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Abingdon's Waterworks




Abingdon’s water supply in the 1870s was becoming increasingly inadequate as the town’s requirements increased. To help meet this new demand, Abingdon’s Borough Corporation commissioned its own waterworks to be constructed underground on land at Wootton. Opened in 1880, the waterworks served Abingdon until the 1960s, after being extended several times. However, not sufficient on its own, this supply was supplemented by water from other sources in the locality gradually brought into use over time.

[In this article the length, volume and pressure units used are the pre-metric units that were standard when the reservoir was built. For conversions to metric units see, for example,]

Abingdon’s Waterworks    

Much of the following information, descriptions and quotations is taken from a paper given by George Winship, Abingdon’s then Borough Surveyor and acting resident engineer for the waterworks construction, to the Association of Municipal & Sanitary Engineers and Surveyors in 1882.[1] The Abingdon Waterworks were designed and constructed by Messrs Bailey Denton & Co., an engineering partnership specialising in water related construction projects.[2] They were situated on land on the west side of the crossroads along the Wootton Road, some two and a half miles to the north of Abingdon, where there was a spring that John Bailey Denton himself had inspected and ascertained would provide a valuable supply.[3] He had also investigated ground surrounding Parsons’ Cottages at Old Pound, Wootton, and at Boar’s Hill.[4] To oversee the work, a Waterworks Sub-Committee was appointed, consisting initially of the mayor (W Ballard), the deputy mayor (J Tomkins), and one other councillor (J T Morland).[5]

After Bailey Denton’s recommendation, the Council acquired an acre of ground at the crossroads at Wootton, compulsorily purchased by the Borough Council in 1878-9. There were some protracted negotiations over the price but, following arbitration, the field was finally purchased for the £150 that the Council had offered in the first place.[6] Although the proposed reservoir would be inadequate to supply all the needs of the town, the good quality water that would flow by gravity to the highest parts of the town would be a valuable supply. The initial proposal was to allocate it to the northern part of Abingdon and to supply the rest of the town with filtered water taken from the Thames at the Abbey Meadows.[7]

Initially, samples of water sent to Dr. Meynett Tidy as Medical Officer of Health were found to be “favourable” and a trial boring was sunk to establish whether the flow would be adequate; the results were satisfactory and the Borough Council, with the express approval of Mr I.T Harrison, the Government Inspector, went ahead with the construction of the waterworks.[8]

The reservoir was constructed in the coral rag and calcareous grit formations of the oolitic series of limestone overlying the Oxford clay.[9] These formations are very porous and also slowly dissolve, forming caverns and fissures; “....the greater part, if not the whole [of the resulting water] .... was found to spring from a cavern in the rock....” at a depth of between 35 and 40 feet.[10]















LEFT: Abingdon and Wootton on the 1835 first edition 1-inch O.S. map. The red dot shows the location of the future waterworks. The waterworks field is about two and a half miles from Abingdon. (Original map privately owned and kindly scanned by the owners.)                                                                                                                                                               RIGHT: Map drawn by Thames Water showing the waterworks field in about 1990. The arrow lies on Whitecross which becomes the Wootton Road nearer to Abingdon. (With thanks to Thames Water)

It is worth quoting some of the article about the trial boring to establish the adequacy of the potential supply: “While the shaft and boring were proceeding, experimental trials, by continuous pumping of steam power, were made, and observations noted for the purpose of ascertaining the quantity of water that might be depended upon for supplying the town, and further to bring the matter to a still closer test, it was determined to make a cutting about 200 yards in length through very hard rock, entering the trial shaft at a depth of 16 feet from the ground surface.

“In this cutting 9-inch pipes were laid and covered in, by means of which the water rising out of the rock was drawn off continuously for several months and discharged over a gauge board into a neighbouring watercourse.”

