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How bitterness over the water in the Midlands’ taps sparked bombing campaign

It has been buried by history, but almost exactly 40 years ago, a bomb ripped through the Birmingham headquarters of the Severn Trent Water Authority.

A warning call had been made to the Guardian newspaper before the January 2, 1982, blast which shattered windows and punctured a hole in the roof.

Within an hour a second bomb had been found at a Stratford-upon-Avon industrial estate and was safely defused. No-one was injured in either plot.

READ MORE: Tap water in Birmingham may soon taste different

The chaos was not the work of Irish terrorists who had struck before in Birmingham with such hideous human cost.
This time the threat came from Wales.

The individual who made the midnight call to the Guardian’s London offices claimed to be from an organisation calling itself The Workers Army of the Welsh Republic. They did not want independence for their country.

They wanted Severn Trent to pay more for the water that swilled from Welsh reservoirs, such as the Elan Valley, into West Midlands taps.

The Birmingham bomb exploded on the roof of a single-storey building attached to Severn Trent’s multi-storey office block in Coventry Road, Sheldon.

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Thankfully, within half-an-hour of the alarm being raised, police had evacuated nearby flats and shops and sealed the street.

The Stratford UXB had been placed at the offices the International Development Corporation on an industrial estate in Timothy’s Bridge Road. IDC were in the headlines at the time over plans to develop part of the Snowdonia National Park.

The company also had links with Margaret Thatcher’s husband, Denis, who served them as business advisor.
The crimes baffled detectives: they had never heard of the The Workers Army of the Welsh Republic.

But they came during a rash of arson attacks on English holiday cottages in Wales.

The planted bombs followed mounting anger over the way Welsh water was being funnelled to the West Midlands.

Facebook site The History of Wales reported: “During the 20th century, the drowning of Welsh valleys to supply water for English cities became a contentious subject which led to non-violent and violent campaigns and protests.

The Severn Trent Authority offices in Birmingham following a bomb explosion. A telephone caller to The Guardian newspaper said the bombs were planted by the Workers Army of the Welsh Republic. 2nd January 1982.

“On occasions land in rural Wales was bought by English cities through compulsory purchase and there was little that local people could do to prevent it.

“Valuable natural resources were being taken from Wales without compensation in many cases, and there was a growing feeling of discontent because England was not exploiting her own resources to obtain water, for example the River Trent, the second biggest river in England, produces over 1,400 tonnes of water per day, but has no reservoirs.

“On January 2, 1982, The Welsh Army of Workers claimed responsibility for a bomb explosion at the Birmingham headquarters of the Severn Trent Water Authority.

“An hour later a second bomb was found and defused at the main complex of the International Development Corporation (IDC) in Stratford-upon-Avon.

“Birmingham and the rest of the West Midlands get millions of gallons of water a year from reservoirs in the Elan Valley in Wales and the IDC had only recently been in the news in connection with plans to develop part of the Snowdonia National Park, therefore both incidents were believed to be part of a campaign to get the water authority to pay more for water pumped from Welsh reservoirs to the Midlands.”

The Elan Valley Aqueduct during its construction.
The Elan Valley Aqueduct during its construction.

And Welsh extremists were evidently becoming bolder.

On the very same day they hit Birmingham, terrorists claimed responsibility for a bomb attack in the heart of Britain’s newspaper industry, Fleet Street.

News agency United Press International reported: “A bomb exploded Saturday night off Fleet Street, where many of Britain’s newspapers are printed. Police believe it was detonated by Welsh nationalists who earlier set two other bombs – one of them in Shakespeare’s birthplace, Stratford-on-Avon.

“No-one was hurt in London or Birmingham, where the other bomb exploded, and bomb disposal experts defused the Stratford-on-Avon device that was planted at the offices of a property company connected with Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher’s husband, Denis.

“The Fleet Street bomb exploded ‘with a loud crack’ at the rear of Bouverie Street at 10.30 pm, about 10 minutes after an anonymous caller phoned a warning to The Observer newspaper.

