Complaints well up over plans to tap springs for city dwellers
THE early 19th century saw some seemingly harebrained water supply schemes, such as using hollowed out elm logs to carry fresh water to the people of Bristol from higher up the River Avon.
And, although very limited, a reservoir was built under this scheme, with water actually reaching some consumers in the Bristol Bridge area.
Apart from that, most of the 130,000 citizens of the city at that time used well water, as they always had.
But, as more people flocked to the cities looking for work, outbreaks of cholera, caused by insanitary conditions, were becoming more common.
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In 1840, a parliamentary commission stated that, "there are few, if any, large towns in England in which the supply of water is so inadequate as at Bristol".
That said, springs in Clifton provided the wealthy with good supplies of fresh water.
In 1844 came plans for a pumping station at Black Rocks, below the Sea Walls, with a reservoir sited on the so called Roman camp (an Iron Age earthworks) on Clifton Down.
But this, as promoted by the city's Merchant Venturers, was only ever intended to supply Clifton and other, wealthy, parts of Bristol, leaving the poorer areas unprovided for.
The following spring, stories quickly spread about a new company which hoped to tap springs many miles distant from the city and, after piping in fresh water, make it accessible to some 22,000 households, both rich and poor.
Despite a legal fight with the Merchant Venturers, who also wanted to supply the city, on July 16, 1846, the Bristol Water Works Company's Bill received its Royal Assent.
There were 272 subscribers to the 8,000 shares, which cost £25 each. But, with innumerable problems to be overcome, no dividend was actually paid out for ten years.
Among the dozen Bristol men who made up the board of the new company was William Budd, a public health pioneer, who would help rid the city of the scourge of cholera.
The company's idea, a novel one, was to draw water from three fresh sources outside the city – the Cold Bath Springs at Barrow Gurney, a spring at Harptree Coombe and, most importantly, Watery Coombe springs at Chewton Mendip.
It was estimated that the three springs combined would yield four million gallons a day.
The Mendips were seen as an ideal source of water because of the high rainfall and because the porous limestone acted as a reservoir from which springs would emerge, hopefully, even in times of drought.
A line of iron pipes, 30 inches in diameter, would take the water from the springs to a reservoir at Barrow Gurney, which had a capacity of some 150 million gallons.
Service reservoirs would be constructed at Bedminster Down, Oakfield Road, Clifton (for the lower areas) and on Durdham Down (for the more elevated areas).
In 1862 and 1882, as the city expanded, so two more reservoirs were built at Barrow Tanks, one of 200 million gallons and the other of 520 million gallons. But all was not plain sailing.
Lawsuits were filed by local landowners, customers grumbled, there was unforeseen expenditure and even open opposition.
A serious leak from the reservoir at Barrow in 1854 was followed by a drought lasting all summer – the worst drought, in fact, for 60 years.
Then, the Duchy of Cornwall, which owned land hereabouts, tried to restrain the company's use of the upper reaches of the River Chew.
Only the intervention of Prince Albert himself saved the company from long and costly litigation.
In 1864, as another drought hit our area, some of the springs dried to a trickle. In some areas, the company's supply ceased altogether and in others it was only available for two hours a day.
In 1865, a deep well at Chelvey, near Backwell in North Somerset, was tapped, with up to six million gallons a day being pumped by steam engine to Barrow.
By 1875, however, the company's reputation – and financial worthiness – seemed secure.
Two years later, Bristol Corporation even made an unsuccessful bid for the business, which now held a virtual monopoly on the city's water supply.
In 1882, Bristol Waterworks built a third reservoir at Barrow and tapped the source of the Sherborne spring at Litton.
From 1885, up to one and a half million gallons of this water travelled 13 miles by pipe every day to a covered reservoir at Knowle.
Four years later, in 1889, the company started work started on the damming of the River Yeo below Blagdon village to create the scenic, trout-filled lake of today.
With the ending of the First World War, the company decided to tap the copious stream at the foot of Cheddar Gorge, known for its purity and previously used by many paper mills.
And in 1927 work started on a 1,300-million gallon reservoir between Axbridge and Cheddar to impound the surplus flow from the Mendip springs.
When the Queen came to open Chew Valley Lake in 1956, it would seem that Bristol's water supply, which now provided for up to one million people, was safe for many generations to come.
But just for good measure, Bristol Water, as it is now known, can now call on millions of gallons directly from the Sharpness Canal, which is fed by the mighty River Severn.
Now, with even greater demand from a growing population, a brand new reservoir is planned, next to the 1920s Cheddar reservoir.