Geraint welcomed John and Amelia Worth as newcomers to the History Group. John is Mary’s brother and of course a direct link into the Thomas Family and the life of Penybont.
Gill from Rhayader was also welcomed to this session, as was Diana Duggan who now lives in Hereford.
Shirley mentioned a new initiative for the village. Following the last Macmillan Coffee morning she and a few others noticed that people were reluctant to leave. They had the feeling that there was a need for an opportunity for people in the village to meet up. They are starting a Coffee Morning on 20th May in the Village Hall and this will be on-going on the 3rd Monday of every month.
Shirley will also be the Main Speaker at our next meeting on 3rd June. The focus of her presentation will be the Insall Family and the beginning of the Flying Corps.
In July we will walk around Llandegley.
No Meeting in August but Judy will be our Main Speaker in September and she will be talking about Llanbadarn Fawr School.
Main Topic: The Dams that did NOT Happen – Richard Rees
Geraint welcomed Richard to our meeting and thanked him for coming all the way from Lanwrda, in Carmarthenshire, to give us the benefit of his research into Victorian Plans that could have reshaped much of Mid Wales.
As an engineer Richard has an interest and passion for what was historically known as the Central Wales Railway, and is now known as the Heart of Wales line. It was in pursuing this interest that he came across an anomaly that has led to research into the Rivers and Waters of Mid Wales. A map of the rivers of Wales:
shows the concentration of rivers within Mid Wales.
In his research Richard discovered a plan to divert the Central Wales Railway and this intrigued him and he decided that he needed to find out more. As he began to look, he discovered more and more about the Victorian plans to get water for London from Mid Wales. Richard’s research took him to National Library of Wales, House of Lords, Kew Archives and many other establishments that helped him to put together the complete plan to draw water to serve the needs of the growing population in London.
It was the plan to divert the railway between Cilmeri and Llanwrtyd that drew his attention. This potential major change to the railway line was estimated to cost £140,930 in 1898, a not insignificant amount. This puzzled Richard. The diversion of the line would take it North of Garth and about 1-mile East of Llanwrtyd. But this was only the beginning! What was going on!??
The need to improve the water supply for London was identified around 1894. The Chief Engineer for the London Council, Sir Alexander Richardson Binnie, took on the challenge. He saw Mid Wales as an area rich in water, and with a very sparse population, and therefore providing the potential for a major scheme that would meet the needs of the city dwellers in London. Binnie looked at Mid Wales as a resource, not as farms homes, and a resource for the people of Mid Wales. He saw a multitude of rivers and he had the engineering potential to draw them together into an opportunity to meet the needs of Londoners.
Binnie was a man who got things done, knighted for his engineering achievements he saw Mid Wales as the solution to the water needs of London.
The Wye and its tributaries were his target. The particular rivers included Towy, Usk, Irfon, Ithon, and Edw Rivers. These are just few of the 42 rivers that came into Binnie’s plans. When we think of the Elan Valley providing water to Birmingham, this was dwarfed by Binnie’s vision and would have supplied about 5 times the amount of water to London.
The impact on the area would have been enormous but the reservoirs would be only one aspect of this. One town and 30 villages would have been submerged or cought up in the scheme. Richard notes that 60% of Brecknockshire, 50% of Radnorshire and large parts of Carmarthenshire would have been severely impacted by Binnie’s scheme.
If we start in the north, there would have been a reservoir on the northern edge of the Elan Valley stretching up the Upper Wye Valley. The one that would have had the most impact on Penybont area was a reservoir that was almost square that would stretch from well north on Llanbadarn Fynydd down to Llanddewi. Below this and also very close to Penybont would have been a smaller reservoir in the Edw Valley that would have taken in Hundred House and Franksbridge. The Chapel on the Hill at Franksbridge would have been on the edge of the reservoir.
The main catchment area was associated with the Towy and Irfon where a vast reservoir would be created. This would be in the region of about 3 times the size of the area encompassed by the reservoirs in the Elan Valley. This would extend into some smaller reservoirs along the Usk and over towards Llangorse where the reservoir already there would be raised by 98 feet making it of similar size to the Ithon Valley reservoir. Between the reservoirs there would be tunnels and aqueducts constructed to take water from one system to others and as part of keeping the river waters flowing.
