In 1955, Liverpool was one of England’s thirstiest cities and struggling to find a reliable water source. With its busy port and terraces of slum housing, planners calculated the city would need 65 million gallons of water each day. This called for radical action.
Liverpool City Council decided to create a new reservoir in nearby North Wales. The one problem was that in Tryweryn Valley, the sight of the planned reservoir, stood the small village of Capel Celyn (Chapel Holly in Welsh). Capel Celyn was home to 67 people, a school and — naturally — a chapel. They were one of the last Welsh-only speaking communities. The plans for the reservoir would completely submerge their village.
It wasn’t the first time Liverpool had turned to Wales for its water supply. In 1888, they had done the same to the village of Llanwddyn, at a cost of three inns, two chapels, 10 farmhouses and a large estate.
Capel Celyn’s tiny population set about defending their village, creating the Tryweryn Defence Committee and sending a delegation to Liverpool to address a meeting of the council. But when they stood up to speak, they were shouted down and ejected from the building. A protest march through the streets of Liverpool didn’t fare much better. As the village residents walked, having caught buses into the city and hoisted banners saying ‘Your homes are safe — do not drown ours!’, they were spat on and pelted with rotten fruit by city residents. Liverpool viewed the Welsh countryside-dwellers as trouble-makers who stood in the way of the city.
The village was outside Liverpool’s control, meaning the council would have had to apply to the local planning committees for permission to build the reservoir. But by sponsoring a bill in the UK parliament in London, they could get around that. In 1957, the bill was approved — despite 35 out of 36 of Wales’s MPs voting against it. This meant that the reservoir could be built without any consultation of Capel Celyn’s residents, and their village and the surrounding agricultural land would be flooded within years.
After the compulsory purchase of the land, the construction company erected an English-only sign.
‘Construction of the Tryweryn Reservoir.
Employing authority: Liverpool Council
Contractor: Tarmac Civil Engineering Ltd’
On this sign, a resident scrawled ‘Why not drown Liverpool instead?‘
In 1962, the authorities began evicting the residents. Photographer Geoff Charles travelled to the village to capture its last days.
Indignation at the village’s fate reached beyond Tryweryn Valley. When the church held its final service before being deconsecrated, a crowd far larger than the village’s population turned up to pay their respects. The local school, which had educated generations of local children, closed its doors for the last time. In the chapel’s cemetery, bodies were dug up and moved elsewhere.
Tensions did not fade with the departure of the villagers. In 1962, two young men from Gwent paid the site a visit and made quick work damaging the demolition equipment. They were both fined £50, which was paid for by supporters. A photograph from the time shows Gwynfor Evans, president of political party Plaid Cymru (Party of Wales), shaking their hands outside the court.
The following year, three men were sent to prison for planting a bomb on the site. The explosion caused serious damage. When English government officials tried to conduct an opening celebration when the dam was completed, protestors cut the wires of their microphones.
Regardless, the water was turned on, and Tryweryn Reservoir slowly began to fill, water inching towards the ragged stumps of the old houses, the rubble of the church, the empty graves.
The ruins disappeared under the reservoir, and Capel Celyn became Llyn Celyn — Lake Holly. But the fight had helped the people of Wales realise how powerless they were against the British government and the needs of large English cities. The events lead to higher political engagement and a rise in popularity for Plaid Cymru, who campaigned for a Welsh parliament.
Years later, in 1989, during a long drought, the water of Llyn Celyn dropped low enough to reveal the ghostly ruins of the village. They emerged into a new Wales, more empowered than before, with a Secretary of State in the UK government and more locally-run services. In only ten years’ time, Wales would have its own government. Welsh Water — not in existence at the time of the reservoir’s construction — decided to mark the rubble where the buildings had stood with small plaques. Ysgol. School. Eglwys. Church. Visitors ambled along the former streets — now dull, sticky mud.
Then, when it finally began to rain again, the ruins and their plaques slipped once more beneath the water and out of view.