The reservoir and water works in Hornsey have been a familiar site to locals for over a century and a half. But the story of their development is much less well known.
The area of land just to the north of Hornsey Church has gone from hosting a medieval moated house, through being the source of the winding river at the heart a bucolic village landscape, to ushering in Hornsey's industrial age.
The Tudor & Stuart Story
Only fragments of knowledge survive about the buildings that once stood on the land now occupied by Hornsey Water works
The earliest building on the site was probably a medieval moated house. However almost nothing is known about it, not even the dates of its construction or demolition.
It is thought that a building called ‘Brick Place’ or ‘Tower Place’, was built on the site of the medieval house. First mentioned in the records in 1572, some information about it survives.
By the late Sixteenth Century, Brick Place had an estate of pastures, gardens, fish ponds and orchards. Manorial court records of 1602 state that it comprised 14 acres, with the orchards enclosed by the moat, and at least half an acre of fish ponds.
The house's ownership is traced in records through various hands to 1668 when it was acquired by wealthy London merchant, Sir John Musters (also owner of Colwick Hall in Nottinghamshire).
I have tracked down what is possibly the one surviving physical link between him and Hornsey.
Sir John died in in July 1689. His third wife, Lady Jane Musters, continued to live at Brick Place until her death in 1691. The house then passed to the Musters' grandsons. But sadly, not long after Lady Jane's death, it was badly damaged by a storm, fell into disrepair and was demolished in 1703. The moat and the house's foundations, however, survived into the following century.
The probable location of Brick Place and its moat is shown on the the Enclosure Map of 1815, (below, left). To give a clearer sense of the location today, a second version of the map is shown superimposed on the 1895 Ordnance Survey map (right). The 1815 document suggests that following the demolition of the house, the land was put to agricultural use.
A combination of the construction of Hornsey Water Works in 1859, the diversion of the New River in 1861, and the 1890s widening of the Great Northern Railway removed all traces of Brick Place and its associated moat.
But, Brick Place survived long enough to witness the beginnings of what was to follow. Under a century before it was demolished, the house witnessed the arrival of the New River.
Arrival of the New River
Up to the beginning of the 17th century, London was supplied with water by the Thames or by local wells and springs. As the population grew, however, this supply became insufficient.
In 1602, wealthy landowner Edmund Colthurst proposed to remedy the growing shortage by bringing water to London in open channels from Chadwell Spring and Amwell in Hertfordshire. A charter for the works was granted two years later.
Colthurst's route brought the water on an almost-level course (dropping around just five inches per mile), nearly 65km to Clerkenwell in London. Completed in 1613, at various points along its route, the river was diverted into loops. Although these were introduced as part of the contour-hugging design to enable the appropriate drop across the course of the river, they also had the consequence of bringing water to areas of habitation. At Hornsey, the ‘Hornsey Loop’ was constructed.
The New River’s original course, entered from Wood Green and meandered across to where Nightingale Lane is. It then travelled south to a Sluice House, built at the point where the river met the main road to Muswell Hill.
Fig 4: The Sluice House at the corner of Priory Road and Nightingale Lane, 1899. In the 1871 census, this building was documented as 'Old Sluice House'. This photo has previously been published giving this building the name of 'Nightingale Cottage'. It was listed with this name by 1891, but I'm sure that older inhabitants continued to call it the Old Sluice House. The sign is to direct people up the road to the Nightingale Tavern.
The river then crossed under the road before heading back eastwards, to its south. It wound though the gardens of various properties including Grove House and the Three Compasses. Just beyond the Inn, it crossed back to the north side of the road and then headed eastwards again, before crossing the road for a third time, just where it does today, and heading towards Harringay.
Customers were charged for their water supply from the New River from the start of the enterprise. In the city, the water was brought to householders via hollowed-out elm pipes. Initially these customers paid a connection charge and also quarterly payments. For those without a constant supply, water carriers sold New River water by the bucketful on a casual basis.
Establishment of the Hornsey Water Works
During the 19th century, domestic water supply changed dramatically. In 1800, most households received unfiltered water, delivered intermittently at a low pressure or taken from communal pumps. By the close of the century, most households were receiving filtered water in high pressure pipes.