“The News of the World, The Sun and the Daily Mail are printed in Bouverie Street, where the office of United Press International is also located.

“‘The device was in a small cardboard box. It consisted of two pieces of tubing with a crude form of watch timing device,’ police spokesman John Simmonds said.

White wonder - the first dam on the route at the head of the Craig Goch reservoir in the Elan Valley
White wonder – the first dam on the route at the head of the Craig Goch reservoir in the Elan Valley

“He said the anonymous caller was a man with a ‘mildly Welsh’ accent, who said, ‘this is a bomb warning’. The caller added a codeword and said, ‘at 10 Bouverie Street. Get on with it boyo’.”

The attacks were condemned by the ex-president of Plaid Cymru, Gwynfor Evans. He said although he strongly supported the call for England to pay more for Welsh water, he would never condone acts of violence.

The siphoning of Welsh water began in the 1880s with Lake Vyrnwy, the first reservoir in Wales and, at the time, the biggest man-made lake in the world. It was built for the purpose of supplying Liverpool and Merseyside with fresh water. It flooded the head of the Vyrnwy valley and submerged the small village of Llanwddyn.

Elan Valley’s water has been described as the fluid that drove Birmingham’s industrialisation.

The Elan Valley Aqueduct (nicknamed the EVA) was the vision of Birmingham City Council, known then as the Birmingham Corporation and led by Joseph Chamberlain. Their concern for the health of Birmingham’s rapidly expanding population was the driving ideology behind the awe inspiring civil engineering scheme.

Elan Valley, a picturesque rural region near the Welsh town of Rhayadar, was identified by the Corporation in 1892 as a potential source of clean water to feed into the city for its inhabitants and industry. Through an act of Parliament the Corporation were able to make a compulsory purchase of the water catchment and start the ambitious plans for the EVA, with James Mansergh appointed as the project engineer.

By 1897 work was underway, with the Birmingham Corporation Waterworks Department constructing housing, recreational centres, pubs and shops for the workers who moved to Wales to work on the project.

The first phase of work was completed by 1904, however work has been continuous since then with improvements and repairs. Today Severn Trent are undertaking an incredible civil engineering project to create a new 16 mile pipeline for Birmingham.

The maintenance tunnels and waterways are a strange mixture of the old and new, cabelling, lights and plastic piping are housed within passages of hundred year old brick.

Externally, the weathered stones, moss and lichen licked, stand like goliaths in the idyllic valley. The importance of the EVA within Birmingham’s history can’t be understated, it provided health for the people and economic advancement for the city.

It’s a prime example of Victorian ingenuity and awe inspiring engineering.

IN the annals of UK terrorist threats, the part played by Welsh extremists has become something of a footnote.

But blog “winterof79” outlines the threat militant groups from the small country posed.

“The Free Wales Army (Welsh: Fyddin Rhyddid Cymru) was formed in Lampeter, Mid-Wales in 1963, with the avowed objective of bringing about an independant Welsh republic. The FWA had a full rank structure, uniform code, rank badges and decorations.

“Armed with weapons donated by the IRA, they had 200 members attending training camps. About the same time, the Mudiad Amddiffyn Cymru (Movement for the Defence of Wales) or MAC launched a series of bombing attacks.

On the eve of the Prince of Wales’ investiture in 1969, two members were killed when the bomb they were planting on the railway line used by the Royal Train exploded prematurely. The leaders of both organisations were jailed by 1970.

“The1970s saw the FWA and MAC being succeeded by nationalist movements such as Meibion Glyndŵr (Sons of Glyndŵr) Mudiad Amddiffyn Cymru (the movement to defend Wales), Cadwyr Cymru (the keepers of Wales), The Welsh Army for the Workers Republic (WAWR) and Welsh Socialist Republican Army (WRA). One or more of these took part in bombing campaigns in 1979-80 and into the early eighties.”

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