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Monday 27 June 2011

East Anglia's water tower history

Water tower development is driven as much by social reforms as the progress in civil engineering and it is also driven by improvements in the technology of building materials, pumping machinery, steam engines and pipe making.

From their aqueducts the Romans used bucket-chain pumps powered by animals and slaves to fill raised cisterns with clay or wooden pipes for local water distribution. The foundations of Roman water towers have been discovered at Ixworth and in the City of London. At Vindolanda in Northumberland, wooden pipes over 2000 years old were found still working. 

Many Medieval castles and monasteries had stone towers lined with clay or lead as a strategic supply. Lendal Tower in York was once a water tower. Though many castles - like Chester - have a tower called 'The Water Tower', this is misleading. It is because they are gates accessible by water.

Wind and water driven pumps began to appear in the late 16th century. A ‘forcer’ pumping water “to the highest parts of the city” was recorded in Norwich in 1583.

One of the great early water engineers was George Sorocold (1668 - 1717) of Derby who also built water systems for Norwich, Bristol, Leeds and London but we know very little about his life. 

Many landscape artists painted the York Street water tower of 18th Century London which was pumped by a paddle wheel in the Thames.

The Industrial Revolution (1760- 1830) brought a huge demand for water and advances in iron and steel manufacturing. Water towers became landmarks alongside engine houses, chimneys and factories in our towns and cities.

Water towers present many engineering challenges. The search for affordable materials and methods that can resist the relentless force of gravity acting on water has stimulated progress to this day.

Ferro-concrete was  first invented for building water towers by the French engineer Francois Hennebique in 1892.

Water tower styles reflect the architectural movements of their time. Horstead in Norfolk was a bold experiment in 60’s modernism because its designer thought the planners and local people wouldn't want to see "another baked-bean tin on legs". The earliest of many concrete towers in Suffolk built between 1930 to 1950 by the Vibrated Concrete Company have ornamentation reflecting the new streamlining seen on ships and locomotives. Later towers, keeping to the same basic layout, have ornamentation of a more angular pattern. Plotting the dates of construction reveals that hints of Art Deco morph into touches of Bauhaus and the angular singularity of Le Corbusier.

According to English Heritage; at one time the "the water industry in England was of the greatest international importance ... many of the solutions adopted in Europe and North America were first devised in English towns."

After a fire destroyed Hamburg in 1842 because the water supply had failed, the Kaiser of the day had British engineer William Lindley (1808-1900) built several towers for the new water system. Lindley went on to work for many other European cities. A street in Budapest commemorates him. The attractive water tower in Epping High Road is his work.

The cholera epidemics of the mid 19th century and the ‘Great Stink’ of London in 1858 convinced Parliament that Britain’s water supply needed a complete overhaul. Victorian engineers like Joseph Bazalgette (1819 - 1891) built large metropolitan water systems and many water towers. Meanwhile, a rapidly expanding railway network with its need for a water tower every ten miles for steam locomotives; spurred the development of large-scale metal pre-fabrication which then lead to advances in bridge and building construction.

This period up until 1930 is considered the golden age of water towers. Worldwide demand encouraged research and development as British civil engineers got plenty of orders for successful designs from Shanghai to Sudan.

Despite progress in the cities, waterborne diseases were still common in rural areas where local governments could not raise the capital investment required to prevent the pollution of boreholes or rivers supplying the community from the effluent of domestic cesspits.

Some remarkable water towers were built by landowners, schools and asylums but in 1910, two thirds of rural parishes in England still had no piped water. 

In 1944 the rural water boards obtained by an act of parliament the public investment they needed for a long period of post-war tower building but in some towns, people campaigned to stay 'dry' rather than have any increase in their rates.

During the Second World War, East Anglia’s strategic position caused a great number of prefabricated steel towers to be built for military installations, most commonly the Braithwaite system of bolted panels still made today, but there are others. Afterwards some were adopted for the public supply and remain in use but it took until the mid-sixties to connect every town and village in East Anglia to mains water. 

The future of water towers in East Anglia likely lies in their imaginative reuse. 

Opinion can vary widely if they are assets or blights to the skyline. Their visibility does give them commercial value while some styles can present challenges to convert for occupation but few people can resist an offer to see the view from the top of one and they are eagerly sought out by people looking for a restoration challenge or unique homes.

Disused towers have become homes, offices, performance venues, sports facilities and tourist attractions but their potential has yet to be fully exploited.

© Nat Bocking

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