Along with a rapid growth of London’s population and an increasingly competitive water market, two influences were responsible for stimulating the investment that drove this change.
Firstly, public health policy began to demand heathier water. In response to a fast developing understanding of the dangers of water contamination, and following a terrible cholera outbreak in the mid-nineteenth century, the Metropolis Water Act was passed by Parliament in 1852. It required that all water supplied to homes was to be "effectually filtered".
Secondly, two technology developments spurred on improvements. Perhaps most significant was the enormous advance in pumping technology, to which London water companies contributed in no small measure.
A simultaneous leap in the technology for manufacturing iron pipes and joints, combined with a fall in the price of iron, had also made it cost-effective for water companies to substitute iron pipes for the wood ones previously used throughout their networks. Stronger pipes allowed the companies to take advantage of new pumping technology and deliver more reliable supplies at higher pressures.
Armed with new technology and prodded by public health policy, the New River Company took significant steps forward through the second half of the century.
The Company began replacing old wooden pipes with cast-iron ones. It then took steps to regulate the flow and quality of the water. Achieving this meant replacing the water supplied directly from the river with purer filtered water that it could supply at higher pressures. To this end, in 1852, the construction of a reservoir, river basin and three filter tanks were planned.
A site was chosen in the north of its existing area of operation in Hornsey. At the time, the land was occupied by William Poulton, the landlord of the Three Compasses Inn for sixty years from 1828. Poulton was a keen and successful breeder of Hertford pigs, winning medals from 1836 at Smithfield up until 1884 in when he was in his 75th year. At the time the land was acquired, it seems probable that he was using it to breed his award-winning pigs. (I doubt he was keeping them in the prized garden of the Three compasses!)
The mid-Twentieth Century Ordnance Survey map shows a piggery on the north west border of the water works. Although not labelled, what looks like the same building is also shown on the Nineteenth Century map. It's not too great a stretch of the imagination to wonder if, after the sale, Poulton retained rights to a small strip of land for the purposes of re-siting his piggery. (It's interesting to note that 25 piggeries were recorded in Hornsey as late as 1943 in the Annual Report of Hornsey’s Medical Officer for Health. Also, a Google search led me back to a comment made on HoL some years ago when HoL Member Richard Wood shared his memory of the Alexandra Park piggery!).
Like the old Hornsey Loop, I meander - back to the water works!
The New River Company also extended its Hornsey land holdings in the south of the site for the purpose of building a new sluice house, (used for regulating the flow of water passing Hornsey), and an engine house, for pumping the water to the local consumers.
All this investment rendered the old Hornsey Loop redundant. So, plans were made to take it out of service.
In 1857, the Company let a contract for the works to the river channel. It included work to dig a new straight channel alongside the railway line, to construct the basin, reservoir and filter tanks and to decommission the Hornsey Loop.
As you can imagine, all of this this work represented significant change for Hornsey. It meant the disappearance of a much-loved feature in the Hornsey landscape that had given it such a reputation as a village beauty spot close to London. In its place, what was essentially an industrial site was planned. As much as they might have felt sadness at these intrusive developments, residents were also worried about their water supply – though whether their concerns were chiefly about an increase in price or were simply conservatism is unclear.
In a letter to New River Company HQ in 1861, the New River Company’s new Chief Engineer, James Muir, referred to enquiries made by residents about maintaining parts the old loop after it was cut-off from the New River. Apparently their aim was to use it to store water for their consumption.
Following an explanation of the immediate costs such a course would entail, Muir concluded:
Not only the loss of the present very favourable opportunity for filling in the whole loop, and the chance of a large and useless future expenditure of water (when water is yearly becoming of more value to the Company) make the maintenance of these Ponds an arrangement to be avoided if possible; but the plan is an undesirable one from the effect it will probably have in inducing not a few of the Hornsey residents who obtain water from the Loop, to decline to be “laid-on” to the filtered-water pipes, which (as required by law) you are about to drive for their service.
