House Now Under Water

Postcard 'House now under water' [MS 944]

Postcard ‘House now under water’
[MS 944]

The greetings card shown here was discovered in an album from the Severn Trent collection. Small and bearing its printed message of wishes for the New Year, slipped between pages full of large glossy albumen prints, it would perhaps not appear particularly remarkable if not for that pencilled caption at the top of the card: ‘House now under water’. Not even ‘This house is now under water’, just ‘house’. Apart from that, it doesn’t give much away.

There is nothing on the reverse. The photographer is unknown. It is not recorded who sent it or who received it. It’s not even known for certain which New Year is being celebrated.

The album in which the card was placed is quite workmanlike in its presentation, in spite of the embossed cover, with large printed captions pasted down under each print. It is apparent from these that the prints in the album show places soon to be submerged. The captions inform you of how far below the waterline certain features will be. Lines have been drawn in at the edges of each page to show how high the water will reach. How curious then to find a greetings card wishing you a ‘Happy New Year’ tucked between its pages.

The printed caption on the flyleaf of the album refers to an Act of Parliament passed in 1892. This was the Birmingham Corporation Water Act. It allowed the building of a series of reservoirs in the Elan Valley in Wales, flooding the Rhayader watershed to provide the city of Birmingham with a much needed supply of fresh clean water. The site was chosen for several reasons. The valleys were narrow and would be easier to dam. The rainfall had been recorded for many decades and was reliably high. Perhaps most significantly, however, pumping would not be required as the reservoirs created would be higher than the Birmingham cisterns which they would supply with water.

The Severn Trent collection includes several very fine presentation albums relating to the Elan Valley project. Made in the late 1890s and early 1900s, the photographs in these are also large glossy albumen prints. These are carefully mounted, beautifully presented. They come in stout well-crafted boxes. They show a justifiable pride in the engineering project they document. They chart its achievement. They show the valleys before flooding, in some small way preserving what is being lost and saving it from forgetfulness.

Here is the photograph as record, made in the spirit then prevailing and the tradition begun with the earlier photographic surveys such as the Warwickshire Photographic Survey.

The album in which the greetings card was placed is quite different from the presentation albums described above, although the caption on the flyleaf clearly shows it was produced in the same period and as part of the Elan Valley project documentation. This appears to be not so much a record as perhaps a means of visualising and making real what the project would involve, an integral part of the planning process.

A handwritten inscription on the inside cover tells us that the album originally belonged to Alderman Edward Lawley Parker. Parker was a prominent businessman and local Birmingham politician. He served as Vice-Chairman of the Birmingham and Midland Institute, was Chairman of the organising committee for the 1886 ‘Exhibition of Manufactures and Natural History’, was appointed as a magistrate in 1887, and spent seven years as Chairman of the Public Works Committee. He was also Chairman of the Water Committee and very much involved in the Elan Valley project. When he died in 1908 his obituary in the Birmingham Daily Post hailed him as the ‘pioneer of the Welsh Water Scheme’. It also testified to how seriously he took his position with the Water Committee, when it stated that he ‘kept in touch with its affairs to the very last’.

In the light of all of this, it seems somehow even more curious to see that little greetings card inside that album. House now under water, Happy New Year.

Whose house was it? There were two large houses submerged in the creation of the reservoirs. Both appear in Alderman Parker’s album and oddly enough both have a connection with the poet Shelley. Cwm Elan, was a house Shelley often visited as it belonged to his uncle, Thomas Grove. The other house, Nant Gwyllt House, had been the family seat of the Lewis Lloyds for generations. This was the house that Shelley had tried unsuccessfully to buy in 1812, hoping to settle there with his young bride. It was also where George Yourdi, the resident engineer for the Elan Valley project, lived throughout much of the works. Cwm Elan appears as one of the last images in the album, Nant Gwyllt House as the very first. The title on the print gives its name and location, the caption underneath tells us that the topmost chimneys would be a mere 40ft below the waterline ‘if not removed’. It is not actually clear from the wording whether it is the entire house or just the chimneys which would need to be removed. Indeed for decades after the completion of the reservoirs it was thought by many that the house lay there quietly intact under the water. This belief is said to have inspired the novel ‘The House Beneath the Water’, written in 1932 by Francis Brett Young. A subsequent drought in 1937 however showed that all that remained of Nant Gwyllt were the foundations and the garden walls.

Which brings us back to the greetings card. The ‘House now under water’ in the photograph appears to be Nant Gwyllt.

It’s hard not to wonder how this card came to be in the album. Who put it there and why? Was it someone noting a connection with Brett’s book? Or was it tucked in there much earlier by Alderman Parker, the original owner of the album? Is it evidence of a lingering wistful regret for something lost? Or does it perhaps simply act as testament to the satisfactory outcomes of a complicated and at times controversial project?

Something to ponder as you turn on the tap in Birmingham and fill a kettle…

Ela Myszek, Archives, Heritage & Photography

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One response to “House Now Under Water

  1. Pingback: 200 and Counting! | The Iron Room

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