A Welsh Village Embraces Its Bond With the Queen

ABERFAN, Wales — As the days count down to Queen Elizabeth II’s funeral on Monday, Gaynor Madgwick has been of two minds: Should she watch the ceremony from her home in South Wales or join the crowds in London to pay her respects in person?

Her brain says stay. Ms. Madgwick, 64, has feared crowds and confined spaces since an avalanche of slurry — a mixture of debris from a coal mine and water — cascaded down the hillside above her village of Aberfan in 1966. One of the worst civilian disasters in contemporary British history, the avalanche crushed the village school, killed 144 villagers, 116 of them children, and left Ms. Madgwick trapped, but alive, beneath the rubble.

Her heart says go. The queen built an unusually strong relationship with Aberfan, beginning in the days after that very disaster and extending through four visits the queen made to the village.

“She was the guardian angel of Aberfan,” Ms. Madgwick said one afternoon last week. “It was a lifelong friendship.”

To many Britons, the death of Queen Elizabeth II — the ever-present backdrop to a century of dramatic social change — has felt like a rug snatched from beneath them, even if they never met or saw her.

In the Aberfan pub, locals watching the arrival of the coffin of Queen Elizabeth II in London last week. Many residents feel a special bond with the queen, who visited the village four times after the 1966 disaster.

Tributes in memory of Queen Elizabeth II are laid by local people in the Aberfan Memorial Garden, on the site of the school where many children died.

The mood in Aberfan, with its rare connection to the queen, is an acute illustration of that feeling.

To be sure, the queen’s death and the resulting pageantry, set against fast-rising costs of living, have also been met by some in Aberfan with relative indifference and even frustration. As in other parts of Britain, it was a jolt that has awakened in some people a sense of alienation from the monarchy; frustration at the central government in London; and a gentle reassessment of national identity that, in Wales, includes calls for an independent Welsh state.

But the dominant mood in Aberfan — a village of gray roofs and sandstone walls in a narrow Welsh valley — is one of quiet loss. The four visits the queen made are an almost unimaginable number for a village of roughly 3,500 residents.

In the process, she made many villagers, hundreds of them still traumatized from the devastation of 1966, feel blessed and recognized by the highest person in the land, even as they felt betrayed by other arms of the British state.

“She looked over us, she protected us, she had sympathy, she had empathy,” Ms. Madgwick said. “The queen has never let us down.”

Dawn breaking over the Aberfan Disaster Memorial, in the Aberfan Cemetery, in memory of the 116 children and 28 adults who died in the disaster in October 1966.
Gaynor Madgwick, 64, placed her hand on a newspaper photograph from her collection of items relating to the deadly disaster.

The queen first arrived in Aberfan, a village built mostly in the 19th century to serve the local coal mine, in October 1966. Her visit was later re-enacted in “The Crown,” the television series inspired by the queen’s life.

Eight days earlier, waste from the mine, dumped for years on the hilltop above the village, had suddenly slipped down after a period of heavy rainfall. It was shortly before 9:15 a.m. on the last day before the school year’s half-term break, and the students, aged 6 to 11, had only just arrived.

Ms. Madgwick was 8 at the time. As her class began a math lesson, a wave of debris — almost 10 yards high in places, and roughly the volume of 15 Olympic swimming pools — thundered through the school and the houses near it, killing just under half of the children there that day.

Some Key Moments in Queen Elizabeth’s Reign

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Becoming queen. Following the death of King George VI, Princess Elizabeth Alexandra Mary ascended to the throne on Feb. 6, 1952, at age 25. The coronation of the newly minted Queen Elizabeth II took place on June 2 the following year.

A historic visit. On May 18, 1965, Elizabeth arrived in Bonn on the first state visit by a British monarch to Germany in more than 50 years. The trip formally sealed the reconciliation between the two nations following the world wars.

First grandchild. In 1977, the queen stepped into the role of grandmother for the first time, after Princess Anne gave birth to a son, Peter. Elizabeth’s four children have given her a total of eight grandchildren, who have been followed by several great-grandchildren.

Princess Diana’s death. In a rare televised broadcast ahead of Diana’s funeral in 1997, Queen Elizabeth remembered the Princess of Wales, who died in a car crash in Paris at age 36, as “an exceptional and gifted human being.”

Golden jubilee. In 2002, celebrations to mark Elizabeth II’s 50 years as queen culminated in a star-studded concert at Buckingham Palace in the presence of 12,000 cheering guests, with an estimated one million more watching on giant screens set up around London.

A trip to Ireland. In May 2011, the queen visited the Irish Republic, whose troubled relationship with the British monarchy spanned centuries. The trip, infused with powerful symbols of reconciliation, is considered one of the most politically freighted trips of Elizabeth’s reign.

Breaking a record. As of 5:30 p.m. British time on Sept. 9, 2015, Elizabeth II became Britain’s longest-reigning monarch, surpassing Queen Victoria, her great-great-grandmother. Elizabeth was 89 at the time, and had ruled for 23,226 days, 16 hours and about 30 minutes.

Marking 70 years of marriage. On Nov. 20, 2017, the queen and Prince Philip celebrated their 70th anniversary, becoming the longest-married couple in royal history. The two wed in 1947, as the country and the world was still reeling from the atrocities of World War II.

