The Story of Lord Birkett and the Ullswater Preservation Society
by Miles MacInnes
“So small, so lovely, so vulnerable”
“Go away. Come again another day if you will…” With these words, Norman, Lord Birkett QC closed what is arguably one of the finest speeches in modern Parliamentary history.
Manchester’s need for water
But to start at the beginning. In the early 1960’s Manchester was facing a serious water shortage. Their existing sources, including the reservoirs of Haweswater and Thirlmere, were insufficient to cater for a growing population and increasing industrial demand.
As a result, the Manchester Corporation Waterworks put forward a number of proposals for taking increased supplies from the Lake District, including Ullswater. In September 1961, with very little notice and limited consultation, the Corporation announced its intentions which involved building a weir on the river Eamont at Pooley Bridge, effectively creating a reservoir and increasing the level of the lake by some 3ft (0.9m). Extracted water would be pumped to Haweswater through a tunnel driven into the fellside.
Raising the lake level by three feet may not seem much, but it would have affected roads round the lake and the many boathouses. It would also have created an unsightly tide mark on the lake shore as water levels fluctuated.
The Corporation promoted a Bill to the 1961/62 Session of Parliament which included these proposals.
There was an immediate and vociferous public outcry – the ‘Ullswater Preservation Society’ (formed in the 1930’s to protect and preserve the Ullswater valley) quickly organized a petition of over 500,000 signatures – a remarkable achievement remembering that there was no social media, internet or emails.
Public meetings were held under the banner of ‘Hands off Ullswater’. Local politicians, councils, the ‘Cumberland & Westmorland Herald’ and the then Lake District Planning Board all lent their support.
Prominent in the campaign were Willie Vane MP (the first Lord Inglewood), James, 6th Earl of Lonsdale and Bishop Bloomer of Carlisle, all of whom spoke in the subsequent Lords debate. Another objector was Ted Short MP, a respected LabourMP, born in Warcop, who subsequently became Lord Glenamara of Glenridding, where he had a holiday home for many years.
The Bill was debated in the House of Lords on 8 February 1962. Passionate speeches from all sides of the House and most notably by Lord Birkett QC resulted in the approval, by 70 votes to 36, of a motion to exclude Ullswater from the Bill.
William Norman Birkett, 1stBaron Birkett of Ulverston, Kt, PC, QC
William Norman Birkett was born in Ulverston on 6thSeptember 1883 and died in London on 10 February 1962 – a sadly relevant date.
Although Ulverston was then in Lancashire, he was certainly a passionate Lakelander who loved and cherished the Lakes -described in his famous speech as -‘so small, so lovely, so vulnerable’.
The son of drapers, with whom he worked initially, he left school at 16, was a Methodist Preacher, President of the Cambridge University Union, Liberal MP, Barrister, QC, and Court of Appeal Judge. He was ennobled in 1958.
He was described as “one of the most prominent liberal barristers in the first half of the 20th century”.
Lord Birkett’s powerful speech, “deeply felt and eloquent”, is rightly considered one of the finest in modern Parliamentary history and undoubtedly saved the lake “for all people for all time”.
He concluded – “Thus far and no farther. Go away. Come again another day, if you will. But in the meantime, do that which ought to have been done before. Produce the hydrological data on which the House can come to a proper decision. Until that is done, you have no right whatever to invade the sanctity of a National Park”.
Tragically, Lord Birkett died of a heart attack a few days later. He is best remembered for this final triumph which is commemorated by the naming of Birkett Fell overlooking the west shore of the lake, a plaque on the lake shore below Hallin Fell and now the commemoration on the Ullswater Way by the Steamer pier house in Pooley Bridge. In addition, each summer the Ullswater Yacht Club stages the Birkett Trophy – a ‘must do’ regatta.
Birkett Fell plaque
Plaque at Kalepot Crag
However, that is not the end of the story. Manchester’s reaction was typical of their arrogant attitude – a few days after the debate, an oddly named Councilor Onions commented: – “They can stop gloating down at Ullswater for we need that water and intend to get it”.
In 1965 a revised and much reduced scheme was proposed but again opposed by the Ullswater Preservation Society. However, following a lengthy Public Enquiry in the summer of 1965 and a further debate in the House of Lords in January 1967, these much watered down proposals were finally approved.
Water is now taken from Ullswater by tunnel to Haweswater under strictly controlled conditions which prevent abstraction when water levels fall. A huge underground pumping station at Parkfoot Holiday Park, between Pooley Bridge and Howtown is largely unnoticed.
MMI June 2020
Based on an Understanding Ullswater Evening Talk