The drowned village that turned the Welsh against the English

Tryweryn was always about much more than a dam and a village; it was a painful reminder of Wales’s age-old lack of political independence, of its powerlessness to shape its own destiny. No doubt this is why the many hundreds of letters sent to Liverpool Town Hall and the Department for Welsh Affairs in Whitehall seethe and boil with rage, their anti-English sentiment somewhat reminiscent of the letters sent more recently to second-home owners in Aberystwyth

“My advice to the people of Tryweryn,” begins one, “is to shoot the first devil that puts his foot in the valley.” 

“Yes – England!” screamed another, “your days are over . . . Hands off Wales!” 

The scheme itself is variously described as “a wicked plan” and “sacrilegious plundering”; the councillors of Liverpool Corporation were “snakes in the grass” and “greedy capitalists”. The English were no better than the Soviets, opined another, “taking” a Welsh village as the Russians had seized Hungarian ones and massacred civilians in Budapest.

The Welsh language – the oldest surviving language in these isles – was sacred. It was therefore appalling, agreed the correspondents, that one of Wales’s last solely Welsh-speaking villages was to be obliterated at a time when that very language was so gravely imperilled. Half the population of Wales had spoken Welsh in 1911; by 1950, that figure had fallen to 29 per cent, eroded by English-language cinema, radio, television and newspapers.

The actual dam had not been built yet but with each day that passed, bitter cultural memories amassed in the mental reservoir of the Welsh people. The Welsh, as some of the protesters saw it, had a special connection to the island, being descended from the Celtic tribes who were amongst the earliest inhabitants of Britain. Yet what a hand fate had dealt them – shunted into the western extremity of Britain by the Anglo-Saxon settlers, the border thrust westwards under William the Conqueror, who presided over the growth of that anarchic shadowland called the Marches, a bloody domain of colonist warlords, and Edward I’s conquest of Wales, stamping castles across the coastal landscape. 

Its laws emasculated, language became the standard-bearer of Welsh identity; but here, too, the Brythonic language was suppressed, castigated as “sinister” by Henry VIII’s ministers, and relegated to the status of a useless, backward tongue banished from law courts, schools and palaces and mansions, compelling Wales’s landowning classes, and anyone who wanted to get ahead, to learn and speak English. 

Yet, against the odds, parts of Wales had survived into the 20th century with the old language and culture intact, due in no small part to the impact of the Reformation, Methodist revival and a revolution in grassroots schooling, which sought to save souls by increasing literacy amongst ordinary people. All of which made it so much more of a tragedy, thought the protesters, that the essence of traditional Welshness found itself under threat, once again. 

For some, meek surrender wasn’t an option. One letter arrived in a dainty envelope with a red stamp of a very youthful-looking queen and a beautiful “post early for Christmas” graphic. But inside was a piece of blunt menace, fist-scrawled in block capitals intersecting the ruled lines with diagonal disdain: “THEY TRY”, it warned, “AND WE GO DOWN FIGHTING THE ENGLISH ANY PLACE. THIS WILL BE A LONG WAR.” It was signed “the WRA” – the Welsh Republican Army. 

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