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Thursday 28 May 2009

The Benacre Water Tower Family

A few weels ago Cilla Gosnell contacted BWTAS asking for information about the WT on the Benacre estate in Suffolk (close to the BWTAS HQ) because she believed her grandfather had worked there and lived in the tower with his family. We sent her the information we had and she has been kind enough to report the fascinating results of her research. If anyone has anything to add, comments via the form would be very much appreciated.

Two weeks ago I was on a cycling holiday based at Wattisham in Suffolk, but decided to 'take a day off' and go by car to Benacre to see if I could find the water tower as I'm rarely in that part of the world. I didn't contact you - or the Benacre Hall owners - beforehand, being unsure which day would be most convenient for me, but did take a print-out of your e-mail to establish my credentials just in case I was challenged by anyone in authority!

From your website, I was able to pinpoint the position of the tower on the OS map. Approaching on foot from the northern end of the park - and prepared to find no access at all - we were pleasantly surprised to find permissive paths, indistinct on the ground but leading in roughly the right direction until we suddenly spotted the tower looming among the trees. For me it was a somewhat weird experience as I don't think anyone in my family had ventured there for nearly a century and the parkland - and lodge buildings we'd passed - were totally deserted. The location of the tower seemed very remote but presumably there would have been better - or more-used - access at one time and I'm pretty certain there was a 'cottage garden' where nettles and brambles are now.

Returning home after my holiday, I found the old photograph of my grandmother Catherine Hughes (who died years before I was born) with my father Selwyn and uncle Kenric outside the tower in about 1907 and another of my grandfather (photographed - I think - before he was employed at Benacre although the caption says 1909).

Hughes family at Benacre Hall Water Tower, 1906 – 1910

During the time that my grandfather George Hughes was employed by the Benacre Hall estate – about a hundred years ago – the family lived in the water tower.

I believe that my grandfather worked on electrical installations and/or pumping machinery; previously he’d been employed for some years at Trentham Park, Staffordshire and at The Lee Manor estate in Bucks, from where the family moved to Benacre in 1906 or 1907. As the date in the tower brickwork is 1902, it would have been a very new building at the time.
The picture of him is the only one we possess but I don’t think it was taken while he worked at Benacre. I guess he was born in the 1860s (as my father’s older sister was born in 1891) so would have been in his 40s when he was at Benacre.

Correspondence at the time was addressed to my grandparents at ‘The Tower’ so I presume there was living accommodation there. I had once supposed this might have been in an attached building rather than in the tower itself but a recent visit to the tower (May 2009) showed no trace in the brickwork of there ever having been any adjoining building.

The photograph of my grandmother, Catherine Hughes, with her two little boys – the older one, Selwyn (my father) and his younger brother (my Uncle Ken) – shows part of the tower and the windows at first-floor level appear to be open as though the building is ‘lived-in’. It looks as though the middle section would have had room to accommodate a family with the water tank above and the machinery below. However I know nothing about the internal layout of water towers, but would be very interested to know how it was arranged. There’s no sign of any chimney, but Google Earth shows some unidentified details in the roof, which might have included a vent of some sort.

The sheer bulk of the tower amazed me, especially as I’d been told of the occasion in family folklore when my uncle (aged 3 or 4?) had managed to climb up it and ‘walk round the top’ – presumably on the ledge just below the top. I wondered whether there would once have been metal ladders/staircase outside allowing access, or maybe there was a way up from inside the building. Onlookers were apparently horrified but – wisely – didn’t call out for fear of startling the child, who made his way safely down.

(Some towers of this size had living accomodation or offices placed between the pump room and the tank, as in the Southwold WT, but living in a water tower could be both noisy from the pumps and damp from the condensation from the tank. To utilise 'waste' heat from the pumps; it could be vented through the tank to prevent the water freezing. Access to the roof and tank would be typically inside the tower, usually through the center of the tank that was arranged in a ring - Ed. )

Really we know very little about the family at this stage of their lives. My father, who was born in 1903, started school at Wrentham: we have a photograph of him on his first day there. George Hughes was a keen photographer and did his own processing. It’s also thought that he did some decorative wood carving for Benacre Hall. He was quite an accomplished oil-painter though I think his pictures were mostly copies. My father told me of an incident when his mother – in a rage – had kicked at one of her husband’s paintings tearing the canvas. We had that picture in our living room when I was a child. Learning – recently – that there was a fine collection of original paintings at Benacre Hall, I wondered if that was a source of inspiration.

Anyway life at Benacre seemed to come to an abrupt end around 1910 when my grandfather left his family and went to New Zealand. I don’t know whether his work at Benacre was completed or exactly why he left. It’s been hinted that he’d been involved with a young woman, perhaps somebody employed at Benacre Hall. However letters that he subsequently sent from NZ to his young sons suggest that he’d gone there alone and hoped his family would follow but they didn’t and returned to The Lee, Bucks. I believe (from what little I was told) that he was possibly a heavy drinker and left debts behind him. I’m inclined to think he went to NZ seeking both escape and better-paid work but don’t know if he ever sent money home. Consequently he was regarded as the ‘black sheep of the family’ and it seemed to my brother and me and my cousin that there was a conspiracy of silence about him and questions were discouraged.

Now we are trying to fill in some of the gaps!

Cilla Gosnell (nee Hughes), May 2009

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