The Story of Clean Water in the Black Country

On May 11th we welcomed David Moore, a founder member of the Lichfield Waterworks Trust, to our meeting. He started by saying that water supply was an important part of Lichfield's heritage. Clean water had such an impact on the quality of life, yet appears to be little known - a story which needs to be told. David's presentation was given in three parts: Clean Water and Cholera; Sandfields Pumping Station; and the rescue of the Cornish Beam Engine.

Revolution and urbanisation brought disease and poor health and increased housing density with a lack of infrastructure. As bad news travels fast, so did Cholera. People could die within 4 days of contracting the disease. It was thought that bad air was the cause; the so called "miasma". The thought being "if it smells bad it makes you ill". There were various outbreaks and a young apprentice doctor, John Snow, became interested but seemed initially to establish a reason. In 1849 he produced a paper on his research with the title: "On the mode of communication of Cholera".

In the Black Country 740 people had died in 1832 within the space of six weeks in the height of summer. Each had probably passed over three gallons of diarrhoea. The survivors included 450 orphans who entered the 'Cholera Orphan School' in 1833 and were given a special medal at the opening on 3rd August. Mass graves were dug outside the town because of the fear of contagion; but no monument was erected to their memory. In the present century there were still epidemics from 1960 to 1975 (which was the last).

John Snow was an anaesthetist who treated Queen Victoria with her last two children. While he became wealthy, he was still concerned with the working classes; reading to solve the cause of Cholera. He speculated that it was caused and spread by contaminated water. In 1854 another epidemic ht London. Snow traced the spread, linking the Soho outbreak to a single source - the pump in Broad Street. The local parish vicar, the Rev Henry Whitehead, undertook his own report and his findings confrmed Snow's theory. His research included interviews with residents and, from the mass of data, he produced a death map. No one in the Brewing Industry had died; so only beer would be drunk by the 800 inmates of the assylum. Only five individuals who had water from another source died.

Here in Lichfield the water supply had come since the 14th century from springs at Aldershaw, running via the Leomansley and Trunkfield brooks to Minster and Stowe Pools. The story of water continues with the arrival of John R. McClean; an engineer who was involved with many projects including railways both here and in South America; notably the new South Staffordshire Railway from Dudley to Lichfield.

The South Staffordshire Waterworks Company was authorised by Act of Parliament in 1853 to supply 25,000 people in the Black Country and Lichfield. John McClean had offered advice on sourcing the supply. The scheme would use 'fresh' clean water from the streams and springs near Lichfield, such as Aldershaw. The Minster and Stowe Pools were to be used as reservoirs and the water delivered to Walsall via a cast iron pipe - which would be laid alongside the South Staffordshire Railway's line. There was no industry to contaminate this water; so the pools were cleaned out and deepened by 15 ft. The new pumping station at Sandfields, which opened in 1858, was the first to be opened by the company.

This original pumping station at Sandfields was designed by Edward Adams of London and built by Branson & Gwyther of Birmingham. However, the demand for water increased and in July 1871 the company engineeer, William Vaudry, said that the original pumping engines, that had been supplied by James Watt & Co., were no longer adequate. So in 1873 an additional well was sunk and a new engine house built to accommodate a large Cornish pumping engine. This is the Tipton-built beam engine which can be seen at Sandfields today; the fourth largest in the world when it was built, a monster that could lift a ton of water a minute when working.

The beam engine at Sandfields became redundant in 1922 when two Sulzer 'uniflow' engines were installed, now generating electricity for the pumps. From 1927 the water supply was filtered using 8ft thick sand bed; alum and sawdust were mixed with the water to clarify it. A third modernisation took place in the 1960s when automatic pumps, powered from the National Grid, were installed and the uniflow steam engines were dismantled.

In 1966 the original pumping station was demolished and the last day of steam pumping was 30th November that year. However, the Cornish beam engine remained and a new electric pump house was built on the footprint of the original 1858 engine house. In 1969, when Minster and Stowe pools were no longer being used for water supply, they were returned to the City of Lichfield - as the plaque in Reeve Lane records.

In 1977 Sandfields was closed and the filtration plant was demolished; leaving only the Cornish engine house and the adjacent, now empty, 1966 electric pump house. Although pumping had ceased in 1995, the water company still maintained the buildings and equipment; but in 2005 the site, with many acres of the adjacent land, was sold to Persimmon Homes.

Following a campaign in the press, the 'Friends of Sandfield Pumping Station' were reconstituted as a charitable trust. It was estimated that repairs costing 238,000 were needed; but Persimmon provided no help. There was even a suggestion that the building could be convered to offices for 3.2 million!

English Heritage were contacted and Sandfields Pumping Station was upgraded to Grade II* listed status - which gave it enhanced protection but annoyed Persimmon! Eventually, in 2017, with the help of Ian Pritchard, a licence to "enter and repair" was issued by Persimmon.

David described how the building was saved; working parties formed from both local people and college apprentices helped to clean it up. Then the first public event was held in 2021 when the performance space hosted a National Theatre Company play on domestic abuse. Having achieved so much our speaker decided that his job was done!

Despite all the hard work, the building is still at risk. David suggested that conservation is preferable to restoration as the latter would remove much evidence of the building's evolution. Sandfields is now open on Friday and Tuesday mornings from 10am - 12 noon for working parties and a small number of visitors. There are also other local pumping stations, including William Vaudry's Grade II* listed Brindley Bank station, which can be visited on open days. There is more information on the Lichfield Waterworks Trust website and in the booklet by Alan Hill that the Trust published in 2019.

At the end of our meeting David was thanked for a most informative and enthusiastic presentation

Lorna Bushell
April 2022

Sandfield Pumping Station

Photo - Lesley Bushell, 2020