Water Towers in Norfolk

The water tower is essentially a raised tank for short-term water storage that allows a constant flow to consumers despite peaks in use. The source of the water supply may be a lake or reservoir, a river, a well or a deep bore-hole.  In upland areas, the source will often be a reservoir in the hills, where the water can flow down through the treatment works and to the consumer under its own gravity. However, in lowland areas like Norfolk, the water has to be pumped from its source, treated, and then stored. It follows that to provide the gravitational force allowing distribution of the water in lowland areas, this storage should be in an elevated position: hence the water tower.

As water towers are a feature of a pump-fed water supply system, they do not appear in large numbers until the advent of steam. However, waterwheel, horse or even man-powered pumps had been used since Roman times, although on a very limited scale.

In the pre-industrial rural community water supply needs were met by wells, streams or springs. This was not the case in towns, especially as they increased in size. The density of human population in expanding towns often meant that the contents of wells and cess-pits seeped together, with unpleasant results.

As towns expanded in medieval times, crude systems of piped water started to appear piecemeal, usually as a result of civil, ecclesiastic or private initiatives. These supplied only a very limited range of customers and any storage tanks (stone or lead-lined wood containers) would have been small and not classifiable as 'towers'. Outside these small-scale systems, communities in towns tended to use communal “cisterns” – low-lying stone or lead-lined tanks fed by rivers or springs (i.e. downstream from them), from which people would take water in their own containers.

In post medieval times, there is documentary evidence that simple pumping systems, powered by river currents or horses, pumped water into elevated positions, usually adapted from existing structures. An early example of this in Norfolk is said to be an improvised tank on the tower of the church of St Lawrence in Norwich (NHER 583), which held water to supply parts of the city in 1584. This tank seems to have been supplied by a current powered pump from the River Wensum at New Mills. King’s Lynn also appears to have had a raised cistern at Kettle Mills, supplying the town from the 17th century. It is later recorded that the water was filtered through sand (NHER 5486). 

Photograph of Houghton Hall water tower. Photograph from Eastern Daily Press.

Houghton Hall water tower. (© Eastern Daily Press.)

Although the documentary evidence exists of this kind of structure, physical remains generally do not. Prior to the Industrial Revolution only the very wealthy had the means to build their own water supply systems, and occasionally, physical evidence does remain on country estates. Undoubtedly the best example of this is the water tower at Houghton Hall (NHER 3548: for the Hall itself, NHER 3546). The tower was built for Sir Robert Walpole in the 1720s and was designed to supply the new Hall he built some 700 yards to the south of it. Some of the original brass taps remain in the Hall’s lower floors. The 'water house' is an elegant Palladian style building 41 feet high with, originally, a 12,000 gallon tank, of lead-lined wood. This was some 7 feet above ground level, and supplied from a well directly underneath an adjacent pump house (NHER 15660). Initially this was horse-powered, but in 1904 was upgraded to a “hot air” engine to drive the pump. The main reason that these structures and the lead supply pipes survive is that following Walpole’s death in 1745, the estate was found to be greatly in debt, and fell into dilapidation for 150 years, when there were very few alterations made. During World War Two, the old tank was replaced by a larger 'Braithwaite' tank (see later) and was operational until 2003 as a back-up water supply for fire fighting purposes. This makes the tower one of the longest serving on record (1732-2003).

Water towers really started to develop and proliferate in the 19th century, particularly in the Victorian era. This was partly due to the increased use of cast iron piping and tanks replacing those of lead and wood. Cast iron was a much stronger material, and this in turn made storage of larger quantities of water possible. It should be remembered that water is very heavy, and storage tanks have to withstand much pressure (224 gallons of water weigh 1 ton).

Another powerful reason for the increase in tanks in this period was that the urban population explosion that preceded it had made the water supply situation untenable. Private initiative was no longer sufficient, and municipal schemes developed (as well as private water companies) to provide piped water to whole areas. In the early Victorian period (the 1840s to 1860s) these schemes were mainly confined to upland areas where high reservoirs could gravity-feed large areas. 

Photograph of Appleton red brick water tower built in 1877.

Appleton red brick water tower built in 1877. M. and S. Gooch.)

Country estates continued to build water towers for their private use in the 19th century. A fine example is Appleton tower (NHER 15701) which was built in 1877 to supply the Sandringham Estate. It even incorporates a room to accommodate picnicking Royal hunting parties, and is now let as a holiday cottage. Other private examples of the period are at Raynham Hall (NHER 2368), Tacolneston Hall (NHER 9951) and Mockbeggar Hall (NHER 20557) which has a converted dovecote as a water tower.

Victorian institutions often also had their own water towers to serve their large facilities. For instance Henstead Union Workhouse in Swainsthorpe (NHER 9770) which later became Vale Hospital, had its own tower. This has now (including the tower) been converted to residential use.

As is well known, the Victorian period was a period of massive expansion in the railways. Steam engines used a great deal of water, and many water towers (with cast iron tanks) were built along the many rail routes. These were, almost without exception, swept away by later development. However, one does remain in Norfolk, and, appropriately enough is located in Melton Constable, a town created specifically for the workforce of the Midland and Great Northern Railway Company (M & GN) (NHER 13583).