Mr Henry Potter, the contractor for this part of the work, was to excavate a cavern immediately below the level of the outflow, 10 feet deep and “probably” 30 feet square.[11] This was judged to be able to hold “about the minimum daily outflow already indicated by the gauging”. During construction, the pumping out of the cavity of very fine, clean sand resulted in a collapse and this “caused considerable difficulty when constructing the reservoir”. There were also some problems during construction resulting from subsidence and water seepage, and Winship gives credit to Mr Potter for completing the work “very cleverly”.

In the event, the reservoir was about 120 feet long, 28 feet deep and 16 feet wide at the surface, tapering slightly at the bottom. The excavated rock, having been blasted with a mixture of gunpowder and dynamite, was broken in a machine into small pieces “the size of a walnut”, mixed with the fine sand previously pumped out and formed into concrete blocks in the ratio of one part Portland cement to four parts of the mix.[12] The making of the blocks and the excavation were carried out simultaneously, with an engine and chain pump “perpetually at work keeping down the water”.

First, the bottom of the reservoir was “put in in concrete” with an opening left around the original trial shaft and bore hole so that the water could rise into the reservoir, all of which was completely underground.  The walls were then constructed from concrete blocks and finally “the whole domed over from end to end by a semi-arch 13 feet in diameter, also in concrete blocks with concrete backing”. The bottom of the reservoir was forty feet “above the highest ground in or around Abingdon”.  The trench for the supply pipe to the town would have to be cut through very hard rock. To minimise the amount of digging needed, the pipe was not connected to the bottom of the reservoir but was connected about half way up. The pipe then bent down inside the reservoir to reach close to the bottom. This section formed the short leg of a siphon with the long leg being the supply pipe to the town, an arrangement that allowed water to be drawn from the reservoir when the water level in it was below the level where the pipe was connected. [13]



A cross section of the underground tank from a plan and drawings of the waterworks made in 1939 by the then borough surveyor.

The vertical shaft is the overflow and the roundel is the siphon within the tank at this position.

The reservoir was about 28 feet deep, 16 feet wide at the top of the trench, and 120 feet long.  The bottom was concreted, and concrete blocks were used to line the walls and build the arched top section. The whole reservoir was underground but had it three louvred ventilation shafts reaching 3 feet above ground level.

(By kind permission of Abingdon Town Council)


The reservoir was reckoned to be capable of holding 125,000 gallons “or thereabouts”, water also rising into it from the “fissures and hollows” of the rocks below. These natural reservoirs afforded additional capacity. Winship states “When the water in the reservoir rises, as it generally does at night, up to or above the crown of the siphon, it discharges by gravitation simply, but when it sinks below that level siphon action is called into play to a greater or lesser degree”. In other words, if the level of the water in the reservoir was above the top of the siphon, it flowed by gravity through the outlet pipe, but below that level, natural atmospheric pressure (the “siphon action” referred to) was necessary to make it flow.[14]

The iron pipes used were cast by Messrs Firmstone & Co of Stourbridge, tested to a pressure of 500 feet of head (about 216 pounds per square inch), coated in accordance with Dr Angus Smith’s process, a technique for heating metal pipes with “coal oil” to resist corrosion, and then jointed with yarn and lead.[15]  After being laid, they were tested for leakage with water from a water cart or the source of supply with pressure “never less than 100 lb. to the square inch”. The length of the pipes tested was 12,178 yards with 53 valves, 77 hydrants and 4762 joints. Of this total, only four pipes, two valves, one hydrant and thirty-three joints were found to be defective and the whole of the testing cost £39. The hydrants were supplied by Bateman and Moore of Manchester. The branch mains in the town were coupled together so that most of the streets could be supplied from either end.  There were two outlets to the River Thames to empty the mains when required.

