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Water Peter Walker


The buck stops here
Staff member
A water supply, unlike gas or electricity, is essential to human life, and man has always settled next to a natural water supply.
Rivers had industrial uses too, for grinding, driving hammers and bellows, and later for slitting metal strip. Water was also used in quantity for wool fulling and leather tanning. In 1086, the Domesday Book listed mills at Aston, Erdington and Handsworth. By the early 16th Century, others were working at Digbeth and the Manor House Moat in the town itself and also at Pebble Mill, Holford (Perry Barr) and Bromford. In the 18th century, water power was the principal means of industrial production, and Matthew Boulton took over Edward Ruston’s steel mill in 1761 to set up his Soho Manufactory, where the steam engine was later designed and built in quantity. The following list of Birmingham’s rivers includes many former mills (underlined).
Old Birmingham’s principal river was the River Rea, which runs roughly northwards from the Lickey Hills, through Kings Norton and down to Cannon Hill, where it joins the Bourn Brook from Bartley Green, which in its turn takes in Merritts Brook, also known as Griffins Brook at Selly Oak, then Stonehouse Brook, and lastly Chad Brook, which drains Edgbaston, Harborne, Bearwood and parts of Smethwick. The River Rea continues as a substantial river through Pebble Mill and Balsall Heath to pass beneath Deritend at Rea Street of course, past Duddeston Mill, Saltley and Nechells to join the Tame near Bromford. Most of it today runs under cover, but street names such as Rea Street and Floodgate Street are evidence of the former importance of the river.
The River Tame flowed eastwards from Rowley regis, Willenhall and Wednesbury, past Hamstead Mill, through Perry Barr and past Holford Mill to Witton, under Salford Bridge and Bromford Bridge to Castle Bromwich, and on to Burton on Trent and the North Sea. Tributaries to the Tame came from Great Barr and Sutton Park, via Kingstanding Perry Common and Brookvale.
Hockley Brook originates in Smethwick and Handsworth, continuing through Hockley and Aston, under Thimble Mill Road to join the Tame near Salford Bridge.
Quite separately, the River Cole starts near Solihull and flows through Yardley Wood (Trittiford Mill) where it picked up the Chinn Brook from Walker’s Heath, continuing roughly parallel with the Rea past Sarehole Mill down to Spark Hill, where it was known as Spark Brook, and then to Hay Mills, Stechford, where it veers eastwards to Babbs Mill and Coleshill before joining the Tame near Shustoke.

1826 - Birmingham Waterworks Company
For 200 years until the early 16th century, Birmingham had a population of only 1000 or so, but by 1650 the figure had risen to 5000, by 1750 to 24 000 and by 1800 to 74 000, and most of that within a square mile surrounding the Bull Ring. By this time, local water supply would have been widely supplemented by wells - where landowners could afford them - but the population would have been so dense in the town centre that the concentration of sewage effluent might pollute the well water. A feature of town life in the early 19th century was the water carrier, who would sell (relatively) fresh water from a cart by the gallon.
The earliest attempt to provide the town of Birmingham with an organised supply of water was made in 1808, when notice of a Bill to permit such works was given in Parliament. The scheme was strongly opposed, and in 1809 a town's meeting was convened to consider the proposal. The meeting appointed a committee, rejected the idea of a waterworks. A second Bill was rejected in 1811, and nothing more happened until 1826, when Parliament granted powers constituting "the Company of Proprietors of the Birmingham Waterworks for the purpose of providing a sufficient and constant supply of good and wholesome water for domestic, manufacturing and other purposes" The area to be supplied included Birmingham, Aston, Duddeston, Nechells and Edgbaston, an area of approximately 2215 acres. Under the Act the prescribed sources of supply were the River Tame and the Hawthorn Brook, but only the former was used. The water supply was at first only intermittent, but in 1849, at the request of the Sanitary Committee of the Corporation, the Company agreed to give a constant supply in certain districts. It was not until 1853, however, that a constant supply was given throughout the Company's area. It is believed that Birmingham then enjoyed the distinction of being the only town in the country with a constant supply of water.
In 1854 a gas tank at Willenhall suddenly burst; the fluid from this found its way into the River Tame, poisoning the fish and rendering the water unfit for domestic use. Fortunately the Company had time to exclude the polluted water from entering the reservoir and mains, but water for domestic purposes had once again to be taken round in carts for a time. This occurrence brought home to the Company the futility of relying on one source of supply only, the more so in view of the increase of population, the opening of new coalfields, and the erection of factories and workshops which were rapidly rendering the stream unfit for domestic water supply purposes.
New sources therefore had to be found, and the Company's second Act of 1854, and subsequent Acts obtained by 1870, authorised the erection of additional pumping stations, the construction of reservoirs and the sinking of deep wells. The stream through Sutton Park was also tapped. By 1873 the water was raised by engine power at Minworth to a height of 360 to 200 feet, and stored in large reservoirs at Witton Lakes and Perry and further works were later executed for filtering and pumping the waters of the river BIyth and Bourne from its source, about 16 miles east of the town. There were six distributing engines of about 1,000 horse power at Aston, where the water was raised a second time by 250 feet, and thence supplies the greater portion of the town. The highest parts of Edgbaston and Moseley required another engine to lift portion of the water an additional 80 feet, In 1873 the total quantity supplied was about 3,000,000,000 gallons per annum.
The Birmingham Waterworks Tower at Edgbaston Reservoir was designed by J. H. Chamberlain and built in 1870. The reservoir was first built to feed the canals, a hundred years previously.

