How the London County Council could have stolen the River Towy.

On  17th March, Richard Rees spoke eloquently to explain how the late Victorian arrogance of the London County Council and its Chief Engineer Sir Alexander Richardson Binnie, (1839-1917), threatened to drown a vast area of mid and South Wales to provide water for London. This threat is now generally forgotten but Richard, an engineer and railway enthusiast based in Carmarthenshire, discovered a reference to a plan by London Water to divert the Central Wales Railway Line and curiosity about this this led to his discovery of the plan to flood Wales. His extensive research is documented in his volume ‘Everybody can have their own Bathwater’ (2015) and was the subject of his talk to the LHS. [1]

Binnie was appointed Chief Engineer to the London County Council in 1890 at a time when there was great concern about the future of water supply to London and in 1894, he was instructed to devise a plan to increase the capital’s water supply. His plan was published in 1898.

Binnie knew Wales from previous projects. The proposal was to dam valleys along tributaries of the 4 major river valleys of Breconshire and Radnorshire, to construct 11 reservoirs. The main reservoirs would be at Irfon , Edw and a large expansion of a large natural lake at Llangorse.  As Richard discovered this would necessitate moving a railway line and junction at Tal y Ilyn.

The main rivers to be tapped for London were the Towy, Irfon, Wye, Ithon and Edw.

Water from 43 rivers and streams would be sent to the proposed Llangorse Reservoir from the Usk watershed.

Other reservoirs would be built to provide compensation water to replenish the water to be lost to the main rivers, Doethie, Clywedog, Senni, Trewern and Usk.

An aqueduct 168 miles long would take the water to London. The outflows from the major reservoirs at Edw and Irfon would be brought together south of Builth Wells and then join the flow from Llangorse. At the confluence there was to be a vast treatment works and then the aqueduct would take the water across the Wye to Gloucestershire where it would divide into two branches; each branch would reach a giant storage reservoir outside London, Borehamwood to the North and Banstead to the south. The whole scheme depended not only on the vast amounts of natural rainfall in South and Mid Wales but also the gradient that in general was downhill from Wales to London.

The object of the scheme was to pump 415 million gallons of water to London, every day, but it is thought that the structure would be able to pump only 200 million gallons a day, half of what was needed.  It was envisaged that it would take until 1945 to complete the scheme in full and the estimate was £38.7 million.

Richard showed us detailed evidence and photographs to demonstrate the vast numbers of buildings, villages and farms that would be drowned.

He also described the various engineering techniques for supporting the aqueduct; the main ones were cut and cover conduits, tunnels and siphons.

Richard showed us maps illustrating the proposed sites of the reservoirs in Wales, with the huge areas of feeder rivers and streams, the proposed route for the diverted railway, and more detailed maps of the sites of the proposed dams. Richard described his research in London and he was able to show maps of the engineering proposals stamped ‘London County Council’, Water Supply, (engineers).

Other engineers produced other schemes. The LCC who backed Binnie commissioned the distinguished chemist Dibdin to test the water. In 1898 the LCC decided to support Binnie’s scheme and commissioned detailed survey work. Richard described how complex this was. The surveyors required structures to help them measure flows and survey the land, as well as accommodation. The LCC also required details of the property that would be affected in order to draw up schedules for compensation.

Binnie’s staff completed the plans including vast maps and Books of References. These documents have been preserved but are rarely seen. At this point Binnie changed his mind about the position of the Irfon dam at Garth.

The Government set up a Commission to investigate the proposal and report before Parliament could make a final decision. This delay worried the LCC.  There are some records of the debates and discussions amongst the numerous vested interests connected to such a vast project but it is imagined that much of this was not recorded.

Before the publication of the Commission’s report there was support for the plan in the House of Commons and the bill went to the Committee stage;

The Commission’s report was published on 30.12.1899. The Commission found against the plan. It was concerned that the estimate of £38 million could be a very significant underestimate, by as much as 100%.  It recommended that the responsibility for planning the future of London’s water be removed from the LCC. Welsh MPs were successful in ensuring that the Bill was defeated at the second reading and had to be withdrawn.

Thus, the threat of the destruction of a significant area of Wales affecting many thousands of people, over 40 years of construction work and inflating costs was avoided. The documentation has been preserved but apart from the older generation in the affected areas, the story is largely forgotten.

The society expressed great appreciation of this fascinating, detailed and witty talk, and some members of the audience shared anecdotes about the subject.





[1] Richard’s book on the subject is in the LHS Library

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