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Windsor and Eton Waterworks

This version first published
December 2010

G G Cullingham C.Eng, ARICS, MRTPI
The last Borough Engineer of Windsor

History of the Works

Windsor Corporation waterworks was taken over in 1967 by the newly formed Middle Thames Water Board, exactly 900 years after William the Conqueror's Domesday Book recorded two mills at Eton, valued at 20 shillings (£1.00) yearly, and also a fishery with a rent of 1,000 eels. There was no New Windsor until about 1070, and one mill was probably at Romney Island, the other at Tangier Island. The mill at Romney Island gave place in 1681 to The King's Engine, to supply water to Windsor Castle.

A certain John Yarnold, whom we know only as a 'plummer of Worcester', obtained a lease for 500 years from Windsor Corporation and commenced building the first waterworks above Windsor bridge in 1697; but this flooded Eton, and his first successful works was completed in 1701, downstream on the island known as Tangier, apparently since that town formed part of Catherine of Braganza's dowry when she became the unhappy wife of Charles II. Queen Victoria's statue marks the site of the proposed cistern, 20 ft square, into which river water was to be pumped in 1701 from wooden pipes.

In 1732 John Davis, who built the Curfew Tower clock, took over the lease, at two capons a year rent, and undertook to build a new cistern in Dean's Cloister, St. George's Chapel. The rent later became £1 per annum, because it was difficult to assess the income tax on two capons. John Davis's father and Roger Cutler sent a Memorial to the Dean of Windsor in 1770 with a magnificent plan attached, showing St. George's Chapel, the wooden supply main and the distribution pipes serving 'The Rev Dean and Cannons and Singing Men of Windsor'. The works changed hands several times in the eighteenth century, and from 1747 the Cutler family held control on and off until 1888 when the works were taken over by the Corporation. The first Mr. Cutler was a plumber, like Yarnold.

River water, simple if not pure, was supplied from the works to the towns of Eton and Windsor until the middle of the nineteenth century. It lathered better with the soap of the day than did the hard well water, and from Victorian times the waterworks used the soft river water in its boilers until electric power was first installed in 1915, just before filters and the first chlorination plant were installed. This had to be done in a desperate hurry, because bacteriological analysis (used for the first time by the army) showed that the water was dangerous. For several months after that all drinking water had to be boiled.
Four hundred houses were supplied in 1849. Of the 3,000 houses in the area 2,000 did not have a piped supply in 1865, and even in 1883, following a series of epidemics, and some caustic reports in The Lancet, one-third of the 14,000 population were still without a piped supply. The proportion without a water supply in Clewer was higher still: the Corporation had been able to prevent the last Mr. Cutler who owned the works from extending his mains or incurring 'unreasonable' capital expenditure, as this would have increased the value of the works and therefore the sum payable on taking over.

Mr. Cutler had obtained an Act of Parliament in 1868, which confirmed his right to open up the streets, and stopped other suppliers extending their mains into Windsor. Whether any other water undertaking was in a position to invade Windsor seems doubtful-the most likely one, at Staines, had been without water for fifty-six hours at Easter 1884 and for forty hours a few days later. Slough was then no danger-water had been supplied from Eton to the southern part of its area of supply, Willowbrook, for 100 years, Slough then being short of water.

Private wells were a problem. In the clay areas of Clewer they yielded little, and in the gravel of Windsor they tended to be replenished from adjacent cesspools. This may explain Mrs. Beeton's recipes 'take five gallons of Spring water' and Shakespeare's laundry women going to Datchet at 'Whiting time', i.e. in the spring, to wash the clothes.

During the last Mr. Cutler's time (1847-88), wooden pipes that only lasted twenty years or so gave place to pipes made of cast-iron. Some of these early iron pipes are still in use after more than 100 years. When a fire occurred, the wooden pipes were exposed by digging and cut by a fireman's axe, providing both a supply of water and a sump for the engine suction. Fire plugs of wood were used with the first cast-iron mains-the plugs usually blew out when the road was dug up by the firemen (signs saying 'Fireplug' can still be seen), and a standpipe for the hose supply was then rammed into the hole. If the fire was at night, a messenger was rushed to the works at Eton to alert the watchman. To the latter's credit, it is on record that he usually awakened the manager before the messenger arrived. The waterworks steam pumps were stopped from 10pm to 6am, the boiler fires generally being banked. The manager would send for the engine man, light the boilers if necessary, and rush off to the scene of the fire.