1876 - Birmingham Corporation Water Department
The Birmingham Corporation Act of 1875 empowered the city to purchase the water Company, which it did on 1 January, 1876. In addition to tapping the Rivers Bourne and Blythe, Plant's Brook and Perry Stream, the bCorporation dug six deep wells at Aston, Short Heath, King's Vale, Perry, Selly Oak, and Longbridge. These sources yielded a daily supply of about twenty million gallons, and storage was provided in 14 reservoirs of a total capacity of 628.5 million gallons.
By 1891 it was clear that the supply was being outstripped by the growth of the city. In spit of opposition within the Council and in Parliament, the Birmingham Corporation Water Act was passed 1892. This authorised the purchase of land imn South Wales on the upper portion of the Rivers Elan and Claerwen, in the counties of Radnor, Brecknock, Cardigan and Montgomer. Three reservoirs on the Elan and three on the Claerwen were authorised, together with an aqueduct to carry the water to Birmingham, a reservoir, filtration works and pumping station at Frankley, trunk mains into the distribution area. Construction work started in 1893 and was completed towards the end of 1906, shortly after a Royal opening by King Edward VII, accompanied by Queen Alexandra, on 21 July 1905. The water from Elan aqueduct was discharged into two storage reservoirs at Frankley and Bartley, designed to provide sufficient storage to meet the demands for water in the area of supply during any prolonged interruption in the supply from Wales consequent on any serious breakdown on the aqueduct.
To meet prospective increases in the consumption of water, the Corporation planned in 1914, to lay a third pipe on the aqueduct, but work was postponed during World War 1. In 1919 it was decided to lay a third pipe line throughout the whole length by replacing the existing pipes as they fell due for replacement with larger bore, high-pressure pipes.
The capacity of the aqueduct with two 42 inch diameter mains from Wales in 1921 was about 25 million gallons per day.
The average consumption for the year to 31 March, 1942, excluding bulk supplies, was over 43 million gallons a day, the estimated average population supplied being 1 225 000.

of 1892 T.B.C...
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Master Barmmie
The story of the construction of the Elan Valley Reservoir is interesting in itself. Over on the Blog "Up the Os Road," Simon Briercliffe has posted two interesting articles.


In 1891 not everyone was in favour of the idea of Welsh water that had been proposed to the Birmingham Corporation by Sir Robert Rawlinson back in 1871. To promote the idea they describe the landscape of the Elan Valley as “wild beyond description, broad valleys, low rolling hills, rising into high ridges to an altitude of 2000ft. No sign of life beyond the scattered sheep, and here and there a solitary shepherd; there are no dwellings but a few shepherd’s huts and an occasional house of a sheep farmer, and these so rare that they have to be searchingly sought before they can be discovered…..”

After the purchase and in 1894 a list shows that they have become landlords of a number of farms, with extensive sheep stocks. In 1908 it is said that the Birmingham Corporation sheepwalks in the Elan Valley carry upwards of 25,000 sheep of true Welsh breed. The two mansions of Nantgwillt and Cwmelan and the land seem to have been easily purchased from Robert Lewis-Lloyd at a price of £149,350. In 1873 he owned an estimated 7,896 acres in Cardiganshire, Breckonshire, Radnorshire and Pembrokeshire with an annual rent of £3,045. For many years he was the umpire of the Oxford and Cambridge Boat Race. Perhaps he fancied a large lake to row on?

The Birmingham Corporation praised themselves for building “a village, nay a town, dwellings that were in advance of similar populations elsewhere…provided for intellectual improvement and recreation.”

Were Birmingham Corporation the first to use “direct labour” on such a vast project, described at the time as the largest piece of engineering work in the world? Industrial relations over the ten year period seem to have been quite good. Contractors only being employed at a distance of three miles from the reservoir, and probably moving further away as time progressed.


Master Barmmie
The Short Heath well mentioned in Post One was known as Witton Well...

A report in 1874 concerning the B'ham Waterworks Co, its history and works, describes Witton Well, although it has not included dates.... situated at the top of the Upper Witton Reservoir, near the Golden Cross at Short Health. (It then goes on to describe the details of the sinking) The quantity of water this well is capable of yielding has been tested as 2.5 million gallons per day.