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Wednesday 25 September 2013

Museums about water supply in the UK

By Brian Light

Hereford Waterworks © Brian Light
Ever since my first interest in Jumbo I have also been interested in museums which declare that at least part of their remit is to tell the historical development and/or current technology of water supply. 

One of the very few such examples is the Sutton Poyntz water museum in Dorset, which is run by Wessex Water. Years ago I corresponded with the man who for all I know still runs it, John Willows. However it is open only for group educational visits. 

Several restored pumping stations do this as a minor by-product of their main appeal, which is usually the main pumping engine(s), sometimes in steam, and the building in which it is housed. Such museums tend to diversify into related displays of vintage technology, a classic local example being the Museum of Power at Langford, with its massive Littleshall triple expansion engine. This was the pumping station that until 1960 supplied Southend with 8 million gallons of water daily from the River Blackwater.

On a recent camper trip I was therefore determined to visit the Hereford Waterworks Museum, which declares itself to be 'The working museum which makes the story of drinking water spring to life'.

These displays are the most complete and coherent attempt I have seen to relate the story of water supply, and yet they occupy only a minor proportion of the total space, most of which is taken up with working examples of various types of engines. I wondered about this and got talking to several of the volunteers. The tendency is with these kind of museums is that people offer old engines which have been mouldering away in their sheds and garages, and the volunteer engineers, to whom such things appeal, duly restore them and add them to the displays, effectively diluting the original aims of the museum.

Old machinery in operation has an obvious appeal to the technically minded, but also more generally a kind of hypnotic attraction. Most of us have probably been to those steam rallies at which rows of old pumping engines splutter away amid clouds of steam. One can see how the declared aim of the Hereford museum has been somewhat overtaken by the display of various types and make of internal and external combustion engine.

As a result of this incomplete research, my broad conclusion us that no museum as yet exists in the UK which attempts to portray and combine the following:

The technical development of modern water supply in Britain (and more briefly, globally)
The social history of this development – obtaining water in everyday life; the effects of poor sanitation; the epidemics of waterborne diseases etc

The book King Cholera describes the horror of that disease - it would be difficult to imagine a worse way to die, yet scores of thousands in Britain alone did, until modern water supply stepped in to banish it.

Scores of huge restored mansions can be visited which relate the wealth, influence and power of individual families, but little of a huge Victorian development that transformed the lives of virtually the entire population. There are of course books on the subject, especially Persian, Greek and Roman developments in water supply (and the political power that went with controlling it). There are a good scattering of restored pumping stations, all of which probably say something about water supply in their local area. But none of this remotely gives justice to the big story.

This is leaving aside the growing global challenge of the world's future water supply and the increasing likelihood of conflict over water resources. Popular interest in the subject of water supply in the future as well as the past is likely to grow.

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