Weird History

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

Melissa Sartore
Updated December 5, 2019 23.7k views 12 items

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.