Birmingham’s furthest outpost: Michel de Certeau and the strategies of Elan Village’s builders

The construction of the Caban-Goch dam, closest to the Elan Village [Birmingham Mail]

 I was very fortunate recently to get to camp in one of the most beautiful spots in the country, in the Elan Valley, Powys. It’s among the most sparsely-populated parts of the UK, falling within what John Henry Cliffe described as ‘that great desert of Wales‘ as far back as 1860. Despite that descriptor, it’s far from empty. Its most prominent feature is the Elan Valley itself, or rather the magnificent series of dams and reservoirs that were built at the turn of the 20th century to provide water for the continually-growing population of Birmingham. The Elan Valley Aqueduct carries water by gravity (there’s an overall drop of 52m) from this valley all the way to the more prosaic reservoirs at Frankley, and onwards to the taps and hosepipes of Brum. Ever wondered why your Birmingham drinking water tastes different to your Black Country water? It’s not just the fluoride – it comes from 73 miles away.

The site of the future Elan Village in 1889 – planted forest, bare hillside and valley-bottom fields. © Crown Copyright and Landmark Information Group Limited (2017). All rights reserved. (1889)

For a while now, the most searched-for page on this blog has been that giving examples of using Henri Lefebvre’s spatial triad. I mean to update that soon, but for now I’m going to try something similar mainly to help me with my understanding of another writer on space, Michel de Certeau. His 1986 book The Practice Of Everyday Life is another like Lefebvre’s The Production Of Space which is often-quoted, but rarely read (apart from a very well-known chapter on walking in the city). Where Lefebvre deals with representation, de Certeau deals with practice; where Lefebvre leads up to an essentially Marxist call for action, de Certeau outlines the subtle ways we can and do undermine power. His thought in the book centres on a dialectic between strategies and tactics: the strategies of those with power to control, dominate, subdue, maintain power; the tactics of those without power to undermine, embrace unpredictability, and carve out their own space within the strategised space of those above.

Elan Village

I want to look not actually at the building of the dams and their associated structures, as they’ve been well-covered (see for example the Clwyd-Powys Archaeological Trust, which describes the architecture as ‘Birmingham Baroque’), but the village that was built to house the workers doing the constructing. Some of it still survives as Elan Village, nestled at the foot of the Caban Goch Dam. The dams were constructed between 1893 and 1904 (except Claerwen, after WW2) and the first  part of the valley flooded in 1896. The idea was first mooted by (guess who) Joseph Chamberlain, but not started til 20 years after his mayoralty of Birmingham. Birmingham Corporation was a pioneer in ‘municipal socialism’, taking over the gas and water works, creating parks and demolishing slums. This scheme was the logical conclusion, and such a vast undertaking required a vast workforce.

Elan Village [Old UK Photos]

By this time, the navvy was somewhat professionalised and mechanised, and much of the work was done by steam cranes and railway. Such a remote project still required somewhere for a large workforce to live, however, and the Corporation duly constructed a “model village” on the opposite side of the Afon Elan to the road from Rhayader: “the settlement designed by the Committee may be regarded as a model village, and should serve as an example to other public bodies.”

Plans for the different grades of house in Noel Park (now in Wood Green, North London). I lived in first, third and fourth class in the time I lived there [Wikimedia Commons]

A Model Village

Model settlements were quite the thing in Victorian Britain. Stemming from the early Utopian experiments of Robert Owen and Titus Salt (in New Lanark and Saltaire respectively), the principle was taken on board by those providing model homes to replace the slums in London – the Peabody Trust are just the most famous of an array of different companies working on a principle of “Five Per Cent Philanthropy.” I lived on an estate in London built on these lines, and understanding the spatial planning is key to understanding the paternalist, improvement-minded ethos of these settlements. Terraced houses were graded by class and let accordingly. Those closer to the town centre, the train station and the new Anglo-Catholic church were the higher grades, those further away lower, but all retained unifying architectural features and quality of construction. Like the later, Quaker-founded company villages at Bournville and New Earswick, it didn’t feature a pub.

Elan Village in 1905, although the surveying appears to have been carried out earlier. The yellow line shows the marked out road which by this time was bordered on each side by rows of wooden huts. The more permanent buildings are marked – several survive.

Elan Village was built contemporaneously with Bournville, back in Brum, and the two shared an arts-and-crafts design and ethos. This movement, although inspired principally by William Morris, found a real foothold in Birmingham, the School of Art in Margaret Street churning out a series of notable artists and architects. Among those educated there in the 1870s-80s were William Alexander Harvey, architect of Bournville; and Herbert Buckland, architect of Elan Village.

George Yourdi [Powys Archives]

A full navvies’ village was constructed on the South bank of the Afon Elan. The workforce was placed under the strict and conscientious principle engineer George Yourdi, who walked hundreds of miles surveying and monitoring work, and who came up with most of the rules in the village. The siting was conscious – access to the road could be controlled by  a bridge keeper who would monitor who, and what was entering or leaving. This helped maintain oversight and a strict control of undesirable goods (e.g. liquor) or people entering the village. A new worker was required to spend around a week in a communal ‘doss house’ on the North side of the river while he was checked for infection or disease. Their clothes and possessions were checked too. The doss house was set up under instruction of Branwell Booth, son of William and by this time Chief of Staff in the Salvation Army. The Powys Record Office article suggests the link with work amongst ‘vagrants’ in London – perhaps this suggests something of the misunderstanding of working men that was still true at the close of the Victorian era.