The town was built in 1881 and comprised housing, station, gas works, an inn and associated buildings.  All of these, and the locomotives themselves, were served from 1898 by a massive 125,000 gallon cast iron tanked tower on iron supports. Each of its 256 external panels is embossed with M & GN’s company initials. Although it was bombed in World War Two, it survives today.

Towards the end of the 19th century French engineers had been developing the use of reinforced concrete in water tower construction (i.e. reinforcing concrete, a long-known material, with iron rods, wire or mesh to add tensile strength). In fact it was a French engineer who built Britain’s first reinforced concrete tower in Bournemouth in 1900.

However, this new type of construction did not spread to Norfolk until much later. It should at this point also be stressed that water towers being utility buildings, were generally demolished once their usefulness passed, or the technology changed. Because of this, looking at the chronology of towers and matching this with a given example that remains is not always possible.

A good example of this phenomenon is the 'Braithwaite' tank, a starkly utilitarian water tower that came into use during World War One at military installations and was fairly ubiquitous on sites in World War Two. These were rather like a 'meccano' tower, with a prefabricated sectional pressed steel tank supported on a steel framework. They had the advantage of being much lighter than cast iron tanks, and were vastly quicker and cheaper to build than brick or concrete towers. However, they were the antithesis of the Victorian ethos that water towers (and indeed all public buildings) should be ornamental as well as functional, and be built to last indefinitely. Furthermore, once they were redundant (e.g. when airfields were closed after the wars) they were easy to demolish and profitable to sell for scrap.

For this reason, very few remain, and in Norfolk, there is only one extant example recorded in the NHER. This is on the disused World War Two airfield at Snetterton (NHER 9068). There may be others, but the numbers are unlikely to be great.

Braithwaite tanks were essentially temporary structures, and the development of concrete water towers continued. A few were built on military sites in World War One, although none in Norfolk. The design of concrete towers tended to be a central concrete shaft surrounded by one or two concentric rings of columns. Also, new designs in the strength of tank bases meant the towers could be made even larger. A good example of a concrete tower of the inter-war years is to be found at Caister-on-Sea, Great Yarmouth (NHER 40218). This was built in 1933 and was of a type known as an 'Intze' tower (after the German designer). 162 feet high, it has a massive 784,000 gallon tank, the largest in the country at the time.

Concrete towers were also built during this period on military bases that stayed in service after World War One as permanent bases. One of these can be seen at Bircham Newton (NHER 1793), the only major military site in Norfolk to stay operational in the inter-war years (and indeed was in service until 1962). This was of the usual circular design with central shaft surrounded by a ring of supports. This tower may be unique in England, having the spaces in between infilled with brick (common on the Continent, but unknown here). However, there are earlier photographs that show the bays unbricked and given that the airfield is now home to the National Construction College, there is a possibility that the infilled bays were a later strengthening, or bricklaying project. 

The two water towers in Dereham.

The 19th century water tower stands next to the modern water tower in Dereham. (© NCC)

Water tower building tailed off after World War Two, and it was not until the 1960’s that there was something of a resurgence, with rather more innovative designs. One design advance was to do away with outer support columns and support the tank on a single concrete shaft. This led to the well-known 'wine-glass' tower, an inverted cone on a central shaft. A unique example of this can be seen at Ludham Tower in Catfield, built in 1980 (NHER 40222). Using an approach developed in Sweden, the shaft was built, then the tank was constructed around it at ground level. The tank was then jacked up into position, an operation taking 22 hours over 3 days. This was the first British tower erected using this technique.

Aesthetically, wine glass designs were generally well received. Other designs of the period, however, did not excite universal approval. Horstead tower (NHER 40219), built in 1970, has an angular, multi-lobed tank, that looks a little like a blunted snowflake from above. Although almost unique (there is only one other example, in London), it was met with a mixed response, and this may be why other new tower proposals met with increased scrutiny. The 1980 tower at Framingham Earl (NHER 40221) is noteworthy as being a 'retro' copy of the adjacent 1950’s tower, a condition of planning consent.

Another tower built in 1980 was also subject to planning conditions. The tanks at Bowthorpe (NHER 40220) are tall and cylindrical, and raised only 26 feet from the ground. Planning consent was conditional on the tanks being clear of the ground on a supporting structure. The last modern water tower in Norfolk worthy of mention is that at Honingham (NHER 40216). Built in 1980, it is of a unique design, the tanks being three tall shafts, linked at the top and bottom, around a central shaft. Building of concrete water towers (or any towers) in the final years of the 20th century has declined, and it will be of interest to see what new designs lie in the future.

This is very much an overview of water towers in the region. The complex engineering involved in building towers, and the detailed architectural considerations regarding their appearance could fill volumes. Those wishing to dig a little deeper are referred to the further reading list at the end of this piece. There are fifty existing water towers in Norfolk today, and fifteen sites where towers stood but have now been demolished. Of these, twenty five are listed on the Heritage and Environment Record as having particular historical or architectural interest.

Piet Aldridge (NLA), July 2005.


Further Reading

Barton, B., 2003. Water Towers of Britain (London, Newcomen Society).

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