Opening of Cambridge’s first modern water works. 1855

Despite having the River Cam flowing through it ever since people decided to settle by the bend in the river by Castle Hill, Cambridge has had issues with water.

As the population started growing rapidly in the 1800s, it became clear that the existing systems of administering the borough and the reliance on charity for public services were no longer going to suffice. In 1851, with the population of the borough over 27,000, the great and the good got together to lobby Parliament for permission to form a private company for the purposes of supplying water to the town. This was granted in the The Cambridge University and Town Waterworks Act 1853. Two years later, the Waterworks on Cherry Hinton Road was opened. Today, only the Engineer’s House survives. You can read more about the House and its former inhabitants in Capturing Cambridge here.

The Cambridge Independent in the British Newspaper Archive recorded the proceedings, which I have transcribed here.


“On Tuesday last, at twelve, the Directors and Shareholders of the Company, attended by numerous friends, left their Office in St. Andrews-street, and, forming a procession of carriages, proceeded to the Engine House on the Cherryhinton* Road. [Today, Cherry Hinton Road]

“The Chairman of the Company (Dr. [William] Whewell), the late Chairman, the Vicar of Wisbech (Rev. [William Bonner] Hopkins), The Vice-Chancellor, and Professor [Adam] Sedgwick pointed out to the company the various parts of the engines and pumps, which were working with beautiful regularity and freedom from vibration. The indefatigable Resident Engineer (Mr. L. Lea), explained the uses of the several portions of machinery, in detail. The carriages were in request, and toiled up the hill above the lime-kilns to the large reservoirs. [Hence “Lime Kiln Hill”].

“One reservoir was charged with water; the other being dry was soon honoured with the presence of many distinguished personages; the vaulted roof, the arched sides, and character of the workmanship appeared in noble effect by candle-light; the water was suddenly turned on, and the silvery stream boiling over as a fountain, presented a brilliant contrast to the dark shadows of the distant piers. Three hearty English cheers were given, and the rising of the water caused the company to beat a speedy retreat.

“Above the reservoir, the Master of Trinity in due form handled the key, and in a brief but pithy speech, which he compared the beginning of the flow of water to the process of bell founding, and quoted the well-known lines of Schiller, when the founders make all tight, and ask for the Divine aid, unstop the plug, and the glowing molten metal flows freely into the mould.

“The Rev. the Master asked God’s blessing upon this undertaking, and expressed fervent hope that this work would be of great benefit to the working men of the town; he turned the tap and said,

“And so the water goes to Cambridge.” The champagne corks flew out, and the company drank “Success to the Cambridge Waterworks.”

“Descending the hill, the springs were attentively examined, much to the annoyance of the Cherryhinton laundresses, who were drawn up in battle array, and with their tongues assailed the Directors volubly for interfering with their water. [From Capturing Cambridge: “The women of Cherry Hinton had traditionally taken in washing from the colleges delivered by regular donkey cart service.”]

“The procession reformed, and witnessed the play of jets from the Company’s mains in Gonville-place, King’s-parade, the Market-place,—the jets being quite as high as King’s College Chapel. The hose was hauled to the top of Mr. Roe’s house on the Parade, the highest in Cambridge, and the jet of water was carried with considerable force much higher; on the Market-hill also from the top of Messrs. Miller’s house, thus fully satisfying the public that the water can be carried to the top the highest room in the town for sanitary purposes or case of fire.

“The Directors speak highly of the indefatigable exertions of the solicitor (Mr. Peed), and every arrangement passed off most satisfactorily.

“The Works may described as follows: Three collecting tanks are sunk in the chalk, one of them at the Pumping Station, the other two the Springs that supply the Cherry Hinton Brook. They are all made to communicate with a well or lower reservoir directly under the Engine-house, and from thence the water is pumped through a 10-inch. main the upper reservoirs, which are the highest point of the hill known as the “Fifty-acre Allotments.”

“These reservoirs (which are of brick throughout) are of the most approved construction —a series of inverts from the bottom, which support longitudinal walls, and covering arches; the whole bedded in clay puddle, surrounded by clunch, the outer surfaces of the embankment coated with vegetable mould, and sown with grass seed.

“Thus all soot, dust, and light are entirely excluded, and an even temperature insured. Tanks and sluices are provided to drain them, as well as delivery valves and screens, through which the water must pass before it reaches the town.

“They are calculated to hold 1,200,000 gallons. There are three cylindrical boilers, each 14 ft. long, to generate steam, for two double-acting high-pressure condensing steam engines of 30-horse power, to work two double-acting combined plunger and bucket pumps, capable of raising 40,000 gallons of water per hour, 135 feet high.

“Provision has been made for cleaning or repairing any part of these works, for any moment, by simply opening or closing a valve, either of the engineers could pump water into either or both of the reservoirs. The town is divided into several districts, which are separated by numerous junction cocks, so that consumers would not be inconvenienced during the time that services were being laid on to houses out of their immediate neighbourhood. Hydrants (i.e. an improvement on the old fire plugs) are attached to the service mains in every street, about 90 yards apart, where unlimited quantity may be obtained at any hour of the day or night, the pressure being constant. The water, of which there is an abundant supply, is remarkable for its softness and purity. The Works were designed James Simpson, Esq., Civil Engineer, and executed by Mr. George Peters, Contractor, under the immediate superintendence of Mr. Lea.”


The celebrations continued at The Lion Hotel on Petty Cury – sadly long demolished by the Lion Yard Redevelopment (ironically named after the yard of the hotel it demolished) for a formal dinner. The first two people that the diners toasted two were both foreign royals. The first was Emperor Napoleon III of France, and the second was the Chancellor, Prince Albert the Prince Consort.

This was also the time when Britain and France were allies in the Crimean War against the Tsar of Russia. The opening of the water works took place after two state visits – one by the Emperor to the UK, and the return visit by Queen Victoria to France.

Interestingly it was a Lieut. Col. Adair (most likely Charles – later General Sir Charles William Adair KCB) who made remarks on how the water supply would be a huge benefit not just to the colleges, but to the working classes of Cambridge.

“The interests of these two important bodies were closely identified, and he congratulated them on the new link – the establishment of this Company – so well qualified to bind them closer together, (Loud cheers.)

The gift of water was the most precious that man could bestow upon his fellow man. Water was symbolical of all the charities. (Hear, hear). It was now brought from distant springs to their palatial colleges; and what was perhaps of greater importance, to their humble cottages. To rich and poor, the boon would be found of incalculable benefit” Lt Col. Adair.

Interestingly, Col. Adair went onto talk about the alcohol problem that afflicted the poorer communities in Cambridge – something that Ellice Hopkins and the temperance campaigners would set to work on. Col Adair stated that it was the lack of a clean water supply that meant workers turned to alcohol, and thus ‘the dreadful habit of intoxication was formed, bringing ruin on families, and finally sending the poor drunkard to a premature grave’.

Representing the Mayor of Cambridge was Alderman Henry Hemmington Harris – who had been Mayor of Cambridge a couple of years earlier. As with a couple of previous speakers, he noted that this was the first major improvement in the supply of water since the work of Thomas Hobson, builder of Hobson’s Conduit and who ‘Hobson’s Choice’ was named after. Ald. Harris concluded hoping it would reduce the antagonism between Town and Gown. It would, however be another half century or so before most of the major legal and institutional obstacles between Town and Gown were finally removed.

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