The Tryweryn Affair – or how Liverpool “stole” Welsh water

Last Monday night BBC Wales showed a 30-minute film about the Tryweryn affair. It brought back many memories.   In short, 60 years ago the City of Liverpool had a pressing need for a larger water supply, and to meet this need it was seeking Parliamentary powers to create a new reservoir in the Afon Tryweryn valley, near Bala in North Wales. By this means it would not have to seek planning permission from relevant local authorities in Wales.  The plans involved the destruction of a small hamlet called Capel Celyn: I believe that 12 houses (along with the post office, a school and the village chapel) and farmland were lost when the works went forward.  The film showed the way in which the villagers’ lives had been devastated by what had happened, and how, with the help of prominent Welsh Nationalist politicians, an ultimately unsuccessful campaign had been launched to try to persuade the Liverpool City Council to change its mind.   The film also pictured Liverpool’s needs in a balanced way.

When he took on a new ministerial job my father and namesake Henry Brooke had a habit of walking straight into major political rows that were not of his creation. I was returning home from National Service by troopship in January 1957 when Sir Anthony Eden resigned as Prime Minister.   By the time I had been demobbed I learned that my father had been given his first Cabinet post, as Minister of Housing and Local Government and Minister for Welsh Affairs.  This last assignment had previously been attached to the Home Secretary, but Mr Macmillan thought it best to make the switch, as my father’s new Ministry had regional offices in Wales in a way the Home Office did not.   I remember hearing about the row over Tryweryn almost immediately after he took over.   And I certainly remember how, as the film recorded, he was disinvited by the Gorsedd of Bards of the National Eisteddfod in Llangollen later that year because he had been unable to divert Liverpool from its mission to “steal” Welsh water.

My brother Peter, who followed our father into politics in a way that I did not, took part in the film.   He said he thought that the passionate emotions that were aroused by the Tryweryn affair had done a lot to stimulate the very strong feelings about “Wales for the Welsh” which had led, via the creation of the post of Secretary of State for Wales in 1964, to the devolution of government by ever-increasing degrees to an elected Welsh Assembly.   However that may be, I remember that after this very unpopular start my father not only used his considerable political influence to attract more investment and transport infrastructure to Wales (the Severn road bridge, the steelworks near my grandparents’ final home at Llanwern, and the first Heads of the Valleys road were just three examples), but did everything he could to save the Welsh language, to which Welsh nationalists understandably attached so much importance, from total extinction.

In this context another memory I have is of going with him into the Snowdonia hills to visit an elderly  woman who had worked as a maid for my English grandmother many years earlier.    She very obviously spoke and thought in Welsh, but her children did not, and that example was repeating itself all over those parts of North and West Wales where the use of the Welsh language still lingered. They were, incidentally, the areas which initially voted to retain Sunday closing hours in Wales after my father had introduced legislation to allow the liberalisation of the licensing laws to be decided by periodic local referendums.

It was not only in Wales that the creation of reservoirs was causing strong passions to arise. In 1962 I was doing a job of work as a Bar student for Lord Denning, and I came to the House of Lords to see him on the day that Lord Birkett made a moving speech in defence of Ullswater a very few days before he died.   Lord Birkett had this to say about the Manchester Corporation’s plan to turn a living lake into a reservoir:

“We have only to look at Thirlmere as it is today; we have only to look at Haweswater as it is today. Both lovely lakes have been murdered. They are now dead water reservoirs: no human life; sterile shores.

Under this Bill it can be taken for a certainty… that these lovely shores of Ullswater, where people picnic, where the ponies come down, will be just sterile shores like one sees at Thirlmere.”

Lord Denning introduced me to Lord Birkett that day after he had made his speech.  I will never forget it.   The House of Lords threw the bill out.   A commemorative plaque in his honour was later erected by the side of Ullswater as a “thank you” tribute to the last speech of one of our greatest advocates.

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