Cymru Culture

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Emlyn Davies; Canon William Evans (English)

(September 01, 2017)

Cymraeg

Hero of the Dolgarrog Disaster
Canon William Evans (1894 - 1976)

Canon William Evans yn ifanc (Llun y teulu)
A young William Evans
(family photo)

Many readers of this magazine will have never heard of the person featured in this article. Yet, our subject deserves recognition as the hero who saved many lives when disaster struck the Conwy Valley nearly a hundred years ago. That's when the Llyn Eigiau Dam collapsed, releasing millions of gallons of water to cascade down the mountain to the village of Dolgarrog below, sweeping trees, huge stones and buildings to one side, and claiming the lives of ten adults and six children.

William Evans was a young curate at the time, born in St. Anne's, Bryn Eglwys, in the Bethesda area, but had settled in Dolgarrog because of his work, two years previously, and on the night of the disaster in 1925 he put his life in danger to rescue several of his fellow villagers. As he was a tall man, well over six feet, he stood up to his neck in the middle of the water for a long time to lead his neighbours to safety, and his contribution that fateful night was also crucial in organising the rescue teams to search for those who were lost. 

Y briffordd yn Nolgarrog
The main street in Dolgarrog
image: courtesy Gwasanaeth Archifau Conwy

William Evans was getting on in years when I had the privilege of knowing him, after my wife and I had moved to Llandegfan, Anglesey, and found ourselves living next door to him and his second wife, Betty, born in New Zealand although the family originated from Wales. The first impression I got was that he was a gentle, dignified man, quite striking in his upright stature despite his age. He talked calmly and quietly, betraying a gentle nature despite his tall appearance. He was an excellent raconteur, always happy to share his memories, but never sang his own praises. Seldom does one meet such a genial, unassuming personality. Up until his death, six years after I first met him, he rarely referred to his heroism at Dolgarrog unless he was persistently encouraged, and even then, he was very reluctant to acknowledge that he had achieved anything special. "I just happened to be tall enough to stand in the water," was his reluctant explanation, "and anyone else would have done the same." But the evidence suggests otherwise.

   

Argae Llyn Eigiau
The Llyn Eigiau Dam
image: courtesy Gwasanaeth Archifau Conwy

  Monday, the second of November 1925 was a depressingly wet day in the Conwy Valley following many days of persistent rainfall. High above the village of Dolgarrog, in the shadow of the Carneddau mountains, stood the Llyn Eigiau reservoir, intended to accumulate water for its discharge through the pipes to the power station below, which mainly generated electricity for the aluminum works on the outskirts of the village, where most of the residents earned their living. Work on the reservoir had started in 1908, but little did the villagers suspect at the beginning of November 1925 that the dam was about to collapse, releasing millions of gallons of water to drown their homes.
   

Dydd yr Angladd William Evans ar y chwith gyda J.RJones a T
Day of the funeral
William Evans, left, with J R Jones and T H Williams
image: courtesy Gwasanaeth Archifau Conwy

That night, many of the residents had gone to the local assembly hall to enjoy a travelling cinema, and were, no doubt, grateful for any opportunity to take their minds of the tedious weather they had endured for many weeks. But then, suddenly, at a quarter to nine there was a deafening noise outside as the water rushed down the narrow gorge in the direction of the village. Those who attended the weekly cinema show were extremely fortunate as the hall was on high ground, out of the way of the deadly torrent, but close enough to hear its noise and see its impact.

Adroddiad papur newydd am William EvansAt the time, William Evans was taking a stroll around the village before retiring for the night, and he unwittingly encountered the deluge. His first reaction was to ring the church bell to warn others of the danger, but he soon realised this was not enough. He rushed out to witness houses being swept away, animals at the mercy of the raging torrent, large trees uprooted and tossed away down river with huge stones rolling down to the bottom of the valley.

He saw families clinging to the ruins of their homes, and he stood in the darkness in the middle of the flow to guide children and adults to higher ground. Within a few minutes, the muddy, noisy waters had swept away several houses in Machno Terrace, and destroyed the church, the church hall and several shops. Only the local hotel, Porth Llwyd, was completely saved. Half of those who drowned used to live in Machno Terrace.

In the midst of the panic, the shouting and the uncontrollable outcry, William Evans suddenly realised that the surrounding cascade was a real threat to the workers in the foundry that belonged to the aluminum works, and there was therefore no time to lose if they were to be rescued. He called on a man called James Hunter to assist him, and they both rushed through the river to the foundry, climbing on to the roof to show the workers how they could escape.

