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Saturday, 30 May 2009

Foredown Tower Centenary Open Day

If you've been to the Sussex Downs, you may have seen the Foredown Tower Countryside Centre which is England's only water tower-based Camera Obscura. The water tower is 100 years old this year and on August 15th, 2009 it will be open free to the public to celebrate.

Camera Obscura are popular vistor attractions and redundant water towers are ideal for conversion into them. This is one idea BWTAS suggests to tower owners looking to repurpose theirs commercially. Many of our members consider Colchester's 'Jumbo' would be ideal for this but that's another story.

Hove Civic Society website informs us the tower was built in 1909 by J. Parsons & Sons with a 27,500 gallon tank made by Every’s of Lewes. The immense weight of the water and tank was supported by brick walls which are up to 33 inches thick in places. The original ballcock and water depth gauge have been preserved along with lots of the massive pipes that served the tower nearly one hundred years ago. After financial help from Brighton-based American Express and much deliberating, the tower opened in 1991 as the home of one of England’s few operational camera obscuras. Windows and a pitched roof were added above the tank to facilitate the camera which is built into a tower at the very top. It projects a television-like image onto a dish at floor level and can be pointed in any direction from the sea to Worthing to the Devil’s Dyke to Eastbourne.

Friday, 29 May 2009

Delta Force

It may be only 50,000 gallons and made of rusted metal but it has an unusual double tank design. The 1904 Rio Vista water tower on the California Delta (near Sacremento, USA) is a such a well known landmark to river traffic that it has just been dimantled to become the centrepiece of a new development.

The SF Chronicle reports "city leaders hope a new 'Discover the Delta' center will draw visitors, jolt the local economy and brand the delta as a unique California destination on par with the redwoods, mountains and coast.

The nonprofit center will include a model of the delta, a wine tasting room, farmers' market, classrooms and a museum showcasing the agricultural and cultural history of the region. Organizers hope to break ground on the $5 million project this summer and open to the public by next year."

People from the Rio Vista community turned out in their hundreds to see the workers dismantle them 135 foot tower which will be restored before being moved to its new home across the river. The event was also opportunity for local schools and community groups to get involved creating exhibits celebrating the tower's iconic status.

Officially called the Dutra tower these days, the tower had previously been owned by the Rio Vista Canning and Packing Company, Del Monte (known in the UK for tinned fruit cocktail) and then Blackwelder Manufacturing. The agricultural purpose of the tower explains its double tank design; the lower tank was for drinking water, the upper tank powered a flume that transported asparagus for processing and packing. Ninety percent of the world's canned asparagus, mostly white asparagus, was packed here. In the mid-sixties, the tower began to show its age and sprang leaks and was taken out of service.

The Dutra company donated the tower to the project. We couldn't agree more with their choice for an eye-catching iconic landmark than a water tower.

Thursday, 28 May 2009

The Benacre Water Tower Family

A few weels ago Cilla Gosnell contacted BWTAS asking for information about the WT on the Benacre estate in Suffolk (close to the BWTAS HQ) because she believed her grandfather had worked there and lived in the tower with his family. We sent her the information we had and she has been kind enough to report the fascinating results of her research. If anyone has anything to add, comments via the form would be very much appreciated.

Two weeks ago I was on a cycling holiday based at Wattisham in Suffolk, but decided to 'take a day off' and go by car to Benacre to see if I could find the water tower as I'm rarely in that part of the world. I didn't contact you - or the Benacre Hall owners - beforehand, being unsure which day would be most convenient for me, but did take a print-out of your e-mail to establish my credentials just in case I was challenged by anyone in authority!

From your website, I was able to pinpoint the position of the tower on the OS map. Approaching on foot from the northern end of the park - and prepared to find no access at all - we were pleasantly surprised to find permissive paths, indistinct on the ground but leading in roughly the right direction until we suddenly spotted the tower looming among the trees. For me it was a somewhat weird experience as I don't think anyone in my family had ventured there for nearly a century and the parkland - and lodge buildings we'd passed - were totally deserted. The location of the tower seemed very remote but presumably there would have been better - or more-used - access at one time and I'm pretty certain there was a 'cottage garden' where nettles and brambles are now.

Returning home after my holiday, I found the old photograph of my grandmother Catherine Hughes (who died years before I was born) with my father Selwyn and uncle Kenric outside the tower in about 1907 and another of my grandfather (photographed - I think - before he was employed at Benacre although the caption says 1909).

