Bristol was originally known as ‘Brigstowe’, the place of the bridge, and has always had an association with running water. The water of St. Vincent’s Well was reputed to have healing powers. In medieval times, monks and friars acted as the first water engineers, supplying water from local springs through wooden and lead piping known as conduits. The Jacobs Wells pipe supplied water to Bristol Cathedral, and the St. Johns conduit can still be seen today, running down Nelson Street.
Wealthy people used the services of a water carrier to bring water to their homes. These men, also known as ‘leders’, would claim that their water was fresher than the water from the conduits and would charge a penny a pail.
Water was piped in as early as 1695, and a canal – which was never built – was planned to link Bath with Bristol in 1811. Neither ever provided enough clean water to satisfy the cities’ needs or to help prevent the outbreak of disease.
Indeed, it was said that the local beer was safer to drink than the water! A fresh, reliable supply of water was needed. In 1840, a government commission recorded: “There are few large towns in England in which the supply of water is as inadequate as at Bristol.” The following year, the Society of Merchant Venturers, a collection of prominent Bristol businessmen, established the Merchant Venturers Water Works. With Isambard Kingdom Brunel as a backer, the group sought to supply water to Clifton and the wealthier parts of Bristol.
The founding of Bristol Water
In 1845 a rival group formed. They were concerned that these plans were too restrictive and would not provide for the poorer, more densely-populated areas of Bristol. Prominent local citizens involved included William Budd, a pioneer in sanitation; Francis Fry, the industrialist and philanthropist; and George Thomas, the Quaker merchant who founded Bristol General Hospital. Their plan was to supply the whole city, not just Clifton, by bringing in fresh water from the Mendips.
The government weighed up the plans of the two groups, and narrowly came down on the side of the new group. On the 16th of July 1846 the Bristol Waterworks Company was formally established by an Act of Parliament. Only fifteen months later, the first ‘sweet clear waters’ travelled from Chewton Mendip, via Barrow and the engineering feat of the 16km Line of Works conduit, into the heart of Bristol. But there were far greater plans…
The growing company
Water flowed into Bristol from the Line of Works – so much so that a reservoir was required to hold the extra water. The first of three Barrow Reservoirs was built in 1850. Over the years sand filters were added, to treat the water, and chlorination was begun in 1935.
In 1888 the Bristol Water Works Company gained parliamentary approval to build a reservoir at Blagdon. A small army of labourers with horse-drawn carts built a dam, which extended 175 feet into the solid rock. The dam across the river Yeo drained the Mendips and meant that the new reservoir filled with 2100 million gallons of water.
As the company continued to expand, so did the surrounding area’s demand for water. Cheddar springs were first tapped in 1922, and a full reservoir created in the 1930s. Cheddar reservoir holds 1350 million gallons and in 1947 became the first supply reservoir to allow sailing.
The Second World War delayed the creation of a new reservoir at Chew Stoke. Chew Reservoir was eventually opened in 1956 by Her Majesty the Queen, and has a capacity of 4,600 million gallons.
In more recent times, there was the imaginative and far-sighted Severn Scheme, effectively a regional water grid. This saw Bristol Water helping to create a reservoir at Clywedog in mid-Wales in order to feed the head of the Severn. Near its mouth, treatment works were developed, at Littleton and Purton, to treat the river water. The latest chapter in this huge scheme culminated in the commissioning of a £22 million expansion and improvement project at Purton in July 1995.
Today, 16 treatment works ensure the water we supply is of the highest standard as it leaves for the 139 covered reservoirs which store the treated water.
Bristol Water can boast both excellent quality of water, and some of the lowest levels of leakage in the country. Almost two million litres of water a day have been saved through the company’s leakage prevention programme.
Bristol Water now supplies well over a million people with water. Whilst the Mendips, particularly Chew, Blagdon and Cheddar lakes, are vitally important to our local water supply, over half of your local water is piped from the Severn via the Sharpness Canal.. There are 6,600 km of local water mains – a far cry from the 16km of the original Line of Works!
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