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Friday 18 July 2008

The 1881 Metal Water Tower of Shanghai

Text collated from various sources.

Up to the late 19th Century the principal source of water supply in Shanghai had been the Whangpoo River or the Suzhou Creek. The water from wells was brackish and unfit for drinking purposes, and the water carried from river or creek in buckets to the various houses was muddy and subject to contamination from sewers or refuse. It was poured into large kongs or jars and settled by the use of alum. Then it was boiled, but even so there was considerable danger connected with using it for drinking purposes. Probably it was the cause, in many cases, of typhoid fever and cholera.

The first proposal for the introduction of a system of waterworks was brought forward at an early date by Dr. M. T. Yates, but largely owing to financial reasons it received no support. The subject was repeatedly discussed but nothing definite was done about it until 1880. The Shanghai Municipal Council then entered into terms with a venture capital consortium (its records of interests in tea plantations and US mines have been located) known as Drysdale, Ringer and Co. and the work of laying pipes was begun. A water tower was erected in Kiangse Road and the pumping of water began in April, 1883. The Viceroy, Li Hung-chang, who happened to be on a visit to Shanghai, accepted an invitation to take part in the ceremony of turning on the water.

It is not recorded where the tower's metal components were founded but in Japan the Kamaishi Iron Works had just been opened in 1880. It is just as possible that they were made in the UK as water towers of this size in wrought iron were starting to appear there and the water company's financiers were based in Britain. Records indicate several British conglomerates bid for the building of the water works, the pipe laying and sewer contracts and other ancillary construction.

Given its size, it was a remarkable example of a prefabricated wrought iron structure. This technology was developed for the rapid building of water towers and related structures needed for railways and was proven with the cast sections to produce the twin water towers for the Crystal Palace at Sydenham. The engineer/architect was John William Hart, M Inst C E who later settled at and greatly developed Kobe, Japan.

The tower was also remarkable for being some of the first usage of reinforced concrete in China where the foundations were set in a concrete plinth costing £4371 or £1 per square foot. After Hart gave a paper at conference about the project there was criticism that the usual iron pilings would have been cheaper but Hart said this was necessitated by the stratum of soft alluvial deposits about 20 feet below the surface which had led to the collapse of a new screw-piled bridge in Shanghai "before a passenger had set foot on it".

A year later the system was extended so as to meet the needs of the Chinese. The object was not philanthropic but based on the ground that disease among the Chinese might spread to the foreign community, and that better native health meant greater safety for the whole population.

Waterworks and other public health initiatives were an avenue the British used to consolidate and expand their power in colonial outposts. General A. De C. Scott addressed the Institute of Civil Engineers when Hart presented his paper with the remarks that "to his mind it was the engineer who stood the best chance of breaking through the crust of prejudice, distrust, and dislike which still formed a barrier to intercourse with Europeans (by the Chinese)".

At first there was no great eagerness on the part of the Chinese to avail themselves of this new source of supply. Their reluctance was due not only to there being a small tax on those who used the water, but to prejudice founded on ignorance. There were rumours that the water was poisonous, or spoiled by lightning, or that people had been drowned in the water tower, and the Mixed Court Magistrate was obliged to issue a reassuring proclamation.

In the beginning there were complaints that the company overcharged for its supply, and this caused dissatisfaction. Although in 1888 it was proposed that the Council should buy out the company, and take the matter of water supply into its own hands, as is generally the case in other cities of the size of Shanghai, it was found to be too expensive a project.

The waterworks have remained a private company known as the Shanghai Waterworks Company up to the present day, although negotiations have recently been completed for bringing the company under the control of the Municipality.

The waterworks were of great value not only for the health of the community but also in increasing the facilities for extinguishing fires, the firemen previously being dependent entirely on the fire wells sunk in various localities.

It appears from the photographs and plans that there was a viewing gallery around the outside of the tank accessed by the spiral staircase. It must have given excellent views over the city. It is said it dominated the skyline for years and was one of Shanghai's earliest skyscrapers. In 1887 the water tower was festooned with multicolored electric lights in celebration of Queen Victoria's Jubilee.

It could have still been a landmark during the childhood of J. G. Ballard as it seems to be marked on the 1928 map of Shanghai but a contemporary photo of it today hasn't yet been located to confirm it still stands. Google Earth indicates it must be a victim of redevelopment.

The Shanghai Water Tower with the water main pipes leading over the Suzhou creek. Erected 1881. Height 130 feet, contents one hundred seventy thousand gallons. Tank diameter 50' depth 12'3". Weight of water 670 tons. Cost of materials and construction £11,849. The makers proudly reported to the 'Civil Engineer' that it had withstood several typhoons and apart from the cost of painting, the maintenance cost was "entirely nil".

Further reading:

A Wilderness of Marshes: The Origins of Public Health in Shanghai By Kerrie L. MacPherson.

John William Hart's 1890 report with plates of the building of the waterworks and tower is deposited at the ICE and is available online with an Athens log in or payment of 24 USD.

Plans image from The Water Supply of Towns and the Construction of Waterworks by William Kinninmond Burton, a Scot who in 1877 was invited by the Meiji Government of Japan to become the first Professor of Sanitary Engineering and lecturer in Rivers, Docks and Harbours at the Imperial University of Tokyo. Read more about his amazing life here.

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