This month marks the 50th anniversary of the official opening of the Llyn Celyn reservoir in the valley of the River Tryweryn in Gwynedd, North Wales. The reservoir was going to be called Llyn Tryweryn Mawr (“Great Tryweryn Lake”) but was renamed Llyn Celyn shortly before its opening.
The opening of a reservoir might not seem to be something worth rememberibng fifty years later but Llyn Celyn is a very special exception. The reasons for this are all to do with Welsh nationalism. In order to build the resevoir, a huge gravity dam had to be constructed at one end of the Tryweryn valley and then the valley would be flooded. This included drowning the village of Capel Celyn, moving the residents and destroying a centre of Welsh culture and the Welsh language in the process. If all this wasn’t bad enough, it was all being done to create a reservoir to supply water for Liverpool – in England. From the initial announcement of plans for the reservoir, political and popular opposition grew and contributed to the growing devolution movement – led by the Welsh nationalist party Plaid Cymru – but also fuelled by an extreme element who initiated a bombing campaign against English interests in the Principality.
The 67 residents of the village at the heart of the valley, Capel Celyn, were naturally shocked by the proposals and a committee was formed to express opposition. It was called the Tryweyn Defence Committee and it joined other groups in opposing the drowning of Capel Celyn and the Tryweryn valley – including the Liverpool branch of the Tryweryn Defence Committee and the Capel Celyn Defence Committee. In November 1956 the opposers of the reservoir sent three representatives (Gwynfor Evans, the president of Plaid Cymru; Reverend R. Jones; and Councillor Dafydd Roberts) to address Liverpool City Council. It was Liverpool Corporation that was attempting to build the reservoir. However, Gwynfor Evans was shouted down and all three were evicted from the council chamber.
Liverpool Corporation were no doubt anxious for the resevioir to go ahead. In the mid-1950s the city had a population of 750,000 and the Corporation estimated that the population needed 65 million gallons of water per day. Adding to the necessity of water, the city’s leaders argued, was the health situatuion faced by its people. Post-war Liverpool had some of the worst slums in Britain and the slum conditions only increased poor sanitation and the risk of disease. It has, however, been argued that Liverpool Corporation wasn’t being compeltely open or honest about its water requirements – suggesting the Corporation planned to sell some of the water from Llyn Celyn to neighbouring areas and even to industry.
It wasn’t the first time that Liverpool had looked to its Welsh neighbours for its water. In the 1870s it used Lake Vymwy in mid-Wales for its drinking water. This too had involved drowning a village – Llanwddyn – losing two chapels, three pubs, ten farms and thirty-seven houses.
Liverpool Corporation had the Tryweryn Reservoir Bill presented to Parliament as a private member’s Bill. It began its passage through Parliament in January 1957. By obtaining an Act of Parliament, Liverpool Corporation would be able to bypass (read ignore) or need consent from the Welsh planning authorities and would be able to compulsory purchase the land and properties required for the reservoir. The Bill received a second reading in July 1957 and was passed by 166 votes to 117. Thirty-five of the thirty-six Welsh MPs voted against the Bill – which authorised the compulsory purchases required and envisaged a five-year construction period.
Many in Wales regarded this as a blatant Imperialist act against Wales and the Welsh people. Protests and opposition intensified after the Bill was enabled, with opposition moving far beyond the tiny Welsh-speaking village of Capel Celyn. Direct action also became part of some opposition tactics. Two men, David Pritchard and David Walters were fined £50 each for damaging reservoir site equipment. Their fines were paid by well-wishers.
Emyr Llwelyn Jones, an Aberystwyth student, Owain Williams, a café owner, and John Albert Jones, a former RAF policeman from Pwlheli, placed an explosive device at the base of an electrical transformer at the construction site. The explosion caused serious damage. Llwelyn and Williams received twelve months imprisonment and Jones was placed on probation. The court hearings in Bala drew large crowds of supporters and the blast would reverberate for decades afterwards, fuelling national consciousness in Wales.
Not all were opposed to the reservoir. Some businessmen, industrialists, and politicians (at a local level) believed – or hoped at least – that it would create investment and jobs in North Wales. Bala Town Council, for instance, passed a motion supporting the construction – again believing it would provide much-needed jobs. While many of the villagers forced out of their homes were angry and even traumatised by the experience, others were pragmatic – welcoming the opportunity to move to better housing provided by Liverpool Corporation.
After years of opposition the villagers were finally forced out by the end of 1962. They were given a farewell by a large crowd who had turned up for a final service at the chapel and school. Once the villagers were gone, the abandoned Capel Celyn village was demolished. Once the construction of the dam and ascillary works were completed, the valley was flooded.
The reservoir was officially opened on 21 October 1965 – creating more resentment from Welsh nationalists. Liverpool Corporation organised a lavish ceremony to celebrate the completion of Llyn Celyn. Dignitaries from Liverpool and Wales were invited, but the Welsh dignitaries didn’t participate. Intsead the ceremony was picketed. Alderman Sefton from Liverpool Corporation was meant to give a 45-minute speech but the whole ceremony lasted barely three minutes as protesters cut microphone wires and generally disrupted the event. Liverpool Corporation showed incredible insensitivity to local feelings by organising a celebration ceremony. Reflecting the hostility to the ceremony, Alun Ffred Jones, then a 15-year-old boy, summed it up succinctly: “These people had drowned this village and driven people from their homes, and they were suddenly arriving to have a tea party.”