Losing her spouse. In 2021, Queen Elizabeth II bade farewell to Prince Philip, who died on April 9. An image of the queen grieving alone at the funeral amid coronavirus restrictions struck a chord with viewers at home following the event.

Ms. Madgwick survived, her leg broken by a dislodged radiator. Her sister and brother, Marilyn and Carl, both died.

The scale of the disaster quickly made it a moment of national introspection and trauma, and the queen soon decided to visit.

One of the biggest regrets of her reign was that she did not go sooner, a leading aide later said, and some villagers say the eight-day delay rankled the community at the time. But today, the residents largely remember her arrival as a moving gesture of solidarity from someone they never expected to lay eyes on.

Queen Elizabeth II talking with the families of victims after the 1966 disaster in Aberfan.Credit…Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

Citing eyewitnesses, villagers say she briefly cried after receiving a bouquet of flowers from survivors — immortalizing her in village folklore by appearing as a mortal.

“When I close my eyes, I can see her,” said Denise Morgan, 67, who lost a sister in the disaster and was among the crowd that welcomed the queen.

“She didn’t come as a queen — she came as a mother,” Ms. Morgan said. “The loss, and the anguish, was just etched on her face.”

That alone would have been enough to guarantee the queen a place in the folklore of most villages. But she returned in 1973 to open a community center, in 1997 to plant a tree on the site of the disaster, and in 2012 to open a new school.

Over the years, she also hosted wives, mothers and sisters of the victims at Buckingham Palace, heard recitals by a choir led by male relatives of the victims, and gave chivalric honors to several villagers. The connection lasted until even the day before she died, when teachers at the new school opened a letter that courtiers had sent its students on the queen’s behalf.

Throughout those decades, changes to the economy and social fabric of Aberfan epitomized wider shifts in the country at large. The coal mine, once the hub of the community and driver of the local economy, shut — along with hundreds of mines across Britain. That drove many people to find work outside the village, often in the service industry, thinning out communal life. Several chapels and churches closed, amid a wider drop in religious belief, as did the village tailor shops and hardware store.

Gaynor Madgwick looking out over the village of Aberfan. Eight years old at the time of the disaster, she survived it with a broken leg, but lost two siblings.
The last known photograph of children at Pantglas Junior School, from Gaynor Madgwick’s collection of mementos. Nearly half of the school’s students died in the disaster.

The pivot from a coal economy “ripped the heart out” of the community, said Dai Powell, 61, a former miner and a childhood friend of several disaster victims. “Now we don’t want coal; it’s basically destroying the planet,” Mr. Powell added. “But it was livelihoods, wasn’t it?”

There were other costs as well. Nearly half of the survivors were found to have suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder, according to research published in the British Journal of Psychiatry.

Other wings of the British state angered the village by refusing to prosecute any coal industry officials for negligence. Successive governments also declined to cover the whole cost of removing other dangerous slurry tips near the village, forcing villagers to dip into donations intended for survivors, until they were finally fully reimbursed in 2007.

But the queen’s concern for Aberfan meant that she was seen as separate from the state’s indifference, despite being its titular head.

Elsewhere in Britain, people have debated whether the queen could really ever rise beyond politics, given the monarch’s interest in maintaining her own role in Britain’s political system. But in Aberfan, there was less doubt.

“There’s no political agenda there,” said Jeff Edwards, 64, the last child to be rescued from the rubble. “The queen is above all that.”

In Aberfan, most people expressed sympathy for her family and respect for her sense of duty. But there are those, particularly among young generations, who have had a more ambivalent response to the queen’s death.

For some, the accession of King Charles III — as well as the abrupt appointment of his son William to his former role of Prince of Wales — is more problematic.

Darren Martin, 47, tending to fruits and vegetables at the community garden that was established close to the location of the old coal mine.
Two mothers walking their children to school last week in Aberfan.

“I should be Prince of Wales, I’m more Welsh than Charles or William,” said Darren Martin, 47, a gardener in the village, with a laugh. Of the queen, he said: “Don’t get me wrong, I admire the woman. But I do think the time has come for us in Wales to be ruled by our own people.”

The abruptness of the queen’s death was a psychological jolt that has prompted, in some, a rethinking of long-held norms and doctrines.

“If things can change drastically like that, why can’t things change here?” asked Jordan McCarthy, 21, another gardener in Aberfan. “I would like Welsh independence.”

Of a monarchy, he added: “Only if they’re born and raised in Wales — that’s the only king or queen I’ll accept.”

Generally, though, the mood in Aberfan has been one of quiet mourning and deference. The local library opened a book of condolence. Villagers gathered in the pub to watch the new king’s speeches and processions. Some left bouquets beside the tree planted by the queen.

On Monday night, a men’s choir, founded by grieving relatives half a century ago, gathered for their biweekly practice. Proud Welshmen, they were preparing for their next performance — singing songs and hymns, some of them in Welsh, on the sidelines of the Welsh rugby team’s upcoming game.

But halfway through, the choir’s president, Steve Beasley, stood up.

“We all know about the queen,” Mr. Beasley said. “Please stand up for a minute’s silence.”

Members of the Ynysowen Male Choir practicing last week in Aberfan. The choir was set up by men affected by the disaster and includes members who lost relatives in it.
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