At 9.13 am on the morning of 21st October 1966, a mountain of coal waste collapsed onto Pantglas Junior School in Aberfan, Wales, killing 116 children and 28 adults. It was the last day of school before the half-term holiday.
More than 50 years on, Netflix’s The Crown has dramatised the tragedy and its effect on the nation – and the royal family. RadioTimes.com spoke exclusively to Aberfan survivors Jeff Edwards and Gaynor Madgwick, both schoolchildren at the time of the disaster. This is the full story of what happened at Aberfan that day.
What happened at Aberfan?
In October 1966 a colliery spoil tip collapsed following heavy rain, creating an avalanche that slid directly into the local school and surrounding houses, devastating the small Welsh mining community. At the time of the disaster Jeff Edwards was an eight-year-old schoolboy, with striking white blonde hair. He remembers being in a maths lesson, facing the blackboard and turned away from the class windows.
“It just happened. There was the roar, then black. [I was] knocked out,” he says. The noise of the oncoming avalanche “was like thunder, and the teacher assured the class that it was only thunder. It was like a continuous roar, a thundery noise, very, very loud noise, and then from my perspective the only thing I remember is waking up with all this material around me.”
When Jeff woke up, surrounded by debris, “there was just shouts and screams of kids in the classroom”.
“I had a dead girl next door to me, and she was on my shoulder. So, that’s why I had nightmares for years after, this kid on my shoulder, you know? I know who the girl was, I never revealed who she is, obviously, because of her parents, but yes I did [know her].”
Jeff, who for decades after struggled with symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder, was the last child to be rescued alive from the building. He recalls that it was largely thanks to his distinctive white hair that he was spotted by rescuers.
“I was lucky because the only reason I survived was the fact that I had a pocket of air around me. The others who died, they either died through physical trauma — being killed by falling debris or the tip itself — or from asphyxiation, being buried in the rubble, [and] they couldn’t breathe. It was just fortunate for me that there was a pocket of air around me, so it enabled me to breathe,” he explains. “And how I got picked out, my white hair was, when they were digging around they saw my white hair. And they dug around me and got me out.”
After he was pulled out of the rubble, “the firemen came, and they dug me out of where I was, they then passed me in a human chain from one to another, out into the yard where we were seen by medics”.
By that time all the ambulances were gone, so Jeff was taken to hospital by local grocer Tom Harding in his light blue van: “They had difficult in starting it because he’d parked it in the lane adjacent to the school and there was water coming down from the cliff, so they actually had to push the van to make it go.”
How many died at Aberfan?
The school and 19 houses were engulfed by the coal waste, killing 116 children and 28 adults in the real Aberfan disaster. Many of the victims, including 81 children and one adult, were buried on 27th October in one grave during a mass funeral, which is shown during The Crown’s Aberfan episode.
Jeff, who liaised with Netflix ahead of filming, attended an advance screening of the episode alongside fellow Aberfan survivor David Davies (Jeff says Netflix provided an onsite psychologist for them both). Of the mass burial scene, he says: “I thought the grave site was very emotional, and I think the enormity of it, when the cameras pan down the whole of the graves, given the enormity of the situation, I think that was a very emotional part of the film.”
However, survivor Gaynor Madgwick was nervous about watching the burial scene. Madgwick was eight years old when she was trapped inside the school, later spending months in hospital due to injuries; she lost her brother and a sister during the tragedy.
Asked whether she was anxious about seeing the episode, she says: “Oh God, yes, in one way because obviously it shows that burial — obviously my siblings were involved in that, so it’d have to be done very, very tastefully.”
Which members of the royal family visited Aberfan? When did the queen visit?
Lord Snowden (Princess Margaret’s then-husband) and Prince Philip both visited Aberfan before Queen Elizabeth II travelled to Aberfan.
The Queen arrived eight days after the disaster — the first of four trips she was to make to the village. Her delay in visiting was later reported to be her biggest regret during her reign.
Survivor Gaynor says her mother and sister were both against The Crown dramatising the tragedy, but that she believes that “the Queen’s involvement with Aberfan, and her commitment throughout her reign” to the community deserves screen time. “I think it’s really important to actually bring that programme and to actually show what effect it had on the Queen at that time,” she says.
However, Jeff has criticised The Crown’s “callous” depiction of the Queen (played by Oscar winner Olivia Colman), who in the episode initially discourages the idea of a royal visiting a disaster site like Aberfan, and later pretends to cry for the cameras during her trip.
“She says [in the episode], ‘We don’t do disasters sites, we do hospitals’,” says Jeff, who has met the monarch during her various visits. “[When] I first saw that, I thought, ‘Well that’s rather callous’. And knowing the person, I don’t think she would have said that, personally.”
“There’s a redeeming feature at the end,” he adds, “[But] up to that point, she was portrayed as a very callous person. Totally unfeeling. Totally unfeeling [towards the Aberfan community].”
Netflix told RadioTimes.com: “While it is a fact that Queen didn’t visit the scene of the disaster for 8 days we do not feel that this depicts her as either “callous” or “totally unfeeling”. We show a monarch who is naturally restrained, while advisors around her question her stoicism in the face of such a terrible disaster… We have gone to great lengths to depict the days after this tragedy with respect and with a duty of care to the residents. We hope that by bringing this event to a global audience people will have a greater understanding of one of the most tragic events of the Queen’s reign.”
How accurate is The Crown’s Aberfan episode?
Although the episode remains largely faithful to the events leading up to and after the tragedy at Aberfan, there were bound to be instances of artistic licence and some deliberate decisions have been made to change certain locations or moments.
Asked whether there were any historical inaccuracies in the episode, Jeff Edwards said that there had been a few instances he had spotted. During the mass burial scene “there should have been white coffins instead of wooden” (as the majority of victims buried were children) while he says that Prince Philip didn’t attend the funeral service — he actually visited Aberfan again on 28th October, alongside the queen (which isn’t shown in the series).
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Jeff adds that “the [coal] pit itself was in the middle of the valley and not on top of the hill” and a tipping mechanism, rather than buckets, was used to transport material.
Jeff also stressed that the on-screen moment where the Queen “artificially wiped her eyes with her handkerchief” didn’t occur, claiming instead that the monarch did shed genuine tears when a young Aberfan survivor and granddaughter of the local councillor handed her a posey: “She did show outward emotion.”
Finally, the episode also features a heart-rending scene in which the schoolchildren return home and practise the hymn ‘All Things Bright And Beautiful’ for an end-of-term assembly. Although Jeff says that the scene was artistic licence, “it was effective” as “that song was always sung at the school”.
What was the hymn sung during the Aberfan funeral scene?
On the hilltop cemetery, where most of the children were buried on 27th October 1966 in a mass burial, mourners and members of the congregation were able to fight back tears to sing ‘Jesu, Lover Of My Soul,’ by Charles Wesley (as heard in The Crown episode).
The first verse goes:
‘Jesu, lover of my soul,
Let me to Thy bosom fly,
While the nearer waters roll,
While the tempest still is high:
Hide me, O my Savior, hide,
Till the storm of life is past;
Safe into the haven guide;
O receive my soul at last!’
Real-life history behind The Crown season 3
If you’re curious about the stories and events that inspired Netflix’s The Crown, we’ve got all the big questions covered with these in-depth features…
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- Inside Margaret’s affair with Roddy Llewellyn and the collapse of her marriage
- “I had nightmares for years”: The real-life story behind The Crown’s Aberfan episode, as told by the survivors
- The story of Philip’s mother – and her extraordinary life
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The Crown season three will air on Netflix on Sunday 17th November 2019.