10 Facts About the Aberfan Disaster of 1966
In season 3 of The Crown, viewers witness a harrowing re-creation of the 1966 Aberfan disaster—a catastrophic landslide that killed 144 residents (most of whom were children) in a small village in South Wales. Though it seemed at first to have been an unforeseeable geological accident, the world soon discovered that there was much more to the story.
From the illuminating inquiry that took place in the aftermath to Queen Elizabeth II’s somber visit to the disaster scene, here is some additional history about the tragic event.
1. Aberfan residents had complained about the danger of coal tips.
The village of Aberfan, South Wales, was established around the Merthyr Vale coal mine, which had been depositing its waste materials into giant heaps known as coal tips since 1869.
Coal Tip 7, which was started in 1958, was especially worrying to the people of Aberfan for two reasons: It was built on top of porous sandstone and underwater springs, and it was located right behind a school.
“I regard it as extremely serious as the slurry is so fluid and the gradient so steep that it could not possibly stay in position in the winter time or during periods of heavy rain,” a waterworks engineer wrote to the district’s public works superintendent in 1963 before escalating the matter to the National Coal Board, which failed to halt operations.
2. On October 21, 1966, coal tip 7 finally collapsed.
On a Friday morning around 9:15 a.m., after days of heavy rain, the 111-foot-tall coal tip 7—which was comprised of about 300,000 cubic yards of waste—became a landslide that crashed into Pantglas Junior School and its surrounding buildings at speeds of up to 50 mph.
3. The landslide wasn’t silent.
Though they didn’t know the source of the deafening rumble at the time, survivors of the disaster compared the sound of the avalanche to the roar of a low-flying jet or loose trams hurtling downhill.
4. Of the 144 casualties, 116 were children.
Pantglas Junior School was the main building affected by the catastrophic collapse. Of the school's 240 students, most of whom were between 7 and 11 years old, 116 died in the landslide, along with five teachers and 28 residents of nearby farm cottages and terrace houses. The youngest victim was 3 months old and the oldest was 82 years old. The official causes of death were primarily classified as "suffocation," "multiple injuries," or "skull fractures," but one man—who lost both his wife and two sons in the accident—very publicly urged authorities to change the death certificates to read "buried alive by the National Coal Board."
5. Disaster responders flooded the town to help organize rescue efforts.
As firefighters, police, medical personnel, and other disaster responders worked tirelessly around the clock to clear debris and rescue survivors from the decimated buildings, the rest of the town helped manage the chaos. Bodies were taken to Bethania Chapel (which was destroyed by an arsonist in 2015), where volunteers cleaned the coal from them and escorted parents around to identify them. A local chip shop became the distribution center for death certificates.
"There were no council offices nearby and someone must have said ‘the chip shop—everyone knows that,'" Detective Inspector Charles Nunn, who helped organize the chapel mortuary, told the BBC. "It was the most efficient way. It seems so incongruous now."
6. Princess Margaret encouraged people to send toys to the surviving children.
After the landslide, Princess Margaret asked people to "think of the loneliness of the brothers, sisters, and young relatives who survived" and send toys to them. The response was so overwhelming that the post office in Cardiff—Wales's capital city, which is located about 20 miles south of Aberfan—had to store them in four empty buildings.
7. Queen Elizabeth II visited Aberfan eight days after the landslide.
Prince Philip and then-Prime Minister Harold Wilson both visited Aberfan within 24 hours of the disaster, but the Queen herself didn’t make an appearance until eight days later—a delay that she reportedly told her private secretary, Lord Martin Charteris, was her “biggest regret.” During her visit, she toured the town with her husband, spoke with bereaved families, and had tea with town Councillor Jim Williams, who had lost seven family members in the landslide. Before she left, 3-year-old Karen Jones gave the Queen a small bouquet with a card that read: "From the remaining children of Aberfan."
8. Queen Elizabeth has made several more trips to Aberfan since the disaster.
While the Queen may have felt that she made a mistake in waiting so long to visit Aberfan the first time, the townspeople have expressed gratitude over the years for her continued efforts to commemorate the disaster and support the community. She returned in 1973 to open a community center, visited again in 1997 to plant a tree in the Garden of Remembrance, and most recently returned in 2012 to open a new school.
9. Villagers petitioned to have the remaining coal tips removed.
Even after the disaster, officials assured the public that the mountains of coal waste weren’t dangerous—but Aberfan residents were (understandably) adamant about their removal, and even went so far as to dump heaps of slurry in the Welsh Office’s reception area in protest. After that, Wales’s secretary of state George Thomas agreed to get rid of them.
However, Thomas was hardly the hero of this story: Removing the coal tips was a costly process, and Thomas ultimately decided that the bill could and should be footed by the residents of Aberfan. His decision to present the grieving townspeople with a bill for £250,000 (which would be just under $6 million in today's dollars) was met with a universally negative backlash. Especially since the money, which Thomas dubbed a "local contribution," was to be paid out of a charitable fund that had been established to help rebuild the town.
10. A tribunal found the National Coal Board guilty of “bungling ineptitude.”
On October 26, 1966, the Welsh government launched an inquiry, headed by barrister Sir Herbert Edmund Davies, to determine the cause of the landslide and decide if anyone should be held responsible. Though, for most of the 76-day tribunal, the National Coal Board (NCB) maintained that only the weather was to blame, NCB chairman Lord Robens finally conceded that his organization was at fault.
The tribunal’s report, published on August 3, 1967, called the disaster “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 total lack of direction from above.” The National Coal Board paid £500—a little over $640 then, or $10,000 now—to each victim’s family, but no individual employee from the Coal Board was ever fired, demoted, or even fined.