Today we take it for granted that water is always available to premises connected to the main supply, but this was not so in the nineteenth century. A letter written by John Cutler on 25 June 1834, 'to the inhabitants who are water tenants', tried to answer complaints from people who apparently found nothing coming from their taps on occasion and who doubted if they were getting proper value for their money.

For nearly the last two years I have spared neither expense nor trouble in the endeavour to procure you a wholesome and efficient supply of water; and the persons whome I have employed to conduct the improvements, have lately reported to me, that if every inhabitant will conform to the usage of London, and provide himself with a vessel capable of containing the quantity which is usually required for two days, (so that I might have a range of about thirty hours to fill the cisterns,) there can be no question but that you will be thoroughly provided, except something quite unforeseen might arise.

It will hardly be credited, that many of the inhabitants have no cistern at all, and others only a small barrel, quite incapable of containing the necessary quantity; I must therefore candidly inform the respectable individuals, to whom I am under much obligation for their kindness in taking water, that it will always be impossible to supply them more than once a day, and that sometimes a day might pass, when it may not enter some houses; but this cannot be thought a hard case, when a little enquiry will convince them, that in London no person has the Water laid on their premises oftener than three times per week, and in some districts of the Metropolis not always twice a week. An idea is still entertained, that the town is charged too much for water; I beg, therefore to state, including the Lower Mews, the Inns, and other establishments, there are but sixty premises in the town which are assessed at a penny per day, and upwards; every other house in the town varying according to size, being charged only from a guinea to thirty shillings.

Persons acquainted with Water Works, are well aware that the sum I receive is far from paying Five per Cent, upon the capital embarked. In London, an eight-roomed house invariably pays 36 shillings (£1.80) per year, and on no occasion is the Water granted more than three times per week.

My Collector will go round the Town on the 3rd and 4th July to take the Rents; when I shall esteem it a favour of those persons who may not be at home, if they will have the kindness to leave their money with their servants. From 1st August, 1832, every shilling I have received has been spent in improvements, and I have now still to pay several hundred pounds, within a very short period.

The intermittent supply meant that ground water and filth was drawn into the empty mains during the night. Parts of Windsor were incredibly foul in mid-Victorian times, according to a Poor Law authority report dated 1842, and a report to the General Board of Health in 1 849. An intolerable stench arose from black stagnant ditches, some houses had no drainage and several houses forming one row had two storeys below the level of the street. Portions of the lower regions of the town constituted one vast cesspool into which all the privies discharged. There was no main sewerage system until 1852 and the prevalence of 'fevers' is easily explained. The connection between water supply and health was not understood. As late as 1900, Dr Bulstrode lectured the council and officers on housing and sanitation, including the need to clear filth from around houses, and his report following the Government enquiry into sanitary conditions in Windsor at that time is a remarkable document.

The works appear to have been often in an appalling condition. One report in 1912 refers to the steam plant being extended to the limit, and to the machinery shaking the buildings and being unable to meet the demand, a chronic condition, especially on washdays in the summer and when gardeners were busy watering their plants.

The manager of the waterworks maintained a feud with the town surveyor, because the latter used mains water for street watering and thus became an obvious scapegoat for any shortage. Boilers could not be taken out of service for cleaning, geysers blew up for lack of water, and the artisan engineer, one Smith, went mad, no doubt under the strain. He certainly had no relief from June 1911 until April 1912. Eventually, after dismantling the wrong pumps for repair, he had a breakdown in 1915. There were only two men left-the steam-roller driver at night and a plant attendant by day-to keep the works running. Smith was given a ticket to Bexhill, apparently by the Mayor, his wife was persuaded to put in his resignation, and he was paid a gratuity of £10 10s 0d.

In 1942 Smith's successor, Bailey, had to retire, having suffered a serious eye injury in 1941 when breaking up the ancient cast iron water wheel for urgently needed wartime scrap metal. This wheel was probably installed in 1770, but had been little used since 1911.