Denton’s Patent Pressure Recorder, a self-recording clock water-gauge, was fixed in the waterworks office, and registered the pressure in the mains every ten minutes.[16]

The ground was later levelled “by the able-bodied poor” who were provided for this work by the guardians of the Abingdon Union (the workhouse) who were looking for employment for those who had applied to them for relief.[17] The guardians were reimbursed by the Council for the work. Bailey Denton had recommended that the field should be seeded with grass and enclosed by a hedge of “quick” (a quickset hedge is one planted from live cuttings, usually hawthorn) into which lockable cart gates should be inserted.  Sheep could be grazed on the field with no harm to the waterworks.[18]  Bailey Denton had also recommended the erection of a building in the shape of a small tower above ground at the entrance to the reservoir which was built in 1880 at a cost of £100.[19] From a later plan, it appears that the tower did not survive into the mid-twentieth century.[20] In 1890, larch trees were planted in the field and, in 1907; an application from Lord Berkeley’s agent for shooting rights over the Council’s land at the waterworks in Wootton was approved for the payment of £1 per annum.[21] It is not recorded which animals were to be shot!

The waterworks were completed at a cost of £9,000.[22] However, the supply proved to be inadequate to meet rising demand and, in 1895, another £1,000 was allocated for an extension, with more land being purchased in 1896 for £300 for this purpose.[23]

One of Winship’s men would be sent to check the level of the water “above the siphon” and, in later years, would turn on the pump especially installed to ensure adequate flow if necessary. The Borough Surveyor's Report Books give a monthly account of the level of water in the Wootton Reservoir. Winship considered that 10 feet above the strainer level would provide enough water to supply the town's needs. However, in the early years of the twentieth century, rainfall was insufficient to keep this level; "this low rainfall shews [sic] the cause of the low water level at Wootton and the difficulty that will be experienced” if a supplemental supply was not installed.[24] In August 1902, the level of water in the Reservoir at strainer level varied from 3 feet to 1.85 inches.

From 1912, the capacity of the waterworks was increased by pumping water from the rock surrounding and below the reservoir.[25] Despite this, the reservoir was reported empty in November 1919, resulting in the schools and houses in the upper part of the town being without water. Further increases in capacity followed.[26]

In 1932, a chlorination plant was installed, one of the few structures to be visible on the field at ground level along with the engine house and the ventilation shafts.[27],  These could still be seen in the 1990s.[28]

Water supply to the town mains

Using Morris’s patent apparatus for drilling mains under pressure and Tylor’s patent joints for connecting ancillary equipment such as meters and stop taps to lead pipes without solder, the supply of water to the town from the waterworks proceeded very satisfactorily. Indeed, no skilled labour was needed to use the patent joints “and they can be made in a few seconds in any weather”. Eleven tradesmen were certified to carry out the work connected with the fixing of fittings to the water supply, intriguingly including a Mrs M E Rogers, who may have been married to J G Rogers, who was also certified.[29] Kelly’s Directory of 1883 describes Mary Ellen Rogers as a painter living in East St Helen Street.

With the aid of the self-recording clock register (see above) it was established that flow rates varied from 57,600 gallons per 24 hours at 14 feet below ground surface to 184,000 gallons per 24 hours at 24 feet below ground surface. The siphon worked perfectly under all the test conditions, including after stopping the flow suddenly. Just after the opening of the waterworks, Winship reported that it was raising 100,000 gallons every 24 hours.[30]

There were constant extensions to the reservoir; in 1924, emergency supplies of water were bought from Cox & Sons at Foxcombe Hill for £25 a year. Then, in 1933, after protracted negotiations, another 4.55 acres of land one mile to the east of the waterworks were bought from Merton College for a new boring to be sunk to provide even more water for the town.[31]  Care of the pumps and the waterworks were among the duties of three generations of the MacIntyre family who worked in the Borough Surveyor’s department.








                        The waterworks crossroads as it appears today (2016) looking north. The field is now completely covered in trees.                    (© R Weinberg 2015)               

It seems probable that the waterworks were last used in 1967 when all local water supplies fell under the new Oxfordshire and Thames District Water Board.[32] The field was then sold on by the Water Board at an auction in London in 1993 to a property developer, but it currently (2016) remains a small wooded area.[33]



Abingdon Town Council Archives abbreviated as ATCA.

[1] G Winship, ‘Abingdon Water Supply’,  Proceedings of the Association of Municipal and Sanitary Engineers & Surveyors, vol. 9 (1882–83) pp. 176-186.