The reservoir was now open. The reservoir doesn’t directly supply water to Liverpool. Instead water from the reservoir is fed via the dam into the River Tryweyn which then flows into the River Dee. This helps maintain the flow of the Dee, from which water is then taken to feed the demands of the population of Liverpool. On its journey it passes through a narrow rocky section of the River Tryweryn, providing facilities for white-water sports – based at the Canolfan Tryweryn National Whitewater Centre. The water also passes through a hydro-electric power station on its way to Liverpool, producing green electricity for the National Grid. The reservoir is 2½ miles long by 1 mile wide. It is140ft (43m) deep at its deepest point and can hold over seventy-one thousand million litres of water. The upper end of Llyn Celyn lies between two mountains in Snowdonia – Arenig Fawr and Arwnig Fach.
In the aftermath of the opening of Llyn Celyn, concessions were made by the UK Government to try and calm the anger and hostility the reservoir had caused and, also, in an attempt to stem the growth of Welsh nationalism. The position of Welsh Secretary was created (the first Welsh Secretary being James Griffiths, pictured below), the DVLA (Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency) moved to Swansea. The first Welsh Language Act was passed to stem the decline in the use of the language. The Royal Mint, which produces British currency and currency for countries around the world, moved to Llantristant. All these concessions to Wales were made in the years immediately after the opening of Llyn Celyn.
There was also massive investment in the Wales’s steel industry and the Royal Family encouarged the trend of placating the Welsh with the investiture of Prince Charles as Prince of Wales at Caernarfon Castle in June 1969. The Investiture, pictured below, was, however itself a focus for extreme Welsh nationalists – two of whom were killed planting a bomb in Abergele a couple of days before the event. Such investments in Wales were no doubt welcome but it didn’t halt the progress of Welsh nationalism, which continues into the present-day with the establishment of the Welsh Assembly and the growth and influence of Plaid Cymru. For many Capel Celyn was just another Welsh village that was being sacrficed to the needs of the English. Indeed, other lost villages – such as Llandwddyn in Montgomeryshire – were more substatntial than Capel Celyn in Snowdonia.
However, the loss of Capel Celyn to the Llyn Celyn reservoir came at a significent time that made the loss especially symbolic. The combination of an increasing interest in Welsh devolution/nationalism and the worrying decline in the Welsh language was strong in the early 1960s. Capel Celyn was inhabited by almost entirely monoglot Welsh speakers. The loss of this centre of Welsh language and culture was therefore a hard-felt blow to the language. This was also combined with the seeming powerlessness of the Welsh MPs to influence decisions affecting only Wales but made in England. Despite all the protests and almost unanimous Welsh MP oppsition, Liverpool Corporation was relentless in its determination to build the dam and reservoir – and the English political establishment wholeheartedly ensured they succeeded.
Yet the long-term political impact of the reservoir was not immediately felt. At the height of the construction of the reservoir, and therefore the height of the protests, Plaid Cymru still had little impact in the 1964 General Election – even where the reservoir was located. However, a combination of things would soon improve the fortunes of Plaid Cymru. Firstly, new members flooded to the party after the reservoir controversy and, secondly, the decison by Plaid Cymru to reject acts of civil disobedience by Welsh nationalists improved their credibility, especially among Welsh communities that had previously been suspicious of the party for this reason. The campaign of bombings against English interests created headlines and focused attentions on Welsh nationalism, but it alienated moderate natioanlist opinion – of which Plaid Cymru aspired to represent.
By the 1966 General Election, the first held after the reservoir was completed, Plaid still failed to make an impact on Labour’s stranglehold in Welsh politics. Finally, in a by-election in Carmarthen later that year, Plaid Cymru won its first Westminster seat. Many believe this breakthrough – although modest – was key to the future of Welsh politics and may never have happened without the Llyn Celyn reservoir. The controversy around the Llyn Celyn reservoir was beginning to have a lasting and positive impact on Wales through the encouragement of Welsh politics, language and culture.
Llyn Celyn ignited political change which led to the growth of respectable nationalism. That growth eventually led to the creation of the Welsh Assembly. Officially called The National Assembly For Wales (Cynulliad Cenedlaethol Cymru) , it was created in 1998 after a referendum the previous year. Initially it had no powers of legislation but after another referendum in 2011, it has achieved powers over some twenty devolved areas and can legislate on them without reference to the UK Government. Plaid Cymru have also developed greater influence in the half-century since Llyn Celyn. This was reflected this year during the General Election campaign during which devolution in Wales and Scotland have been high on people’s minds. For all these reasons we should indeed cofiwch Dryweryn , or “remember Tryweryn.”
In 2005 Liverpool City Council issued an apolgy over the Llyn Celyn reservoir constructuion. The statement apologised for the insensitivity caused at the time but did not say sorry for the construction itself. The statement read:
“The Council acknowledges its debt to the many thousands of Welsh people who have made their homes in the City. They have, in so many ways, enriched the life of the City.
“We know that Liverpool, especially in the fields of medicine and education, has been of real service to the people of Wales.
“We realise the hurt of forty years ago when the Tryweryn Valley was transformed into a reservoir to help meet the water needs of Liverpool.
“For any insensitivity by our predecessor Council at that time, we apologise and hope that the historic and sound relationship between Liverpool and Wales can be completely restored.”
This year, 400 people attended a rally to mark fifty years since the construction of the reservoir, including former pupils who attended the last-ever class at the Capel Celyn school (pictured above).
The building of the reservoir also resulted in the closure of the Great Western Railway (GWR) branch line from Bala to Blaenau Ffestiniog. It had stopped passenger trains in 1960 and freight ended using the line the following year. The line was lost when the valley was flooded, with the dam also being built over part of the line. A diversion of the line had been planned but this was scrapped when the British Transport Commission decided to close the line anyway. Liverpool Corporation contributed to the cost of a new main road, the A4212, between Bala and Trawsfynydd, which passes around the north of Llyn Celyn. The Corporation also helped fund the construction of a rail line connecting the two stations in Blaenau Ffestiniog.