Monday 4 December 2017

135 Lliw Valley reservoirs

Lliw Valley reservoirs
Constructing reservoirs in Wales can be an emotive subject, especially when villages in Welsh-speaking areas are flooded to provide water for English cities.  
Despite high-profile protests, the Llyn Celyn reservoir north of Bala was opened in 1965, which had entailed flooding the Tryweryn Valley, with the loss of Capel Celyn village with 12 farms, a school, Post Office and chapel, to provide water for Liverpool.  Previously that city had relied on Lake Vyrnwy in Powys, opened in 1888 after 10 farms and the village of Llanwddyn were flooded: at the time it was Britain’s largest masonry dam.
Birmingham benefited from the Elan Valley reservoirs, opened in 1904, after 18 cottages and farmhouses, a school, church and two manor houses (one with links to the poet Shelley) had been flooded.   
By contrast the two reservoirs near Felindre in upland Gower, set amid the mountain scenery of the Mawr region, were built to provide water for Swansea and the surrounding area.  The Lower Lliw reservoir (also called the Felindre reservoir) was opened in 1863, at a cost of £160,000.  But it took reconstruction between 1976-78, with a new rockfill dam, overflow spillway and pumping station, to make the dam completely watertight.  To the north 233 men used stone from Darren-fawr quarry to construct a 25m-high dam, so the Upper Lliw reservoir was opened in 1894 at a cost of £116,000.  Yet that reservoir may hold a sinister secret.
Ioan Richard, Mawr ward councillor for over forty years, grew up after the war on the seven-acre smallholding Ty’r Darren, beneath the Upper Lliw reservoir’s quarry.  He was fascinated to hear older neighbours speak about the building of the Upper Lliw reservoir in the 1890s, a boom time for local cottages and farms, who took in construction workers on the site as paying lodgers.  That thinly-populated Welsh-speaking area became a bustling community of navvies during the construction of the Lliw Valley reservoirs. 
Last year this paper reported a tale passed down that during the construction of the Upper Lliw reservoir a navvy had died following a bare-knuckle fight around 1890 - and been buried in the dam.  This oral account was backed up by a book published in Australia by Stuart Morgan, many of whose ancestors had lived around the village of Craig-cefn-parc.  An ancestor Hannah Jones owned and ran the Colliers Arms, a pub with a small brewery in the village.  When a construction workers’ camp had been established for the navvies at the Upper Lliw between 1886 and 1894, she enterprisingly set up a pub on the site, in a shack called the "Black Slant", to quench their thirst.  The 1891 census for the Mawr area of Glamorgan lists many itinerant navvies from Ireland and England who swelled the size of the local population.  Hannah Jones’s sons worked in local coal mines, but would bring beer to the site by horse and cart in barrels from the Colliers Arms brewery in Craig-cefn-parc.  Harsh working conditions and alcohol could lead to violence, and bare-knuckle fist-fights were frequent.  Hannah's son Thomas was sent to deal with one particular navvy who had been causing repeated trouble at the shack.  An ensuing bare-knuckle fight led to the troublemaker’s death, and his body was hastily concealed amid the construction of the dam.  As with navvies working on Brunel’s railway projects, with so many transient labourers one man’s disappearance might not cause comment, for it would be assumed that he had moved on to seek work elsewhere. 
Nonetheless Thomas Jones left the village the next day and sailed to North America, where he settled without ever returning to Wales.  Stuart Morgan was a descendant who, after retiring from business in Western Australia, donated to the Swansea Valley chapels where his ancestors had worshipped, and undertook the family research that supports the oral tale of that fatal fight from the 1890s. 
Not as controversial as Tryweryn, but Upper Lliw reservoir has its dark side.      

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