How Queen Elizabeth’s Reaction to the Aberfan Mining Disaster Became Her Biggest Regret

The 1966 disaster features prominently in season three of The Crown.

On October 21, 1966, the students and teachers of Pantglas Junior School in Aberfan, a small village in Wales, were about to begin their lessons when disaster struck. A nearby “spoil tip” (or surplus of mining waste) collapsed on a school, burying everyone trapped inside in an avalanche of slurry, and eventually killing 116 children and 28 adults.

This tragedy, and the Queen’s delayed response to it, are at the heart of the third episode of The Crown‘s third season. Here’s the real story behind the drama on screen.

Aberfan is said to be the Queen’s biggest regret.

While the Queen was made aware of the tragedy shortly after it happened, she waited eight days to visit the Welsh community, a delay, which she is said to regret immensely.

“Aberfan affected the Queen very deeply, I think, when she went there. It was one of the few occasions in which she shed tears in public,” Sir William Heseltine, who served in the royal press office at the time, revealed in the documentary Elizabeth: Our Queen.

“I think she felt in hindsight that she might have gone there a little earlier. It was a sort of lesson for us that you need to show sympathy and to be there on the spot, which I think people craved from her.”

According to Sally Bechdel Smith’s biography Elizabeth the Queen, the monarch’s caution wasn’t a decision made out of coldness, but rather practicality. “People will be looking after me, she said according to Smith. “Perhaps they’ll miss some poor child that might have been found under the wreckage.”

And despite numerous suggestions that she should make the trip, the Queen stayed resolute in her opinion.

“We kept presenting the arguments,” an advisor of the Queen’s told her biographer Robert Lacey, “but nothing we said could persuade her.”

Instead, the Queen sent her husband Prince Philip. Her brother-in-law Lord Snowdon, traveled there on his own as well.

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