Municipal pub

After quarantine, a navvy was then able to enter the village and reside in one of the wooden huts built for the workers, and his family could then join him. Elan did have an unusual municipal canteen which served alcohol – strictly for men, with consumption limited. It was recognised that some sort of Temperance Utopia was hardly possible, although “it may be asserted that the evil results of drinking have been reduced to a minimum.” Music, singing, juggling, reciting, gambling, cards, dice, dominoes, draughts, marbles, shovel-penny, all games of skill or chance, and women were banned in the canteen. Yourdi took advice from a range of large civil engineering projects on the management of his men, including the Liverpool Corporation works at Lake Vyrnwy – it would be an interesting research project to study the exchange of management and monitoring techniques between such parties, I think it would probably be highly illuminating in terms of the ‘strategies’ of the time. Certainly the Elan experiment in “Utopian government” was widely-reported and of significant interest across the country. The canteen model was particularly interesting, with various newspapers around the country reporting on its financial model (e.g. South Wales Echo – Thursday 22 September 1898) and its management (the manager “quite understands that he is thought no more highly of if his sale are high than if they are low”: South Wales Daily Post – Tuesday 17 September 1895). I wonder if the experiment influenced Lloyd George’s own attempt at nationalised pubs in Carlisle in 1916?

Suspension bridge across the Afon Elan to Elan Village [Martin Brewster]

As the village grew the canteen was joined by an accident hospital, an isolation hospital, police station, school, post office, shops, chapel, community hall, baths, washhouses and gymnasium. Adults and children were taught reading and writing, and the hospital prevented any major outbreaks of diseases like smallpox. In general, the workforce were cared for much more than their counterparts just a few decades before. Compare the account of the building of Woodhead Tunnel in the South Pennines, described in Terry Coleman’s classic The Railway Navvies, and it’s easy to see how a construction worker was in many ways much better off in Elan Village – safer, warmer, healthier and probably wealthier. Gone were the days of hard work and hard living, mass brawls and tramping the country for work – whether the navvies liked it or not.


In this respect, Elan represents the modernisation of management and the development of what de Certeau calls strategies, exercised through space. Despite the growing discourse of freedom as achieved through a liberal capitalist economy, participating in these freedoms requires workers to sacrifice their spaces: physical, at home and at work; personal, and so on. Elan navvies had to submit themselves to residential lives that required being looked down on – the workers’ huts were at the valley bed, the police station, manager’s house etc were higher up the valley sides. Observation and visibility were a key part of the managerial strategy. They had to submit to gendered division of space – women were encouraged to remain at home while men could work or participate in authorised, monitored recreation. These were strategies learnt from the five percent philanthropists, the Utopian employers, and the wider expertise of the age; ways to get workers to conduct themselves appropriately – or appropriately as the managers saw it. In many ways, there’s much comparison with the reformed pubs of Birmingham, the model dwellings estates, and many other circumscribed spaces of the era.

The other side of de Certeau’s coin is the tactics of those thus observed, managed and strategised over – I’ll look at them next time.

3 thoughts on “Birmingham’s furthest outpost: Michel de Certeau and the strategies of Elan Village’s builders

  1. A “landscape turn” by the Birmingham Corporation in 1891, as they prepare to sell the idea of Welsh water that had been proposed to them by Sir Robert Rawlinson back in 1871.

    They describe the landscape of the Elan Valley as “wild beyond description, broad valleys, low rolling hills, rising into high ridges to an altitude of 2000ft. No sign of life beyond the scattered sheep, and here and there a solitary shepherd; there are no dwellings but a few shepherd’s huts and an occasional house of a sheep farmer, and these so rare that they have to be searchingly sought before they can be discovered…..”

    In 1894 a list of the purchases shows that they have become landlords of a number of farms, with extensive sheep stocks. In 1908 it is said that the Birmingham Corporation sheepwalks in the Elan Valley carry upwards of 25,000 sheep of true Welsh breed. The two mansions of Nantgwillt and Cwmelan and the land seem to have been easily purchased from Robert Lewis-Lloyd at a price of £149,350. In 1873 he owned an estimated 7,896 acres in Cardiganshire, Breckonshire, Radnorshire and Pembrokeshire with an annual rent of £3,045. For many years he was the umpire of the Oxford and Cambridge Boat Race. Perhaps he fancied a large lake to row on?

    BCC praised themselves for building “a village, nay a town, dwellings that were in advance of similar populations elsewhere…provided for intellectual improvement and recreation.” But gosh, the direct Labour did not extend to the railway and the aqueducts that had been subcontracted, better to use direct Labour for a distance of 3 miles from the village!

    In 1894 the scruffy navies went on strike as BCC were paying theirs 4.5 pence per hour, while they were only getting 4d.

    Liked by 1 person

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