These days we all take running water – hot and cold – for granted. We don’t consider it a luxury, or anything more than part of the fabric of everyday life. Go back to the 1690s in Leeds, though, and the picture was very different.
Running water, where you could just turn on a tap, was unheard of, at least until 1694, when the engineer George Sorocold was hired to construct what was probably the largest undertaking of public works in the town – to build a water pumping engine near Leeds Bridge, which would then pump the water to a reservoir at Lidgate. From there it would be piped into homes in Leeds. Or, rather, into the homes of those who could afford it.
Prior to that, and even after, for the vast majority of people water came from public pumps. There was the river for washing clothes. And there were several ‘medicinal’ spas. Burley Road had one, as did Camp Road, Meanwood, Woodhouse Carr, Holbeck, Gipton and even Quarry Hill.
Sorocold had already constructed waterworks as Macclesfield and Derby by the time he arrived in Leeds. His engine for pumping the water was located just downstream from the bridge, and he used a boring machine to dig up Briggate and lay pipe made of hollow-out elm. The pump pushed the water to the new reservoir at Lidgate (about 80feet higher than the level at the bridge), close to St. John’s Church, pretty much the area of what’s now Woodhouse Lane, running from Claypit Lane to the Headrow.
To be viable, of course, and to make a profit (this was privately funded) the scheme needed subscribers to receive water, and later in 1694, the first houses along Kirkgate were receiving that. The great historian of Leeds, Ralph Thoresby, wrote on October 1 that year: ‘Was several times with Mr. Sorocold’s workmen who this day began to lay the lead pipes to convey water to each family.’
Initially, about two and a half kilometres of pipe were laid. Not a great deal, but the population was only around 3,000, clustered around the oldest streets of Briggate and Kirkgate, and from there down towards the Aire, on the Calls, Call Lane and Swinegate. Leeds essentially ended where Briggate met the Head Row.
Supplying water was a private business and remained that way, with more and more people becoming connected, until 1852. The council had an option to take over the water company then and exercised it. By then the population was 250,000 and the place had grown beyond all recognition. The water supply had been a problem and a great contributory factor to the 1842 cholera epidemic that ran rampant among the poor – most of whom still didn’t have running water – and a solution was needed to help the public health of Leeds.
But next time you fill the kettle, give silent thanks to George Sorocold. He’s the one who made it all happen.
Chris Nickson is the author of the Richard Nottingham crime novels, set in Leeds in the 1730s. He’s currently at work on a murder mystery set in Leeds in 1890 and featuring Inspector Tom Harper of Leeds Police.