The third season of The Crown tackles a dark moment in the history of the United Kingdom: In 1966, a coal waste tip collapsed and slid into a school in the mining village of Aberfan in Wales, claiming the lives of 144 people. Queen Elizabeth II (played by Olivia Colman) did not immediately visit the village, but she eventually decided to go eight days later, and ended up returning several times throughout her life.
While The Crown depicts its version of events, we’re diving into what really happened in Aberfan, and what the Queen did in response.
The Disaster and Its Aftermath
Weeks of heavy rains caused the coal waste tip—that is, the pile of waste left over from the process of mining—to collapse and turn into a landslide on the morning of October 21, 1966. The avalanche hit a local school and other buildings in the town, ultimately killing 28 adults and 116 children, according to History.com. A committee eventually determined the National Coal Board was responsible for what happened.
The Queen’s Visit
As the show correctly depicts, at first Queen Elizabeth II neglected to visit Aberfan, sending Prince Philip instead. She ended up visiting the village almost a week after the disaster occurred, and later said her delayed response was her biggest regret as queen. History.com reports that while in the village, the monarch showed “poignant grief”—an atypical response for the usually stoic Elizabeth.
Marjorie Collins, an Aberfan woman who lost her son in the disaster, remembered the queen’s visit in a 2015 interview with ITV: “They were above the politics and the din and they proved to us that the world was with us, and that the world cared.” Another mother told ITV that no one judged the queen for her delayed response. “We were still in shock, I remember the Queen walking through the mud,” she said. “It felt like she was with us from the beginning.”
Throughout her life, the Queen visited Aberfan another four times.
How The Crown Recreated the Visit
According to the BBC, The Crown recreated the queen’s first visit to Aberfan by filming in the small Welsh village of Cwmaman. The BBC characterized the 1966 visit as “one of the most touching moments of the queen’s reign that is still remembered by the victims.”
One onlooker who was watching the filming told the news site, “It was all very dignified, Olivia Colman is clearly taking her role very seriously. There was a very sombre mood. I think everyone involved in the production realizes what an awful tragedy Aberfan was.”
The BBC also reports that, while on set at Big Pit National Coal Museum in Wales, The Crown director Benjamin Caron said, “Every series of The Crown looks at major political events and moments in history, and this is one of them. Of course we should do this. This story in particular affected the whole of Wales, the United Kingdom, and the queen.”
He continued, “Peter Morgan, the writer and showrunner, and I thought this was a story we wanted to tell. And that we wanted to do that with truth and dignity, and also to make sure that it is never forgotten.”
While they did not end up filming in Aberfan, Caron said they had some actors who grew up close to the village involved with the show: “We have, as much as possible, been trying to involve the local community.”