[2] This was set up by John Bailey Denton. For more information on Denton see: (accessed August 2016). Also (accessed Augusr 2016) and (accessed August 2016).

[3] Challenor B (ed.), Selections from the Municipal Chronicles of the Borough of Abingdon A.D. 1555 to A.D.  1897, (Abingdon, 1898) p. 317.

[4] Challenor, Selections, p. 316.

[5] ATCA, Abingdon Town Council Minutes 20 March 1879.

[6] ATCA, Council Minutes, 24 April and 25 September 1879.

[7] Challenor, Selections, p. 317.

[8] ATCA, Council Minutes, 27 February, 17 October and 19 December 1878.

[9] ATCA, Council Minutes, 27 February 1878; Winship, ‘Abingdon Water Supply’p. 176.

[10] Winship, ‘Abingdon Water Supply’, p. 176.

[11] ATCA, Council Minutes 23 December 1879.

[12] In the Borough Surveyor’s Report Book of 1908, which is in the Town Council archives, there is a detailed account of the geology and hydrology of the local formations. It also says that “When the Works were established many hundreds of yards of Sand were brought up by a Chain Pump.”

[13] G Winship in ‘Discussion on sale of water by meter’, Minutes of the Proceedings of the Institution of Civil Engineers, vol. 107 Pt 1 (1891-92), p. 238.

[14] A siphon (or syphon) consists basically of a tube with one end in a container of liquid and the other at a lower level outside the container. Once the tube is full of liquid, atmospheric pressure forces liquid through the tube and out of the container.

[15] H M Hatley, ‘Pipeline Coatings and corrosion prevention’, Anti-Corrosion Methods and Materials, vol. 16(3) (1969),             pp. 22-23.  

[16] ATCA, Council Minutes, 8 March 1881. For more information on this kind of gauge, see (accessed October 2016).

[17] Challenor, ‘Selections’, p. 348

[18] ATCA, Council Minutes, 7 January 1881.

[19] ATCA, Council Minutes, 12 August 1880 and 24 September 1880; Challenor, ‘Selections’, p. 333.

[20] S A Bradfield, Borough of Abingdon Wootton Waterworks Plan, November 1939. The author has a photocopy but it is not known where the original is. This was made by the then Borough Surveyor Mr S A Bradfield probably in preparation for the outbreak of war and the possibility of losing the town supply through bombing.

[21] Challenor, ‘Selections, p. 367; ATCA, Council Minutes, 23 October 1907.

[22]  Nigel Hammond, The Book of Abingdon. (Buckingham, 1979), p. 116

[23] Challenor, Selections, p 389.

[24] ATCA, Borough Surveyor’s Report Book, 11 April 1902.

[25] The National Archives, HLG6/967, ‘Borough of Abingdon, Waterworks Extension, Proposed Engine House’, October 1912; ‘Borough of Abingdon, Waterworks Extension, Reservoir No 1’, October 1912. 

[26] W J H Liversidge (ed.) ‘Selections from the Municipal Records of the Borough of Abingdon 1898-1931’, unpublished typescript (1986), Abingdon Library, Local Studies Collection, ref: 942.57, p. 70.

[27] ATCA, Council Minutes, 7 December 1932.

[28] Personal communication, J. Minns, one time owner of land adjacent to the waterworks field.

[29] ATCA, Council Minutes, 15 October 1879.

[30] ATCA, Borough Surveyor’s Report Book, 24 September 1880.  

[31] ATCA, Council Minutes, 26 September 1930; 31 October 1932; 1 January 1933; ATCA, Letter in Minutes of the Finance & General Purposes Committee 1 p. 407d.

[32] E Nicholson (ed), Road to the Seventies. Two decades of achievement in Abingdon & District, (Abingdon, undated), p. 14.

[33] Personal communication, Treasa Walsh, Property Records Coordinator, Thames Water Property Services. 


© AAAHS and contributors 2017


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