The True Story Of The Aberfan Disaster Comes Into Focus

The new series of The Crown includes one of the greatest British disasters of the 20th century, the Aberfan disaster.


by Rebecca Reid |
Updated on

The third episode of The Crown is titled Aberfan. It deals with one of the most tragic events of the 1960s, the Aberfan disaster. (Minor spoilers for that episode ahead.)

The harrowing episode is based on a real life tragedy that took place on 21 October 1966 when a man-made landslide destroyed a primary school and several houses. 116 children and 28 adults were killed.

Aberfan was a mining town. Most of the waste from the pit was stored at ‘the tip’, which sat above the village. There was a spring under the tip which (combined with heavy rainfall) created a landslide of slurry, which crushed the primary school, a farm and several houses. Had the disaster happened just a day later, no children would have been at the school, as it was the Friday before half-term.

In the immediate aftermath of the accident people from all over Wales, and further afield, travelled to Aberfan to assist with the rescue mission. They worked tirelessly, but it was a week until the final body was removed from the site of the school.

After the Aberfan disaster there was a tribunal in order to conclude who was responsible. It was found that the National Coal Board were responsible for the deaths, and nine people were specifically named as having culpability. Following the disaster and during the tribunal the phrase ‘buried alive by the National Coal Board’ became widely used in order to describe what had happened to the children at the Pantglas primary school.

It wasn’t until almost a year later that the investigations into the disaster were concluded. The final report says that it took a ‘strong and unanimous view that the Aberfan disaster could and should have been prevented.’

It concluded that through ignorance and lack of attention to detail, various signs were missed which would have resulted in better management and would have prevented the enormous loss of life. However, the National Coal Board was not prosecuted and no one who worked there was sacked or prosecuted. The NCB offered each family who had lost a child £50 (around £950 in today’s money), which was considered an insulting offer. It was eventually raised to £500 (around £9,500), which was still regarded to be insufficient given the horrors that the NCB’s negligence inflicted.

Even more astonishingly, some of the money raised to donate to the town and the bereaved families was used to clean up the remainder of the lethal tip site, rather than the NCB being forced to bear the cost.

The focus on Aberfan in The Crown is (unsurprisingly) through the lens of the royal family. The first member of the family to visit Aberfan was the queen’s brother-in-law, Princess Margaret’s husband Antony Armstrong-Jones. He was from Pembrokeshire originally and visited Aberfan immediately, arriving at daybreak on the Saturday after it happened. He spent several days there, apparently making cups of tea and offering support. He reportedly stayed in touch with various members of the community long after the disaster.

Later that day Prince Phillip arrived. However, the Queen didn’t visit until over a week after the disaster, something which many locals felt belied a lack of care for their loss. As The Crown notes in the final moments of the episode, sources close to the Queen claim that her slowness to visit the disaster site is the thing she regrets most about her entire reign. She has returned four times since the disaster.

Aberfan is a real town where people still live and work, though the disaster has left an undeniable scar. Where Pantglas primary school once stood there is now a memorial garden and a playground. The playground is called the Coventry Playground and was built with the money raised by the people of Coventry. The cemetery where many of the victims are buried sits above the town, looking over the valley. Many of the parents who lost children are also interned there.

The episode of The Crown dealing with the disaster was not filmed in Aberfan out of respect for those who live there; instead it was filmed in Cwmaman near Aberdare, which looks very similar. Residents of Aberfan have often remarked that people with no connection to the disaster treating the town like a tourist destination is painful and unnecessary.

If you would like to learn more about the disaster, several books have been written on the topic including Aberfan by Gaynor Magwick who was one of the children who survived the disaster.

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