Creating these tunnels and aqueducts would swallow up more land. One of the tunnels would have cut through from the Ithon reservoir at Llanddewi close to Crossgates. Then there would have been an aqueduct in the Edw valley near Bettws. All of this infrastructure would have necessitated an enormous amount to compulsory purchase and Binnie had plans for all these purchases drawn up. While there would have been opposition locally there were also opportunists. The owners of the Epynt House Hotel, now known as Lake Hotel Langammarch, rushed an extension into being, using very basic materials, in order to get more compensations should the scheme have gone ahead. It is also worth remembering that it was not only the properties affected by the reservoirs and the infrastructure that were affected. Huge areas of land and properties that could potentially pollute the water supply were also subject to compulsory purchase.
Richard gave us a hint at the scale of the impact to the area when he listed the destruction in the Irfon Valley alone:
69 farmhouses 212 houses
20 cottages 2 mansions
37 shops 9 workshops
3 hotels 7 public houses
3 blacksmiths 5 water mills
4 railway stations 3 schools
9 chapels 4 churches
1 brickworks 1 public hall
For some years we, at the Thomas Shop, had been reading William Thomas’s advertisement for his ‘Steam Laundry’ at the Thomas Shop as a joke, but the talk by Richard brought home how this scheme must have been a hot topic of conversation during the latter end of the Victorian Era and into the Edwardian Era. William Thomas wrote in 1905:
“W.T. has been fortunate in securing a competent Trained Staff and excellent Management. The Water Supply is perfectly suited for the requirements of a Laundry, and is the same as the Londoners are so anxious to obtain.”
Having done all the preliminary work to start the scheme there was the small matter of getting it accepted and then trough Parliament. Binnie felt that it would not be a problem to get the water from Wales. His plan included building an aqueduct 192 miles from Garth to Boreham Wood, London. Water would travel by gravity, albeit this did mean some extensive tunnels through the Cotswolds. There would be a holding reservoir at Boreham Wood.
An investigation into the scheme was conducted into the scheme in 1896 and this was compared with an alternative scheme based around Staines. The latter scheme would have been cheaper to build but much dearer in the long term. London CC then appointed a Chemist William Dibdin to give a report on the state of the water coming from the Thames against that from Wales. He found that samples obtained from Wales at the end of the winter, as the water had been flushed by winter rains, from Wales were much better, but that this was an unfair comparison. He discovered that there was much politicking over control of the water by the water companies and this was underpinning the decisions being made. Despite this London CC recommended that it should go to the next stages.
The next stage would be to take the matter through Parliament where a Bill had to be prepared and subsequently voted on. At the same time that this was happening a Royal Commission had been set up to compare the water scheme that Binnie had prepared with the Staines scheme mentioned earlier.
Richard explained that the preparation of a Parliamentary Bill required a degree of accuracy that was found to be very challenging in this scenario. Many landowners across parts of Mid Wales were Welsh speaking and many had the same name. In a celebrated situation a John Jones was not given notice relating to one of his fields, and it was discovered on investigation that two different John Jones lived on 2 adjacent farms. Despite these difficulties, and alongside considerable stress across Wales, a Bill was prepared and received assent at its first reading. A growing concern that this was progressing before the Royal Commission had reported on its findings. The second reading was delayed and Binnie, in order to give the Bill a greater chance of succeeding, made some modifications to the scheme. This meant moving the Irfon Dam further upstream and submerging Beulah and Abernant.
It was on the 29th March 1900 that the Bill was placed before Parliament for its second reading. By this time the Royal Commission had reported and came out against the Binnie proposal. The tide had in fact turned and opposition to London CC had even turned in the Greater London area. The opposition in Wales had gained momentum as it was recognized that there were water needs for towns and Cities in South Wales that would be compromised by the scheme. The scheme was rejected by Parliament.
In discussion Richard Davies commented that: “If ever there was a justification for a ‘Free Welsh Army’, this was it.”
Geraint thanked Richard Rees for his ‘magnificent’ talk. It is fair to say that the research that Richard has undertaken in this matter has been thorough to a level that is quite outstanding. This write up only attempts to sketch through some of the detail that Richard has uncovered. Richard has written a small book on the subject, a copy of which is in our archives.
Shirley will be with us on the 3rd June to talk about the Insall Family and the birth of the Royal Flying Corps.