Episode 3 of the new series of the Crown, which just launched on Netflix, focuses on the disaster in the small Welsh village of Aberfan. In this tragedy, an 800-foot, water-logged coal-tip slipped and fell 500 yards down a mountainside. It engulfed a local school, killing 116 children and 28 adults.
John Cole was one of hundreds of British Red Cross volunteers who helped the local community in Aberfan. Now, his daughter Anna shares his story.
My Mum would say how Dad changed after Aberfan. I recall her saying how he came home after his time there and just sat, staring, dazed and haunted by what he had experienced.
Dad was on the scene following the Aberfan disaster in 1966. He was a long standing and proud British Red Cross volunteer, and at just 21, he was one of the youngest to attend. To see the events of that day and the aftermath depicted in The Crown was harrowing and it gave me a sense of what my Dad would have seen and experienced, at such a young age.
After receiving special permission from his employer at the time, Alvis Cars, where he was carrying out his apprenticeship, Dad was one of the volunteers who drove one of the two ambulances sent from Coventry to Aberfan to assist with the response.
When Dad arrived, he was assisting the local volunteers already at the scene, who were tasked with digging out the dead and working in the mortuary, which I think was sensitively approached in the programme.
From what memories Dad shared of his work in the mortuary, the scenes featuring Anthony Armstrong-Jones walking through the room lined with the bodies of children who had tragically lost their lives, were particularly powerful. I can’t begin to imagine what that must have felt like to witness.
Dad also helped with the casualties and was there to support the families who had lost children and for those who had been made homeless due to the destruction. I felt the episode poignantly reflected the grief of the families and when I consider how young my Dad was at the time, I can start to understand how the events of that day had such a lasting impact on him.
Years after, on a family trip to Wales, Dad was unable to face the idea of going back to Aberfan and even certain references to the disaster on television would trigger Dad’s memories.
Although this wasn’t featured in The Crown, a British Red Cross report written after the disaster mentions that there was a national appeal on radio and TV for ‘waterproof clothing and gumboots’. Red Cross volunteers stayed up all night sorting through the ‘vast supplies’ that arrived the day after the disaster.
The list of equipment the Red Cross used over the next few days gives an idea of the scale of the work – and the era they and my Dad were working in. It included 1,000 blankets, 200 cooking pans, 30 cutlery sets, ‘an uncountable quantity of fruit drinks’ and 10,000 cigarettes.
I know Dad was proud to volunteer with the Red Cross and we as a family, are very proud of him.
- The British Red Cross is still helping in UK emergencies. Find out how.
- Become a Red Cross emergency volunteer.
- How one volunteer is bringing a little warmth after the Doncaster flood.