By continuing to draw from the Loop, these persons will have supply at 4 pence per 1000 gallons. Laid-on to the filtered-water pipes, they would be chargeable with water rents equivalent to a rate of about 20 pence per 1000 gallons.
As it turned out, the decision was taken not to maintain water in the old ‘loop ponds’. What we may judge, by today's standards, to be Muir's rather worrying stance, expressed in a letter to HQ just a few weeks later, suggests that this was probably just as well for Hornsey:
Residents in Hornsey, however, question and complain. The letters of complaint, which they have sent, are herewith laid before you.
Their chief grievance is that the water in the Loop has become stagnant. …. the very stillness of the water (thought to have so quickly made it hurtful) will – by allowing the subsidence of suspended matter in it – give it a greater purity, until, by the advance of the season, the germs of vegetable and animal life which it may hold, are called into greater activity.
As the work of filling in the old loop channel proceeded, the Company offered to sell it, in boundary-sized parcels, to land owners whose land holdings adjoined the river. Most offers seem to have been taken up without hesitation. In some cases, the sale brought about disputes between residents, when owners on both banks wanted to gain title to the thin strip of land on offer.
By the end of 1862, the Hornsey Loop had been taken out of service, filled in and sold off, and the company had a fully-functioning water works at Hornsey. The new works are shown on the 1864 Ordnance Survey Map (below). The original engine house is shown in the southern portion of the site. The New River is represented in its current course and and the site of the new sluice house is indicated by the label 'Pump Ho'.
Fig 12: 1862 Ordnance Survey Map
The map label for the sluice house is confusing. But, when it was first constructed the building did contain a pump. However, as the following passage from an account of 1899 reveals, use of this pump was soon ended:
At Hornsey there is a floating boom and a sluice house across the river. The sluice-gate is 5 feet in width and 8 feet in depth. It is arranged with balance weights and worked by cogged gear...... Formerly water was pumped from this station to Maiden Lane by a three-throw pump, worked by an under-shot water-wheel. The wheel is not now in working order, and the water-power here is not at present used.
Fig 14: Looking north across the basin and new channel for the New River; railway embankment on the right, c 1900
By 1876, a fourth filter tank had been constructed to the south of the central tank, and within twenty-five years, nine filter tanks had been established in a square-plan-form.
The Hornsey Water works in the late Nineteenth Century
By the end of the century, a second engine-house had been built just to the north of the original one, which had been extended. The newer one was called the Hornsey Sluice Engine House, the older one was the Hornsey Engine House.
The Hornsey Sluice Engine-house held a pair of engines which pumped about 2,500,000 gallons of water daily. The steam was generated by three boilers. The Hornsey Engine-house housed four beam engines worked by steam supplied by ten boilers. Together, they pumped treated water to Crouch Hill and Hornsey Lane reservoirs.
Our 1899 narrator explains how the water flowed through the works:
The water from the New River, after passing the Hornsey grate-bridge, passes into the Hornsey basin, a reservoir which has an area of about an acre. From the basin the water is conducted into the reservoir through a 48-inch pipe, guarded by a screw-cock....
...the water is passed then to the filter beds....
...Water is pumped from the filter-beds to Crouch Hill reservoir and to Hornsey Lane reservoir...
....Crouch Hill Reservoir is situated next Mount View Road and Ferme Park Road......These reservoirs are capable of holding 12,000,000 gallons. They are used for the supply of Islington, of Hornsey, and of part of the City.
To maximise its supply of water, like the other water companies, the New River Company also exploited underlying chalk aquifers and deep wells wherever it could. At Hornsey, in 1887, they sank a 215 foot well – the Campsbourne Well. The water was brought up by a pump sited in the adjacent well pumping house (that still stands today).
By this time, all the wood and ironwork required on the river was carried out by the Company's own staff, and under the supervision of their own engineers. So, next to well pumping house was a large carpenters' shop and a well-fitted blacksmiths' shop.
Other buildings had been erected nearby. Between the Hornsey Sluice engine-house and the Hornsey engine-house, stood a bathroom. Providing workers with hot and cold water, it showed relatively advanced thinking on staff welfare for this period.