In the following days and weeks, some of these men were very generous in their praise for William Evans, not only for his work during the hours of the disaster, but also for his pastoral care for the families in their grief, and to those who had lost their property and their homes. He organised the funerals, and his support to the Chief Constable, Edward Thomas, was instrumental in distributing the money contributed to the families. The Daily Mail donated £1,000, and the money collected from far and wide was used to re-house those who had no shelter. A newspaper report at the time cited one of the rescued workers paying tribute to William Evans: "He is a manly man, and a fatherly pastor. We love him, every one of us, because he’s scarcely rested since this happened.”

 

Breached dam of Llyn Eigiau, image Rudi Winter
Breached dam of Llyn Eigiau
image Rudi Winter

 

Funeral of some of the villagers image: courtesy Gwasanaeth Archifau ConwyBut what caused the disaster in Dolgarrog?

When the dam was examined after the disaster, it soon became apparent that human failure was a major contributing factor. Although the Llyn Eigiau Dam appeared strong and secure to the common eye, the foundations were flawed. One report states that concrete lumps which had not been mixed properly were found under the rubble, and that there was a fundamental weakness in the original design. When work first started on the reservoir in 1908, the dam itself stretched for over a kilometre across the valley. Perhaps one would have expected the engineers to look for the narrowest point to erect such a dam, but the Aluminum Corporation had a different vision, and they were heavily criticised for their mistakes. Even during the construction, there were rumours that the chief engineer had left his job because he was concerned about the quality of the work, as the owners had forced him to cut corners to save money.

Due to the merciless rainfall at the end of October 1925, the reservoir was full to the brim, and it began to overflow until the weight and the pressure of the water was too much for the vulnerable dam. As the hours progressed on the second of November, hundreds of gallons gushed into the Porth Llwyd River which led down the mountain to reach a smaller embankment reservoir, the Coedty Reservoir, which had never been intended to withhold so much pressure. When the final breach occurred in Llyn Eigiau, and the deluge started, it was inevitable that Coedty would be totally inadequate to prevent the release of millions of gallons of wild, raging water. At a quarter to nine in the evening, the Coedty Dam collapsed completely, sending huge pieces of pipes, whole trees and many animals on their fateful journey downstream, sweeping away massive stones that had been in place since the Ice Age. A mile below, the inhabitants of Dolgarrog stood no chance.
   

Llifogydd Dolgarrog
The Dolgarrog flood
image: courtesy Gwasanaeth Archifau Conwy

I never heard William Evans condemn those who were responsible for the tragedy, but he was proud of the fact that a new law was subsequently passed to ensure that this would never happen again. The Reservoirs (Safety Provisions) Act 1930 recognised that there was much to learn from the Llyn Eigiau disaster.

Y pentrefwyr wedir trychineb
Villagers of the disaster

William Evans left the Dolgarrog area to become vicar of Bodedern, Anglesey, before moving to Llŷn and then to Llanbedr and Llandanwg. In 1957 he was appointed a Canon in Bangor Cathedral before he retired in 1970. He died in 1976, and was buried in Denio cemetry, Pwllheli.

Every night before retiring, Canon Evans as we called him, would go for a stroll around the garden at his home in Llandegfan. This was a nightly ritual. "I'm going to inspect the grounds" was the phrase he used, which made us smile considering the garden surrounding his bungalow was the size of a handkerchief compared with the extensive grounds in different rectories over the years, but the custom was well established. This nightly ritual was responsible for the recue of many people on the second of November 1925.

If William Evans had not gone out on that crucial night, things would have been much worse.

Emlyn Davies, September 2017

For more information on the history of Dolgarrog and the disaster, see the following websites:

http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-wales-34652969 
http://www.dolgarrogcommunitycouncil.org/page7.html 
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dolgarrog 
http://player.bfi.org.uk/film/watch-nov-2nd-1925-the-dolgarrog-disaster-1925/ 
http://oldphotos.co.uk/dolgarrog.htm

We are also grateful to the Conwy Archive Service for allowing us to use some of their photographs for this article. 

Emlyn Davies, June 2017

If you enjoyed this, you'll also enjoy these by Emlyn Davies:

     Robert Owen; June 2017
Ynysyfelin; a lost community; March 2017
Laura Ashley; December 2016
Adelina Patti, September 2016
Billy Hughes; June 2016
Coed y Bleiddiau; March 2016
Betsi Cadwaladr; December 2015
Sir Thomas Artemus Jones; September 2015
The two redheads; June 2015

 

cylchgrawn Cymru Culture magazine
Published by/Cyhoeddwyd gan: Caregos Cyf., 2017

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