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Local History Society Report

John F Bateman: Britain's foremost reservoir engineer and local lad

Speaker: Michael O'Grady

Saturday, 27 February 2021

During this year of staying at home, many of us have probably been walking in the hills, and no doubt drawn to the reservoirs above Hebden Bridge. Michael O'Grady, senior lecturer in the Department of Computer Science at the University of Huddersfield, combining his interest in local history with a past career in civil engineering, has investigated the details of the construction of the reservoirs at Widdop, Gorple and Walshaw Dean.

In a fascinating Zoom talk to Hebden Bridge Local History Society he explored their construction, and the stellar career of John F Bateman, the engineer behind their planning and design.

Bateman was born in 1810, in the Moravian settlement at Lower Wyke, Halifax, and lived and had his education in other settlements in Fairfield, near Manchester and Ockbrook in Derbyshire. He was apprenticed to a William Dunn of Oldham, a surveying and mining engineering business, where he learnt a wide range of skills. This was a time of great change with the rapid growth of industrial towns and cities along with revolutions in transport such as canals and railways. A particular problem was the increased demand for water, and the problems of disease such as cholera which arose from polluted water supplies.

At the age of 23, Bateman set up his own consultancy in Manchester and began to engage with some of the problems of water supply and flooding. As well as his engineering skills, Bateman was a great communicator, relying on detailed studies of rainfall quantities, analysis of the effects of geography and the financial costings to influence those in power to embark on a programme of reservoir building. He was able to make projections about the growth of population and the demand for water, and to show that using reservoirs to collect water, and a network of pipes and aqueducts to transport it would provide millions of gallons of good soft water to industry and people living in towns.

Among Bateman's achievements were the Longdendale chain of linked reservoirs supplying Manchester, with the innovation of running water in homes paid for by a new water rate. A plan to create an artificial lake at Thirlmere in the Lake District and transport water to Manchester 96 miles through pipes and aqueducts was completed after his death. Glasgow was supplied with 51 gallons of water per day from a scheme at Loch Katrine and an ambitious plan brought water from Wales to London, supplying 224 million gallons daily. Among his achievements abroad were the draining of a swamp in Majorca, a flood scheme for the river Shannon in Ireland and even a scheme to build a Channel tunnel out of cast iron.

Michael has combined what was known of Bateman's designs and methods of building the clay-sealed earth embankments to scour old maps, aerial photography, digital maps, LIDAR scans of the topography and old photographs from the Pennine Horizons Digital Archive, along with the essential element of walking the landscape and discovering the reality of the features suggested by these images.

Bateman was brought in by Halifax Corporation at a time when there were real worries about the water supply to the town. Bateman's answer was to build reservoirs high above the town with a higher and lower one so that the water supply could be regulated. This was a technique he had used before and required a sequence of aqueducts and pipes to take the water to the town using gravity rather than pumps. Widdop reservoir was opened in 1870.

The reservoirs were built using an earth embankment, and puddled clay was used to create a waterproof surface, which had to be worked or trodden in. The earth that was removed had to be taken away using a complex system of railways with carts filled with spoil pulled originally by horses. Railway technology was essential for the project, and turntables and incline returns were used to send back the empty carts. In the area around Widdop some of these tracks are visible in the landscape, others can be guessed at with the use of maps and aerial photos.

Other evidence emerges from the quiet moorland scene, especially when unusual hollows and bumps are revealed in a light coating of snow. Michael has identified where huts were erected and higher than usual walls revealing that spoil had been tipped there. Stone for the reservoirs was available on the hills, and evidence of these small quarries is also scattered around the area.

The Walshaw Dean reservoirs, built between 1900 – 1913 and those at Gorple followed the principles of the design of John F Bateman, who died in 1889. They made great use of railways, including the famous Enoch's engine which transported navvies from their temporary home at 'Dawson City'. There was a famous trestle bridge which carried the railway across the steep valley, and Michael has discovered marks of the piers of a second bridge, and also evidence of another Navvy settlement. There was more mechanisation than in Bateman's period, but manpower was still crucial.

John F Bateman was widely celebrated in his time, and in 1869 represented the Royal Society at the opening of one of the wonders of the age, the Suez Canal. A year later, the influence of his visit to Egypt emerged in the architectural style he adopted at Widdop. Still standing is a little Valve house, now a listed building, Egyptian in style and serving to commemorate the world wide reach of the innovative engineer responsible for first bringing piped water to the people of Halifax.

For most of us walking the hills, the reservoirs are just a feature of the landscape, tranquil places which belie the immense task of removing earth, disposing of the spoil, extracting clay and stone for the building and accommodating the gangs of men who were performing this extraordinary transformation. After hearing the story of John F Bateman, we will perhaps walk with eyes more attuned to the marks made on the landscape by these men.

The next Hebden Bridge Zoom talk will be on Wednesday 10th March at 7.30, when Alan Fowler will relate the story of Lloyd George, Spanish Flu and the 1918 General Election in Calder Valley.

Details of the talks programme, publications and of archive opening times are available on the Local History Society website and you can also follow the Facebook page.

With thanks to Sheila Graham for this report

See also

Hebden Bridge History Website

HebWeb History section