Water, water, everywhere…

1850 map

Between 1775 and 1831 the population of the nearby borough of Leeds had increased from just over 17,000 to 71,602.58 The town had expanded at a phenomenal rate but the majority of its inhabitants still lived in cramped and insanitary housing in the streets, yard and folds of the central area.  In 1832 cholera visited the town, the primitive medical facilities could not cope and of nearly 2,000 identified cases just over 700 died. Doctor Robert Baker’s pioneering report on the outbreak showed quite conclusively that the disease was prevalent in the unsewered, ill-ventilated, filthy, ill-paved and densely populated parts of the town where the working classes lived.59   The death rate soared; Leeds was a very unhealthy place to live. A major problem facing the majority of Leeds citizens on a daily basis was access to an adequate supply of clean water. In 1834 the problem was highlighted in the introduction to Baines and Newsome’s Directory for Leeds:

‘Leeds is very ill supplied with that most needful element, water…Only 2,200 houses, inhabited by 12,000 persons receive water from the Water Works; and a population of upwards of 60,000 in the township alone have no supply except from wells and rainwater.’ 60

Many were dependent on carriers whose carts constantly ploughed the streets of Leeds selling water to eager customers. The cost of this was prohibitive as they charged around 2s. 0d a week, when the average rent for a cottage was only 2s. 6d! 61 Yet even those dependent on the ancient Water Works founded in 1694 were experiencing increasing difficulties. The company relied on supplies that were pumped from the River Aire by steam engine to three reservoirs dotted around the town. It was then gravity fed through wooden and lead pipes to pumps or into people’s houses. But by this time the river was an unfit source. Most agreed that something radical had to be done to stop using the river as a source, sentiments which were skilfully expressed in a contemporary handbill:

…it is bad in quality and deficient in quantity, the water being taken from the River Aire which is greatly defiled by the refuse from the mills and dyehouses and by the common sewers and drains of the town.62

The process of addressing the issue of a new waster supply began in earnest in 1834 when £500 was approved for taking professional advice. Four civil engineers submitted reports but the Leeds Improvement Commissioners chose the scheme of Henry Abraham, a London engineer, but a powerful minority preferred Charles Fowler’s plans. He was a highly respected local engineer and surveyor. Though both agreed that water should be brought to the town from a reservoir located at Eccup they vehemently disagreed about the exact location and line of the pipes from source to filter bed.

Worse was to come as the Tories wished to see it built and operated by a private company while the Liberals favoured a publicly owned scheme. Years of wrangling followed.  Eventually the Earl of Harewood, whose water and land were needed for the scheme, offered to mediate. The compromise hammered out in 1837 was the creation of Leeds Waterworks Company which was privately owned, but with the proviso that the Council could buy all the shares within a twelve year period.

In June the Leeds Water Works Act was passed unopposed.63

Tunnel Row Cottages
Tunnel Row Cottages, located just above King Lane Bridge, were built in the 1830s as accommodation for labourers working on the waterworks. They were constructed of stone rubble with a thatched roof, simple wooden shutters across the window openings and trodden earth floors inside. A small fire on the ground floor provided heating and the metal cauldron hanging over it provided warm water and acted as a cooking pot. Occupants later earned a living by grinding sandstone from nearby quarries and keeping a few sheep on the band of grassland adjoining King Lane.

The first act of the new company was to appoint George Leather and Son as sole engineers and pay off Abraham and Fowler.64 Unfortunately neither of them went quietly! The Earl of Harewood finally settled for £2000 for his 35 acres at Eccup but the Lane Fox family, across whose land the pipeline would have to cross, became increasingly worried about the potential effect this may have on husbandry and the changes to the drainage of their Alwoodley estate. These concerns were not without foundation. One who shared these fears was Miles Potter, a new tenant who had only recently constructed a water-driven flax spinning mill on the southern side of Nanny (King Lane) Beck. It was obvious that any reduced flow in the stream would affect the waterwheel and reduce output, endangering the jobs of his eight female employees. This dispute went to arbitration and this delayed the project by a further two years.65

The plans called for the construction of a 250 million gallons reservoir at Eccup, with water then being taken through the Blackmoor Tunnel and on to Adel Beck. Here an aqueduct would carry the water across the valley and then in an open conduit to Weetwood, from where it would be piped to properties in Leeds.66 This was a very ambitious project, the tunnel alone being over one and a half miles in length. In 1840 the contract for this section of work was awarded to Shaw and Briggs, noted railway contractors.

This detailed undated plan for the new reservoirs on Adel Beck has 'Not carried out' written across the top of the page in fine italic hand. It is fascinating to see that they intended to construct Thorner Ford reservoir just above the Seven Arches.

