Book review by Steve Matthews of Bookends
The Dambuilders: The Destruction of Mardale and the building of the Haweswater Dam by Norman Nicholson. Bookcase £10
In 1919, when Manchester Corporation obtained the Haweswater Act, it was calculated that it would take two full winters of heavy rain to fill the Haweswater Reservoir. The dam would enclose a body of water of some 18,400 million gallons. It would be built of forty-four independent blocks. Each block would be 35 feet wide at the base and taper to six feet at the top. The dam would be 1550 feet wide and 120 feet high.
The scheme was subject to delay and, after a false start, it was not until May, 1934, that conctruction of the workers' village at Burnbanks was resumed. Burmbanks housed around four hundred people, of which about two hundred would be the men working on the dam. There were a hundred women and a hundred children in the village. There was a general store, a canteen, post office, newsagents, doctor's surgery, a mission hall and a recreation hall. The Corporation created a new community in the isolated valley to replace the one it would demolish before its site was lost beneath the waters of the reservoir.
It was a community with the usual range of petty problems. One note records the provision of two padlocks. They were required because someone was stealing the good spark plugs from the petrol driven locomotives and replacing them with dud ones. It seems to have been a happy community as well. There are photographs of concert parties in the recreaation hall and one splendid picture shows an old lady, her skirt hitched up above her knees, astride a motorbike.
Many of the old buildings were demolished stone by stone so that the materials could be re-cycled. Much of the stone was used in the construction of the new Haweswater Hotel. Others farms and cottages were blown up by the army. For the sake of the water quality the farm dung heaps were moved below the dam and used for the trees planted to landscape the scheme.
The scale of the construction is best seen in a series of official photographs take during the construction. The vast buttresses, placed one alongside the next, slowly stepped their massive way across the valley. Wooden shuttering was placed around the top of the buttress as it rose from the ground and concrete was poured in. The men would reach up to receive the vast hoppers of mixed concrete being lowered onto the butress, and, wearing flat caps and braces, they would wade knee-deep in the wet cement moving it about with their shovels until they had achied the required level. They wore little in the way of protective clothing and many suffered from burns as the wet concrete rode over their waders.
A cadleway was slung across the valley above the whole length of the dam. The workmen, with a casual recklessness, would perch on the thin metal struts, their pipes clutched in their mouths as they worked their way across, a hundred feet or more above the ground.
The old village of Mardale was lost. The Dun Bull Inn, the venue of many a shepherds' meet, was one of the last to go in May 1937. In its final declining days, it was overwhelmed by a plague of rats, fleeing from the demolished farms.
After serving the community for 250 years, Holy Trinity Church held its last service on Sunday, August 13th, 1935. To prevent water pollution, it was necessary to exhume the bodies from the graveyard. They were reburied in the churchyard at Shap.
It was twenty-two years between the passing of the Manchester Corporation Act and the first water running from the taps in Manchester. In those years a village had been destroyed and another built. A peaceful valley had been exposed to one of the country's biggest civil engineering projects and a vast reservoir had been created.
It was an epic story. Norman Nicholson, once the history correspondent for the Cumberland News, tells the story in all its diverse detail. He has drawn on the official documentation and on personal contacts with people, many now dead, who were there at the time. Most telling of all is the range of photographs showing the building of Burnbanks and the construction of the dam.