The Dolgarrog Reservoir Disaster 1925

For us, this story started with a gravestone in the cemetery of St Tudno’s Church on the Great Orme in Llandudno. It was a little faded in places but still bright in the sunshine, the details of a lost story set against a blue sky. Inevitably, for us it was a beginning of a search, but we could never forget that, for a young family, the gravestone represented a tragic ending .

 John Stanley Taylor, 29 years old, Dorothy Buddug his wife, 24 years, Sylvia Doris, their daughter, aged 17 months who lost their lives in the Dolgarrog Disaster on November 2nd 1925. The Lord gave and the Lord hath taken away. Blessed be the name of the Lord.

We could find no comfort in those words. We could not simply see that grave and walk away, we could not abandon Stanley and Dorothy and little Sylvia Doris. And so we found ourselves compelled to investigate the awful Dolgarrog disaster of 1925 and the death of a family in the November darkness of  the Conwy valley, their small house on Machno Terrace devastated when two dams burst in the hills above and sent  a torrent of water and boulders crashing down to devastate their home.  

Dolgarrog is between Conwy and Llanrwst  on the B5106, which runs along the west side of the Afon Conwy, and has an unexpected industrial heritage. In 1907 aluminium production began in a factory in the village, with water from reservoirs in Snowdonia providing hydro-electricity.  The business was successful and in 1916 a rolling mill was added, increasing their demand for electricity. So the Aluminium Corporation decided to generate electricity themselves and constructed two reservoirs in the hills, the Eigau and the Coedty, to power their own  hydro-electric plant, situated next to the aluminium works. The dams were not well made.

The flooding was triggered by a failure of the Eigiau Dam, which was breached following two weeks of heavy rain. At about 20:45, the water from the reservoir flooded downstream, into the Coedty dam, which was already full. Inevitably this dam also failed. When it collapsed, the thunderous sound echoed along the Conwy valley down to Llanrwst, and the combined contents, estimated at over 70 billion gallons of water and debris, which included enormous boulders, swept unchecked into  Dolgarrog.

The wife of the manager of the Porth Llwyd Hotel thought that she should telephone the aluminium works to tell them that there was some water across the road but it did not appear to be especially serious. A few minutes later she called them again, this time  to say that the annexe of the hotel had been swept away.  It is an indication of how very quickly the disaster happened. In less than half an hour the houses on Machno Terrace ,where the Taylor family lived, had gone. Here eight residents died.  The church bell managed to ring three times in warning before it was silenced and the building destroyed. Reverend Evans, who, ironically, had earlier given a sermon on the importance of being prepared, ran through the village warning residents but soon the church house, the sweet shop, Tai’r Felin,  and the butcher’s had also disappeared. Evans later rescued a young girl trapped on the roof of her house.
The flood killed 10 adults and six children. It could have been more but many of the residents were attending a film show in the village theatre, fortuitously situated on higher ground. Nevertheless, lives, and the community, were changed forever. it was a tragedy that took families. Three generation died in one house – Margaret Sinnot, her daughter Catherine McKenzie and her granddaughter Mona – though the family dog in an upstairs bedroom survived. Fred Brown, who lived long enough to become the last remaining survivor of the flood, had been fourteen when the waters came, claiming the lives of his mother Elizabeth and younger sister Betty. His father and his elder sister had also been washed away but managed to survive by crawling over coke wagons to safety. The next day he cycled frantically around the area searching for news of his mother. This was a terrible tragedy amongst blameless, ordinary people. The list of victims includes Susana Evans and three of her children, Ceridwen, Bessie and Gwen, taken without warning. Cows were seen hanging from the trees and the aluminium works were submerged under 5ft of mud, but the 200 or so workers there were all successfully rescued. The hot furnaces exploded when they were inundated by the flood.

Rocks that washed down into the village

The jury at an inquest into those who died at Dolgarrog returned a verdict of ‘accidental death’, despite evidence which suggested that the dam wall had burst because of inadequately constructed foundations. At least the investigation led to improved construction requirements for dams in the UK, as part of the Reservoirs (Safety Provisions) Act in 1930 but for the village it was too late.

If you go up to Llyn Eigiau, in the hills above the village, you can still see the gap in the dam wall, like a careless gap in a giant’s dentures, through which death poured unchecked. Today there is no one left who lived through that terrifying night and the only building left standing from the old village, is the now-empty Porth Llwyd Hotel, but the residents are still anxious to honour those who died and have preserved the memory of a disaster that should never have happened. They have a small display of photographs and newspaper clippings from the disaster, with plans to set up a permanent museum in the community centre. A pleasant Memorial Walk through the woods was opened in 2004. It was opened by the last survivor of the dam disaster, Fred Brown, with a disturbing sound track provided by the tumbling river. There is a plaque with the names of those who were lost and the walk traces the route the water followed down which the water rushed  to the village. You can walk amongst the menacing boulders brought down from the damaged dam and there are instructive panels outlining what happened. But it is the chilling enormity of the rocks that rest there where they were deposited, which will draw your eyes.  The monumental legacy of the boulder field is something you will be unable to forget. Some of them are estimated to weigh in excess of 500 tons. When you look at them and consider the power of the water that moved them you could never under estimate the tragedy that they brought here.

If you search diligently on the website of the British Film Institute you will find a film taken by a local camera man in the days immediately after the catastrophe. There is still water flowing through the gap in the dam wall, even after the land has been scoured and drowned. There are broken houses in a featureless world, with their meagre contents desperately recovered and left outside on rocks, in the vain hope that they might one day be dry.  You can see no trees, nor grass, nor fields. Just  bewildered residents, mud, boulders and dirty water, making  its inexorable progress to the river Conwy.

Here is a link to the extract

It may not surprise you to learn that such was the interest in the disaster that police had to erect a roadblock to keep back crowds of onlookers obstructing relief operations, eager to see how the people of the village had suffered, for their own amusement. The film shows smartly-dressed female visitors in sensible boots, smiling as they are helped to step through the debris and the water using corrugated iron sheets as stepping stones, here in a village where children had died.

And what of that gravestone on the Great Orme? Stanley Taylor, 29 year old, was at a Scouts meeting when the flood hit his family home on Machno Terrace. He died trying in vain to rescue Dorothy  and Sylvia Doris from the wreckage of their home. During the First World War, Stan had served as a young soldier with the artillery on the Western Front surviving one disaster only to lose his life in another. Dorothy’s father was a Llandudno journalist and historian Arthur Richard Hughes who was obliged by a terrible twist of faith to report on the disaster in which he had lost his daughter and her family.
They now rest together on the Great Orme, looking out towards the sea and those occasional blue skies, facing away from those dark treacherous hills in which their future together disappeared under the enormous rocks and in the cold impassive water.



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One Comment

  1. Thanks so much for this, my wife and myself came across the memorial and were stocked to read what had happened. May have been nearly a 100 years ago but should never be forgotten. Your article was very informative and answered a lot of questions.

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