They soon found themselves in financial difficulties as well as falling foul of Thomas Kell, Lane Fox’s agent.67 He monitored the work on the Alwoodley Estate like a hawk, keenly aware that navvies were not the easiest of groups to contain. On 22 December 1840 he wrote to the Directors of Leeds Water Works Company expressing grave concern about the rumour that some of the contractors intended to open a beer shop. They assured him that no such facility would be created.68

But progress on the tunnel was slow and it soon became apparent that at least one other shaft would have to be sunk on the south side of King Lane in what is today Buckstone Oval. Mr Fox consented to this change on 9 February 1841 on condition that compensation would be paid via his agent.69 In the 4th Annual Report of the Company dated 31 May 1841 it states that whilst digging the tunnel ‘water had been found in such abundance as seriously to retard the Operation of Workmen.’ 70 Although this additional source was hailed as a blessing, it nevertheless added to the expense. The Company decided to stop pumping this water into the beck and divert it through pipes and temporary channels across Alwoodley to the filter beds at Weetwood, thus bringing clean water to the town earlier than expected. It seems likely that the Seven Arches had been completed by this date. George Lane Fox, to his credit, asked for no recompense other than compensation to his tenants whose land had been damaged by these actions.

However, the relatively up-beat report masked the massive scale of the problems on site, some attributable to the horrendous weather. The same month the minutes note:

 ‘ The great quantity of Water met with at shaft No. 2 has prevented it being brought into operation…A second pit at this point has been found necessary and an additional Steam Engine. …at No.2  we (now) have two shafts and two Steam Engines together 32 H.P. which in the course of a few days will both be at work pumping water; when we trust we shall be enabled to force these Pits down to their depths and commence drifting…We are now making arrangements by which the Water pumped up from Shafts Nos. 2,3,4, and 5, amounting upwards of 800 gallons per minute will soon be distributed to the Town.71

Evidence of this activity can still be seen today with the inspection shafts off Lakeland Drive, The Lane and Buckstone Oval. But the project seemed doomed when the very long continuation of frost stopped the operations for several weeks. On 7 June Shaw and Brigg’s contract was terminated on the grounds of poor performance and all their on-site assets were seized.72

The following month Messrs. Bray and Duckett successfully tendered for the completion of the work and on 4 August 1841 Leeds Waterworks Company announced in the local press that ‘...their Works are now so far advanced as to warrant them in stating that they will be enabled to supply Pure Water from Alwoodley to all the tenants of the old (Leeds) Water Works early in the present Month of August, and that their Mains and Service Pipes will be extended in to other Districts of the Town and Neighbourhood with all practicable speed.72

7 arches

On 21 August the Leeds Mercury informed its readers that:

…the long wished for Water from Alwoodley is now at hand… but ut us merely that which is pumped up from the pits ot shafts… the company and the people of Leeds are greatly indebted to George Lane Fox Esq. by which the water raised by the steam engines at three of the shafts is to be brought to Leeds…the water is conveyed from the shafts upwards of a mile and a quarter in wooden troughs or spouts to the end of an aqueduct over Addle Beck. This a stone structure of seven semi-eliptical arches of 30 feet span each, crossing at an elevation of about 34 feet above the bed of the beck… and through a covered sonduit of masonry and brickwork of about one and a quarter miles toa stone reservoir at Weetwood: from this reservoir it is conveyed in cast iron pipes to the service reservoir on Woodhouse Moor.73

This new supply of clean water transformed the lives of the citizens of Leeds immediately and by the following year 1539 houses, 2145 cottages, 299 shops and 45 lock-ups were connected.74

However, it wasn’t until 29 July 1842 that the tunnel eventually opened and a further twelve months before the water actually came from the reservoir! Unfortunately the first contractors working at Eccup, Weetwood and Woodhouse Moor had abandoned the work in despair. The report stated:

The quantity of Peat found in the Eccup Reservoir has been considerably greater than was expected and the almost unparalled wetness of the season of 1840-1 (one of the worst for the execution of public works that was ever known) acting upon a naturally slippery material occasioned not only considerable delay but also some additional expense. 75

By the end of 1843 this remarkable piece of Victorian engineering was operating efficiently. It formed an umbilical cord that linked Alwoodley to Leeds but in more than just a physical way. Its citizens began to visit the Seven Arches in droves on Sundays and Bank Holidays to marvel at the elegant lines of its design and to enjoy the sylvan beauty of the setting. The years of isolation were over.


58. C.J. Morgan ‘Demographic Change’ in D.Fraser, ed., A History of Modern Leeds (Manchester, 1980) p. 48.
59. R.Baker, Report to the Leeds Board of Health (Leeds, 1833).
60. Baines and Newsome’s Directory for Leeds (Leeds, 1834).
61. D. Fraser, The Politics of Leeds Water, Thoresby Soc., LΙΙΙ (Leeds, 1970) p.50; G.M.Binnie, Early Victorian Water Engineers (1981) pp.43-49.
62. Leeds Intelligencer, 21 August 1841.
63. Leeds Corporation Waterworks Undertaking 1852 –1952 Centenary Brochure, (Leeds, 1952) pp.18-21.
64. D. Fraser, The Politics of Leeds Water, Thoresby Soc., LΙΙΙ (Leeds, 1970) pp.50-66.
65. W.A.Hopwood and F.P.Casperson, Meanwood, Village, Valley, Industry and People (Leeds, 1986) p.26.
66. WYAS LF175.
67. WYAS TD136 p.111.
68. WYAS TD136 p112.
69. WYAS TD 136 p114.
70. WYAS TD 136 p.123.
71. WYAS TD 136 p.127.
72. Leeds Mercury, 21 August 1841.
73. Leeds Mercury, 21 August 1841.
74. WYAS TD 136 pp.199-200.
75. WYAS TD 136 p.234.

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