When the first world war began in 1914, it was feared that spies would poison the wells. The chief constable had them sealed and at 6 pm each day an armed guard, consisting of three men, marched in and stayed until 6 am. The guard was withdrawn two months later. During the second world war the six pump attendants at Eton joined the Home Guard and were issued with rifles for a short period. These were some of the arms used in training Eton College cadets. Two high-explosive bombs wrecked part of Eton College close to the works and incendiary bombs nearly destroyed another part. 'The pyrotechnic effects of these bombs', wrote B. J. W. Hill in Eton Medley, 'were greatly admired by the boys.'

Plant and Equipment

In 1888 when the waterworks was transferred to the Corporation, the pumping plant consisted of two Fourneyron outward-flow turbines, built in 1 873 by Stothert & Pitt of Bath, to the design of William Henry Cutler, at a cost of £9°° each; an ancient water wheel operating two pumps, a grasshopper engine operating three-throw plunger-pumps 6 in in diameter, and an old horizontal high-pressure engine driving three-throw pumps of 10 in diameter. A new cut was made from the mill-head stream to supply the turbines with water.

Cutler's turbines still drive the 9 in double-acting pumps. They are 9 ft 6 in in diameter outside, 8 ft inside, 1 ft 6 in deep, and have 52 buckets. They weigh 6 tons and produce 42-33 hp with 4 ft of fall.

The water wheel built by Yarnold was apparently replaced in 1770 by a 'sort of Paisley Wheel'. In 1849 Cresy stated: 'It is a cast iron wheel Z5 ft in diameter, 10 ft 1 in in width and of the ordinary power of 36 horses, raising the water 250 ft high. There are three sets of pumps each having three barrels, one set is 4 in in diameter and the other two 6 in. The length of the stroke is 2 ft and in ordinary working they make 20 strokes a minute.'

The adjacent Tangier Mill was dual purpose until 187I. It drove the flour-mill machinery and pumped water as well. It was undershot, 22 ft in diameter, 10 ft wide, with 80 blades, 40 on each side. It drove one pump of 13 in diameter with a 4 ft 10 in stroke, and another of 12 in in diameter, with a 3 ft stroke. The wheel made an average of four revolutions a minute and with a good head of water it was able to drive the two pumps against a pressure of 50 lb. per sq. in. It was pulled down in 189I, but the channel leading water to it had been dammed in 1888 prior to replacing the old mill by another turbine installation.

When the river was in flood, the operation of the works was seriously affected, and a small beam-engine of the grasshopper type, supplied with steam by two Cornish boilers, was used; it burned 2 tons of coal in a six-hour working day. In 1888 the grasshopper operated three-throw plunger-pumps 6 in diameter. A horizontal high-pressure engine drove three three-throw pumps 10 in diameter.

In 1890 the old engines and Cornish boilers were replaced by a compound Worthington pumping engine, with a new boiler of the locomotive type, having a capacity of 500,000 gallons in 24 hours. In the following year two more turbine pumps, one Cutler's spare and the other of the same type and capacity, were installed, each turbine driving a pair of 9 in double-acting pumps similar to the original installation.

In 1899 the steam plant was extended by the addition of a Cornish boiler, 18 ft long and of 5 ft 6 in diameter, with a working pressure of 100 lb. per sq. in, in conjunction with a compound-duplex, non-condensing pumping engine built by Hayward, Tyler & Company. These were put into the house formerly occupied by the old engine. A further Hayward, Tyler engine, this time with a jet condenser, was erected in 1904, and replaced by electric centrifugal pumps in 1915, when all steam plant was scrapped.

The system was unique in many respects, as the pumps delivered direct into a closed system of mains, with no reservoir until 1960. The turbines are still in daily use, except in times of flood or drought, when electric or diesel standby pumps are used. Control of the turbine pumps is based almost entirely on delivery pressure, output being varied by regulation of the river flow to each turbine by a system of rods and levers operating ring gates inside the turbines.

In 1971 daily use of the turbines ceased, and the works were closed each night.

I am indebted to the Hon Archivist and Custodian of the Records of the Dean and Canons of St. George's Chapel, Mrs. M. F. Bond, OBE, MA, FSA, and the Hon Assistant Archivist, Mrs. Shelagh Bond, MA, FRHistS, for information used in this article.

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