Train near Water Tower

The growing concern for public health and outbreaks of such illnesses as cholera due to drinking polluted water led to people finding alternative suggestions for a supply of water other than cisterns or wells.  These innovations came rather slowly to Thornbury.

The Monthly Illustrated Journal of 1869 notes “we understand that Mr Howard of Thornbury Castle is making arrangements for bringing a supply of water into the town as far as the Police Station and Town Hall.

A cholera outbreak in London claimed many lives and led to The Public Health Act of 1875.  This made it a responsibility of each ‘authority’ to provide a clean supply of water.

The method by which Guardians of the Union of Thornbury (the local authority for this area) provided the water was an interesting one.  They decided to make use of another innovation to Thornbury – the railway.

The railway came down from Yate via Tytherington and ended towards the top of Thornbury High Street in what is now Midland Way.   Click here to read about the site of the station.

Read the history of the railway line coming to Thornbury.

In 1872 the Midlands Railway Company had spent £400 on building a water tank with a supply of water from Grovesend.  The water came from a spring in the quarry through the tunnel.   There was a pool on the Thornbury side that acted as an overflow area.  Some of the old railwaymen still remember this because the shorter trains sometimes stopped so the men could pick the watercress which grew there.

The Guardians arranged with Midland Railway for all the water from the Engine Tanks that was surplus to their needs at Thornbury station to be used to provide the town with “a proper and sufficient supply of water.”  The Engine Tank or Water Tower in question (shown here above) does not look huge and it is hard to imagine it supplying the railway station and the greater part of Thornbury as well.

It seems certain that railway water was the source for the standpipes that were originally placed in Thornbury’s streets.  In Gloucester Records Office (DA38 140/2) are what appear to be notes about a meeting of 15th August 1873 for establishing a company to supply Thornbury with water.  The Sanitary Authority of Thornbury Union wanted suggestions for the positioning of public taps which would supply drinkable water.

The taps were to be sited as following places but we do not have evidence that they were actually installed at these places (please note we have added the present day description in brackets);

  • 1 – against the wall of premises lately occupied by Mrs Moore now by John Chambers. (this is now the top of the High Street)
  • 2 – against the police station at the west end of Soapers Lane (by what is now the Town Hall)
  • 3 – against the Town Hall
  • 4 – against the wall of the yard adjoining the bank at the corner of the narrow lane leading to the fields (Latteridge Lane at the top of Castle Street)
  • 5 – against the wall against Mrs Rodney’s gate
  • 6 – near the top of Back Street (the top of St Mary Street)
  • 7 – in the Back Street against the back of Pointing’s stables. (in St Mary Street)
  • 8 – in the Back Street above the Alms houses (the bottom of St Mary Street)
  • 9 – at the bottom of the Back Street near the Weigh Bridge (on The Plain)
  • 10 – in the Gloucester Road near the public lamp.
  • 11 – in John Street near the Friends Meeting house (on Pullins Green)
  • 12 – at the bottom of Horse Shoe Lane
  • 13 – near the British School (Gillingstool)
  • 14 – at the top of the Outer Back Street by the Independent Chapel (Now the United Reformed Church)
  • 15 – at the top of the lane to Stream Leaze.

We know that at least one of these standpipes was not installed as planned in 1873.  As late as 1926 the Gazette reported a discussion about the impurity of the water in the two public pumps, especially the one in Castle Street.  One of the Councillors, Mr Weatherhead, said that it had been decided not to clean the wells out.  Mr Riddiford another Councillor suggested that they clean the wells out to make them suitable for public use “and that the erection of the standpipe should be held up for the time being”!  This further delay was of course accepted by the Council.

We do know that there was a standpipe in Pullins Green and we have been told that it was used within living memory, at least until the 1930’s.  The Bristol Mercury 4th December 1890 has an account of John Payne of Thornbury being “charged with carelessly wasting water from a standpipe on Pullins Green, Thornbury, supplied for use by the Rural Sanitary Authority.  The defendant promised not to offend again, and was ordered to pay 4s 0d costs.”

The advertisement in The Bristol Mercury of November 5th 1892 inviting tenders from contractors “for providing and laying about 100 yards of cast iron water main (including excavating) and also providing a stand post” was put in by the Rural Sanitary Authority of Thornbury Union.  This would indicate that the authority was carrying on making what improvements it could despite the limited supplies of water in the town.

This may have been the cause of Thornbury being a rather smelly place.  In July 1894 The Bristol Mercury reported on a meeting of Thornbury Highway Board at The Swan. The problem under discussion was that of the gutters, which contained offensive matter – more generally thought of as sewage.  The paper says that “there was no available water in Thornbury for flushing gutters regularly.  The only way seemed to be to have them swept more often and the catch pits cleaned out so that no offensive matter could collect in them.”  The gutters, it was decided, should be swept twice a week.

The fire at Oliver Higgins forge on Pullins Green on October 13th 1894 shows the problems that the lack of sufficient piped water was causing in Thornbury.  The report in the Bristol Mercury said the inhabitants “for upwards of two hours worked heartily to get the fire under.  The chief available supply of water is that obtained from a tank at Midland Railway Station and standpipes are erected at various parts of the town for the use of this water.  One of these standpipes was close to the scene of the fire, but the supply, had the flames spread, would have been exhausted in about an hour.  Happily the wind blew the flames away from the dwelling houses adjoining the smithy.”

On 16th November 1895 an article appeared in the newspaper which showed that Thornbury was still hoping to get the cheapest water supply.  It seems that Thornbury Council had approached the Midlands Railway to see if they would put up another water tank to increase the supply of water to the town.  The reply was that “if a tank was erected it would have to be at the expense of the District Council, but possibly the Council might be able to purchase an old boiler for the purpose.

This did not happen.  Perhaps even the price conscious Council thought it was inappropriate to use an old second hand boiler to supply water from a stream near the railway to the town as clean tap water.

This may be the reason why the West Gloucestershire Water Company eventually took over the responsibility of supplying Thornbury with a reasonable supply of clean water.  If you want to read the story of how this happened click here

We have at least two examples of the fact that “railway water” continued in parts of Thornbury at least until living memory and certainly quite a long time after 1897.  The catalogue for sale of Edmund Cullimore’s estate dated 1958 described the cottages in Sawmill Lane and specifically said that the “water (is) from the railway station”.  David Hamer, the son of Ernest Hamer the station master, visited Thornbury Museum in 2006.  David explained that railway water was used in his house and that he could clearly remember having an aunt to stay “who was very fussy” and when he innocently referred to the shrimps that could be seen swimming in the glass water jug on their table, his mother very quickly “hushed” him.