The Aberfan disaster remains one of the most devastating mining accidents in Welsh history. How truthful was the Netflix series’ account of the incident?
“Margaret, it’s nine o’clock,” the queen protests, weakly.
“But it’s not morning, not in my world anyway,” Margaret sighs in response. The princess goes on to detail a phone call she had received in the early hours of the morning from her husband, Tony Armstrong-Jones (Ben Daniels). The photographer was in Aberfan, Wales, bearing witness to the aftermath of one of the country’s worst mining accidents in history. On 21 October 1966 a coal tip containing 140,000 cubic yards of waste collapsed at the top of a mountain and slid into the small town below, killing 116 children and 28 adults. The accident devastated the Welsh community, which lost almost the entire town’s population of children in a single day.
Episode three of The Crown’s third season focuses entirely on the true story of this tragedy and its aftermath. Each member of the royal family processes the incident in their own way. Tony heads there on his motorbike at the crack of dawn, seeking to bear witness to the tragedy himself. Prince Philip takes a journey to the Welsh town on his own in the aftermath of the accident, and is moved to tears by a mournful Welsh folk song sung at a funeral. Princess Margaret is left on her own in the palace with her children, contemplating the impact of the loss of life upon mothers just like her.
“It was unimaginably awful,” Margaret tells her sister at the breakfast table. “Miners used to digging for coal, now digging to reach their children. Buried alive. Running out of air… The mortuary, where people were waiting to identify their children’s bodies.”
As Margaret tells the story, the camera zooms slowly in on Elizabeth’s face, undoubtedly emotional, but impassive. Up until this point, Elizabeth had made the decision not to visit Wales, no matter how strongly she is encouraged to do so by her own staff and by the prime minister, Harold Wilson. The last thing anyone wants in the wake of a tragedy, she tells Wilson, is for the queen to turn up. She takes up too much airtime, she says, displacing energy that could better be spent on rescue missions.
“You would comfort people,” Wilson replies.
“Put on a show?” the queen fires back, face pinched. “The crown doesn’t do that.”
In reality, Elizabeth did visit Aberfan, though she waited until eight days after the tragedy. It has been said that one of her greatest regrets as queen was delaying so long. Her decision was practically-minded: she believed that by waiting a week she would give rescue services enough time to devote efforts to saving as many lives as they could. And though she was pressed upon by several key figures, including her closest advisors, she would not be moved on the subject.
But when the queen did go to Aberfan, those closest to her note that she was deeply moved. In The Crown, Colman’s queen is depicted saying that she manufactured her emotion in the village. (“I dabbed a bone-dry eye and by some miracle no one noticed,” she says.) But according to survivors, this is simply not the case. “That’s rather callous,” Jeff Edwards, who was eight when he was rescued at Aberfan, said of the episode. “We know she did cry… when she came down from the cemetery she was visibly crying.”
“Aberfan affected the queen very deeply, I think, when she went there,” Sir William Heseltine, then a member of the royal press office, said in the documentary Elizabeth: Our Queen. “It was one of the few occasions in which she shed tears in public. 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.”
The queen’s Aberfan visit on 29 October, 1966, was brief but emotionally draining. The queen and Prince Philip met with the families of both survivors and victims and laid wreaths at some of the graves of those who died. Those who survived the disaster told tales of hearing the “crying and screaming” of children as the school was buried alive. Others recounted how staff at the Aberfan primary school saved the lives of as many children as they could. Nansi Williams, a dinner lady, used her body to shield five children from the debris, saving them all from death. The queen was also presented with a posy of flowers from the children of Aberfan, as shown in episode three of the third season of The Crown.
In 2016, in a statement released on the 50th anniversary of the tragedy, the queen referenced that posy. “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 heartbreaking inscription ‘From the remaining children of Aberfan’,” the queen’s message read.
According to eyewitnesses on the visit, the queen’s trip to Aberfan impacted her deeply. “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. “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. She was very moved by what she saw. She tried to hold back tears but it did make her cry.”
“We were still in shock, I remember the queen walking through the mud,” one of the mothers told ITV in 2016. “It felt like she was with us from the beginning.”
If the queen does feel regret over Aberfan, she has spent the years since the tragedy atoning. The queen has visited the Welsh town four times since the accident, once returning in 2016 so that she could open a new school for the children of Aberfan.
“She kept her promise, she is a very gracious lady,” one survivor told ITV. “Now we have children playing in the village again.”
“If the queen does regret not coming here straight away, I think that is misplaced,” Jeff Edwards added. “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 Crown season three streams on Netflix now.
Images: Netflix, Getty