Hughes family at Benacre Hall Water Tower, 1906 – 1910

During the time that my grandfather George Hughes was employed by the Benacre Hall estate – about a hundred years ago – the family lived in the water tower.

I believe that my grandfather worked on electrical installations and/or pumping machinery; previously he’d been employed for some years at Trentham Park, Staffordshire and at The Lee Manor estate in Bucks, from where the family moved to Benacre in 1906 or 1907. As the date in the tower brickwork is 1902, it would have been a very new building at the time.
The picture of him is the only one we possess but I don’t think it was taken while he worked at Benacre. I guess he was born in the 1860s (as my father’s older sister was born in 1891) so would have been in his 40s when he was at Benacre.

Correspondence at the time was addressed to my grandparents at ‘The Tower’ so I presume there was living accommodation there. I had once supposed this might have been in an attached building rather than in the tower itself but a recent visit to the tower (May 2009) showed no trace in the brickwork of there ever having been any adjoining building.

The photograph of my grandmother, Catherine Hughes, with her two little boys – the older one, Selwyn (my father) and his younger brother (my Uncle Ken) – shows part of the tower and the windows at first-floor level appear to be open as though the building is ‘lived-in’. It looks as though the middle section would have had room to accommodate a family with the water tank above and the machinery below. However I know nothing about the internal layout of water towers, but would be very interested to know how it was arranged. There’s no sign of any chimney, but Google Earth shows some unidentified details in the roof, which might have included a vent of some sort.

The sheer bulk of the tower amazed me, especially as I’d been told of the occasion in family folklore when my uncle (aged 3 or 4?) had managed to climb up it and ‘walk round the top’ – presumably on the ledge just below the top. I wondered whether there would once have been metal ladders/staircase outside allowing access, or maybe there was a way up from inside the building. Onlookers were apparently horrified but – wisely – didn’t call out for fear of startling the child, who made his way safely down.

(Some towers of this size had living accomodation or offices placed between the pump room and the tank, as in the Southwold WT, but living in a water tower could be both noisy from the pumps and damp from the condensation from the tank. To utilise 'waste' heat from the pumps; it could be vented through the tank to prevent the water freezing. Access to the roof and tank would be typically inside the tower, usually through the center of the tank that was arranged in a ring - Ed. )

Really we know very little about the family at this stage of their lives. My father, who was born in 1903, started school at Wrentham: we have a photograph of him on his first day there. George Hughes was a keen photographer and did his own processing. It’s also thought that he did some decorative wood carving for Benacre Hall. He was quite an accomplished oil-painter though I think his pictures were mostly copies. My father told me of an incident when his mother – in a rage – had kicked at one of her husband’s paintings tearing the canvas. We had that picture in our living room when I was a child. Learning – recently – that there was a fine collection of original paintings at Benacre Hall, I wondered if that was a source of inspiration.

Anyway life at Benacre seemed to come to an abrupt end around 1910 when my grandfather left his family and went to New Zealand. I don’t know whether his work at Benacre was completed or exactly why he left. It’s been hinted that he’d been involved with a young woman, perhaps somebody employed at Benacre Hall. However letters that he subsequently sent from NZ to his young sons suggest that he’d gone there alone and hoped his family would follow but they didn’t and returned to The Lee, Bucks. I believe (from what little I was told) that he was possibly a heavy drinker and left debts behind him. I’m inclined to think he went to NZ seeking both escape and better-paid work but don’t know if he ever sent money home. Consequently he was regarded as the ‘black sheep of the family’ and it seemed to my brother and me and my cousin that there was a conspiracy of silence about him and questions were discouraged.

Now we are trying to fill in some of the gaps!

Cilla Gosnell (nee Hughes), May 2009

Wednesday, 20 May 2009

Hollymoor Hospital, Birmingham, West Midlands (1905)

Thankfully, this beautiful hospital tower still exists due to a change of use and it being grade II listed in November 1993.

The hospital was designed by William Martin & Martin and built by John Bowen & Sons of Birmingham for Birmingham Corporation as part of the City Lunatic Asylum. Most of Hollymoor hospital was completed by 1904, but the water tower was not completed until 1905. The hospital opened on the 16th of May 1905. The patients were relocated to Barnsley Hall Hospital during world war one, when it was used as a military hospital, to treat the wounded from France. The patients were returned in 1921. Hollymoor hospital closed in July 1994 and was mostly demolished in 1996.

