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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.

Tuesday, 24 September 2013

The £64,000 question...

From The York Press of 25th September 2013
A water tower next to the A64 in York has been sold at auction for £64,000 – more than double the highest amount it was expected to fetch.

The Yorkshire Water structure at Askham Bryan went under the hammer at Leeds United FC’s Elland Road ground (on 18th September) at a sale handled by auctioneers Eddisons. Its guide price was between £20,000 and £25,000.

The water tower, in Mill Lane, is currently let to Vodafone and TV York, which pay combined annual rent of almost £12,500 for the use of buildings at the site, and the firms must give six and three months’ notice respectively if they want to leave.

According to a post on the urban exploration site 28 Days Later, the now disused tower had about 1 million litres capacity and is 30 metres high. It was photographed inside with permission. It appears to be a ferro-concrete open legged type of the Mouchel pattern.

The question is naturally, what will the owner do with it now? The sale was only the tower and no surrounding buildings or land so making redevelopment unlikely. Should we Askham Bryan?

Sunday, 15 September 2013

Lots to see at Tiptree...

The few BWTAS members that made the effort to visit the Tiptree water tower last month, were well rewarded. While the tower is well on it's way to becoming a dwelling, this is not going to be yet another home that has just had a previous use. This is a water tower, and the conversion to a dwelling is a celebration of this, with much being done to preserve as much as possible. Obviously the vertical ladders have had to be replaced with a staircase, but this is a steel staircase, in keeping with the industrial nature of the building. In fact, much of the conversion is dictated by current building regulations for a dwelling - for example the brick walls cannot be left exposed but have to be insulated and plastered. The large water pipes either side of the door, together with their huge valve gear by BLAKEBOROUGH, are being retained. As we ascended the tower we came upon more retained pipework - the overflow and washout pipes. The tank was unusual in that rather than having two equal compartments of 50% capacity, only the lower portion of the tank was partitioned - hence the single overflow. It must have meant that drain down was done during periods of low consumption, if supply was to be maintained. Girders showing the makers name, Frodingham Iron & Steel Co. Ltd. added to the history of this building, as we head up towards the tank. On the floor beneath the tank are portions of the riveted steel access shaft, that once past through the centre of the tank. This has the Scottish steel company, Colville's mark on it.

When we reached the tank, we learnt that in the late 1950's or early 1960's the tank began to leak and the remedial action was to weld a wire mesh to the tank, to enable gunite to be sprayed on, to form a waterproof coating. Up here in the "loft" where regulations are not so harsh, a feature has been made by removing some of the concrete to expose the mesh and the original tank wall. This was not the only time there was a loss of water - in April 2003, telemetry failure caused the tank to overflow and water pooled just yards from an electricity sub-station! Fire crew had to pump the water away.

A very interesting visit, a big thank you to Jim Underwood for allowing BWTAS to visit his tower and to Graham Brewer for taking time out to show us around.