine building, construction, and management. According to the latter, any tipping activities required plans “showing all mine workings (whether abandoned or not), previous landslips, springs, artesian wells, watercourses and other natural and other topographical features which might affect the security of the intended tip or might be relevant for determining whether the land on which the tipping operations are to be carried out is satisfactory for the purpose.”  

In 1999, additional quarry regulations were put into effect, tightening oversight of waste materials including, “but… not limited to, overburden dumps, backfill, spoil heaps, stock piles and lagoons.”

Families Impacted By The Disaster Were Paid £500 By The National Coal Board 

A fund to support Aberfan and its community was established almost immediately after the disaster. A total of £1,750,000 – a sum worth more than £20 million today – was raised to rebuild the village and pay for medical care. Because the National Coal Board (NCB) refused to pay for the removal of the tips that still sat high above Aberfan, the money was used to bring those down, as well. In 1997, the British government repaid Aberfan the £150,000 from the fund that went toward the tip removal. 

The NCB offered each of the families impacted by the disaster £50 as an opening payment, a sum that later rose to £500. The Charity Commission of the NCB once considered asking parents, “Exactly how close were you to your child?” before paying out – presumably, parents who were not close to their children would not receive compensation – but decided against that option. The “generous offer” of £500 was paid to the families in 1970. 

Money would not cure the psychological scars in Aberfan, however. Survivor Jeff Edwards continues to struggle with survivor’s guilt, while families in Aberfan experienced a “strange bitterness between [those] who lost children and those who hadn’t; people just could not help it.” Post-traumatic stress disorder plagues the entire community and, while psychiatrists were initially brought in, “They didn’t really know how to deal with it and it wasn’t much help. There were sessions and we were offered different drugs.” 

Thirty-three years after the disaster, researcher Louise Morgan found that survivors “talked about the fear evoked at the sound of a lorry passing their house, or of an aircraft flying overhead. Intense memories are aroused by the slightest noise or smell. A number now have children the age they were. This seems to arouse new feelings.”

The Queen Made Repeated Visits To Aberfan In Support Of The Community

Queen Elizabeth II may have received criticism for delaying a trip to Aberfan in 1966, but she has made numerous trips to the Welsh town in support of its recovery. In 1973, she visited to attend the opening of a new community center and placed a wreath at a local memorial. While there, she called the community center “a symbol of the determination that out of the disaster should come a richer and fuller life.”

When she returned in 1997, she planted a tree in the Garden of Remembrance, again speaking to survivors and relatives of those who perished.

Another visit in 2012 saw the queen opening a new school, something that, according to Elaine Richards, was part of a promise Elizabeth had made decades earlier. Richards, who lost her daughter Sylvie in 1966, noted, “She kept her promise, she is a very gracious lady… Now we have children playing in the village again.”


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