Yardley Gobion Water supply
by Michael Smith 2011
We rarely give a second thought nowadays to the availability of fresh clean water for our everyday needs, we simply turn on the tap and there it is.
As recently as the early 1930‘s the situation was quite different and I will try, based on my own personal and to some extent unique experience, to describe progress in the provision of water at Yardley from those times.
My initial memories of the water supply at Yardley are from 1933 when I was an inquisitive four year old – I will refer to this later. My father Thomas Smith (Tom) was the village farrier and blacksmith at this time but in addition was ‘Mr Fixit‘ which included, amongst many other things, maintenance of the water supply.
In those times the village people were reliant on wells, open springs and water butts for their entire needs. Some of the larger households had their own wells, e.g. Highcroft, Church House, Yardley House and the farms, whilst the rest of the population had to rely on shared facilities – a major source being the deep well on the green. It was a common site to see people trundling backwards and forwards to collect water with two buckets supported by a yoke on their shoulders.
As one might imagine the supply was hit and miss depending on the prevailing weather conditions. There were no daily baths or showers in those days- you were lucky to have a bath once a week and sharing the bath water with the rest of the family. People even washed in the canal when weather suited.
My father carried out maintenance work on some of the wells in the village. On occasions he needed to climb down inside with the aid of a ladder whilst carrying a lighted candle to warn of foul air. Some wells were more than 30 feet deep with a wooden support for the ladder part way down which needless to say carried a high risk factor. I recall the occasion when I myself at four years old leaned over the side of the well at Church house to see what my father was up to, and promptly fell in. My father was standing on a ladder just a few feet down and managed to catch me as I fell. Thankfully there was no serious injury to either party
On 2nd April 1934 Towcester R.D.C. Commissioned a new water supply system for the village at a record cost of £1,388 18s 8d – equivalent to £310,997.56 today. My father was appointed engineer/caretaker of the Waterworks which comprised of a ‘Pumping Station‘, ‘Water Tower‘ and ‘Piping System to five Standpipes‘. The most heavily used standpipe was situated at Church Bank adjacent to Church House. His terms of reference were to ensure a continuous supply of water to the standpipes that became a very time consuming and arduous undertaking which he progressively delegated to me through my teens, which my younger brother Patrick (Pat) assisted later.
The Pumping Station was located across two fields around half a mile north of the Water Tower – still standing by the side of Moorend Road. The site for the Pumping Station was chosen adjacent to a spring which previously ran into Stanmore Brook. This spring was chosen as the source of the water supply due to its purity and abundance – it had never been known to run dry. An enclosure about 50 yards square was secured and fenced. It contained a ‘Sunken Reservoir’, a ‘Pump house’ and ‘Windmill’. The reservoir was brick built with steel inspection access covers and internal ladders and was fed directly from the spring. The pump house was also brick built and contained a water pump driven by a Tangye 2 stroke compression/ignition engine. The engine itself was unreliable and cumbersome to operate. To start it up required the use of a blowlamp – which I still have – to heat the ‘hot bulb’ cylinder head red hot and then to prime and swing the heavy flywheel by hand for combustion.
Sometimes it would fire OK but on other occasions it would not. I can recall numerous times spending virtually hours trying to persuade it to start and then having succeeded, it would run for a short while and then peter out for no apparent reason. Occasionally I would have started on my way home whenthis would happen so I had to return and repeat the whole process. It is worth reminding ones self that you had no means of communication with the outside world apart from the sound. You could hear the “pop-pop” of the exhaust to about halfway up the first field – mobile phones did not exist in those days.
The windmill was less of a problem to maintain but extremely hazardous. There were two main features to maintain, firstly adjustment and replacement of the asbestos seals between the piston rod and cylinder, secondly it was necessary to climb the 25 foot ladder to inspect the sails and replenish the gearbox oil. The only safety provision here was a waist high hand rail around the platform itself and nothing else. The gearbox itself was situated a further 6 feet above the platform which required you to clamber up a mini ladder for access. Whilst up there you needed to dodge the sails if the wind was blowing – what would ‘Health and Safety‘ say about this today.
The Smith family early 1940s at the pumping station
|Mary Smith||not known,||Pat Smith||cousin Peter Cleaver||Tom Smith||Pam Smith||Gladys Batterham||Uncle Billy|
|nee Warren (Ted)||Pat‘s sister||nee Smith||Batterham|
|married to Vic Smith.||Tom‘s sister.|
On average the engine needed to operate once per week initially to maintain the supply but this increased to several times per week as time went on due to increased demand. Eventually demand reached a level where the process became virtually a full time occupation – seven days a week. I used to wish for the wind to blow in the hope of some light relief, although the windmill could never provide more than minor backup.
The water tower is the only feature of the system that remains intact today. I heard some time ago that it had been registered as a grade 2 listed building but South Northants District Council has assured me that this is not the case. It has a capacity of 33,000 gallons with external and internal ladders provided for access. There is a float operated indicator suspended on the outer wall via a pulley mechanism to enable the contents to be checked from the ground, which we needed to do on a daily basis – three quarters of a mile on a bike!! The water was piped under gravity pressure from the water tower standing several feet higher than the recipient outlets.
With the help of my sister-in-law: Carol Smith, I have carried out extensive research and consultation to try to establish dates of events, including the checking of many years of council minutes at the County Records Office, with limited success – we were amazed at the lack of information on this very important topic from either Towcester R. D. C. or Yardley Gobion P. C. Minutes. We have been unable to find a specific date for the de-commission of the water works and its handover to the national system which at that time I believe was under the auspices of the ‘Bucks Water Board‘ and subsequently ‘Anglian Water Board‘. However I am confident that this occurred around the end of 1954. The water works, therefore, operated for some 20 years – including throughout World War II – without any serious disruption despite all the trials and tribulations described earlier.
I visited the two main sites on 11th March 2011, some 57 years after their demise and based on my memory identified that all above-ground features of the pumping station had been removed. Once again we could find no reference to this operation in the records but believe it took place in 1958. I have also been given to understand that the large underground reservoir was not filled in at the time but was more recently covered over with rubble and soil so that the uninformed would be unaware that the site ever existed – surely a hazard? Although the water tower still stands it is displaying significant deterioration. I noticed that the concrete is breaking away quite badly at a joint halfway up one of the support columns, exposing the now rusting reinforcement.
Finally I would like to put on record my gratitude to Carol Smith for her help and support in the production of this report which I hope will be of interest to the people of Yardley and others.
© Michael Smith – formerly of 8 High Street, Yardley Gobion
P.S. There was a period during the war when my father was redeployed to essential work at the Armstrong Whitworth aircraft factory at Bagington, Coventry in the manufacture of Whitley bombers. I don‘t know just how long he was away for but do know he was there during the Coventry Blitz between November 1940 and August 1942 at the height of the bombing. Towcester R D C took responsibility for the Water Works throughout his absence.