The water tower now houses a dentist, a doctor's surgery and a pharmacy. It is located at O.S. Grid Ref. SP 00316 78498. Photograph by Andrew Clayton taken 26th June, 2005.

Wednesday, 6 May 2009

Barnsley Hall Hospital, Bromsgrove, Worcester (1907)

Hospitals have some splendid water towers, but unfortunately, many are being demolished, such as the recently reported Trafford General Hospital. Barnsley Hall Hospital had a splendid gothic water tower: a square tower in red brick with sandstone and terracotta dressing. It was demolished in April 2000, when it was reported “the day the water tower was demolished, lorry drivers on the nearby M5 stopped on the hard shoulder to watch, as this landmark building that had been a feature of their trips up and down the country for all of their driving careers.”

The hospital had opened on 26th June 1907 as the second Worcestershire County Lunatic Asylum, to relieve pressure on the existing site at Powick. It’s architect was George Thomas Hine. The Hospital transferred to the NHS in 1948 and closed in 1996. In 1997 there were proposals to convert the water tower, but these came to nothing. The Bromsgrove Society reported in its March 1999 Newsletter “The Barnsley Hall redevelopment will result in the demolition of the water tower as no suitable alternative use has been found.” The Local Authority had tried to have the water tower listed but failed. In 1998 the site was sold to the Laing/McAlpine partnership, after which the majority of the original buildings were demolished including the water tower.

The tower was located to the west of the main administration block, presumably where Tower Drive now is, at approximately O.S. Grid Ref. SO 96010 72578. Capacity unknown, any more information gratefully received. Photograph by Mark Norton taken May-July 1992.

Friday, 1 May 2009

Simon's Town mystery tanks

David Erickson lives in Simon’s Town, the former British Naval Port on the Cape Peninsula in South Africa.

He has written to BWTAS looking for information about some local water tanks (we'll overlook that these aren't actually water towers as they are quite relevant, Ed.):
"There is a huge amount of fascinating infrastructure here, much of it dating back to Victorian times and earlier. As a Committee Member of the Simon’s Town Historical Society I have a number of research projects on the go. One of these concerns two octagonal water tanks, which may be early versions of the Braithwaite design. However, these are not pressed steel; they are cast iron panels with no internal stiffening. The panels are held together by square headed bolts and nuts, with what appears to be hand cut threads, so I suspect that these tanks are quite old. The tanks lie on former Royal Naval properties where there is a history of Royal Engineers’ construction works. For this reason it is believed that they are undoubtedly British in origin, probably made to a standard design and shipped out in sections for assembly on site. There are only four of these tanks in existence in South Africa.

One of the tanks was, I believe, built to supply water to an officer’s barracks that was constructed in about 1815 (the tank could of course have been a much later addition).

The cast iron tank dimensions are 3.87 metres overall external width x 2.12 metres overall height. The operating water capacity has been calculated to be 24 tonnes (approximately 5,400 U.K. gallons).

The tank side construction consists of a total of 16 identical rectangular cast iron panels, each 158 centimetres long x 103.5 centimetres high. These panels have integral flanges on all four sides, the vertical flanges being angled such that an octagon is formed when the panels are bolted together. The side panels are arranged two high and sit on a cast iron base which is in turn supported on eight brickwork piers. The cast iron base is comprised of eight flanged cast iron panels which taper from 158 centimetres at the outer edge to 53 centimetres, and one octagonal flanged panel measuring 129 centimetres across extremities; this is located at the centre of the tank base. All flanges are 15 millimetres thick x 91.2 millimetres web. The tank has an open top which has a light corrugated iron roof mounted above on a timber frame. The panels are bolted together with ⅝” bolts 70 mm long, with square bolt heads 1¼” across flats.

Despite very careful inspection, we have been unable to find any trace of the manufacturer – all of the panels are completely plain with no foundry marks or other identification."

David is appealing to BWTAS if anyone has come come across anything like this? He would be most interested in any historical data. If you can help him in any way, please contact

David Erickson
6 Flagship Way
Simon's Town

Republic of South Africa

Tel./Fax: +27-21-786-3384