At the front of the site, close to Hornsey High Street, a pair of semi-detached cottages were built in about 1870: Landford Cottage* to the west and River Cottage to the east. Landford was apparently intended for the site’s chief engineer. However, the 1871 census shows that it was occupied by an accountant for the Company, one Courtney Page, along with his wife Louisa and their family. The Pages were still there in 1881. Next door, in River Cottage, were Cornwall-born couple James and Eliza Jose. He was described as engineer for the New River Company. By 1901, River Cottage was occupied by Thomas Shaw and his wife Ann. Shaw was described in that year’s census as 'Engine driver of stationary engine at water works'. In the same year, Louisa Page was still in Landford Cottage. She was recorded as a widow, living with her sons Hough, a Hydraulic Engineer, and George, a Clerk, both working for the New River Company.
Just to the east of the cottages was the gate keeper’s cottage. In 1881 it was occupied by John Goddard and his wife Sarah with their family. In the north west of the site, on Cross Lane, was Moselle Cottage, built as the Foreman’s residence.
Fig 20: Moselle cottage on Cross Lane, (Photograph 1932).
Fig. 21: Probably Reservoir Cottages, 1932. This photo came labelled as '"Sluice Cottages'", but I was unable to find any trace of a building of that name. The descendants of one the occupants of the cottages in the late nineteenth century posted a photo of their family in Reservoir Cottage, Hornsey. A short exchange and a quick bit of research has pinned the pair of semi-detached cottages down to behind Myddleton Road, on a service road , facing filter bed number 6 (see Fig. 23).
Fig. 22: The Cook family in the garden of Reservoir Cottages, c1900. Benjamin Cook (far right bak row) was described in the census if 1901 as "Labourer New River Company. To his immediate left is hie wife, Sarah Cook and to her right, Ada Cook. Thanks to Cook descendant Christine James for permission to use the photo.
To the east of the water works site, the railway lines had been expanded. During the construction works, an additional track had been laid extending to the Works' coal store. The store was linked to the pumping house via a tram track across the New River (shown in Fig 16, above).
Residents' concerns with the cost of water had continued. Whilst once, they had considered some degree of independence from the New River Company's supply to be the solution, by the end of the century, they were taking their grievances to the court of public opinion and to their local representatives.
The nationwide concerns about water quality that had led to the Metropolis Act in the middle of the century, also rumbled on. Local reports like the one below just after the turn of the century were all too common.
Twentieth Century – End of the Private Water Company
During the course of a series of royal commissions that had been running since 1827, set against the backdrop of continuing supply quality problems, the Metropolitan Water Bill brought Greater London's water supply into public hands under an entirely new body, the Metropolitan Water Board (MWB).
The Board compulsorily acquired nine private water companies, including the New River Company along with the water undertakings of Tottenham and Enfield Urban District Councils.
In the same year that the MWB was founded, a new pump house was built at Hornsey, closer to the High Street, in the south west of the site. The Ordnance Survey Map of 1955 indicates that, other than this, the major change to the site during the first half of the Twentieth Century was the construction of a contact tank in the western portion (see Fig 29 below). This one and a quarter million-gallon capacity tank was used for chlorination treatment.
Otherwise, the overall shape of the site, including the major buildings remained intact till towards the end of the Twentieth century. Although, by this point, the New River was outmoded by the construction of the London Ring Main, it continued in operation to provide a back-up supply when needed. The filter-beds fell out of use and were emptied. Finally, the Hornsey and Hornsey Sluice engine houses were demolished, I believe just before the turn of the century.
What Remains Today
Although key buildings have been lost, the Hornsey Water Works site is deemed important in terms of the archaeology and landscape of the New River, as it is the only surviving New River treatment works.
A significant number of buildings still survive:
* incorrectly shown as Langham Cottage on the 1895 OS Map
Photos Showing points of Interest Nearby
All the above is sourced from original research, mainly using primary documentation.
A very thorough and interesting account Hugh. On minor point. It is of course the case that people near the New River could have got their water from it but I don't think that the river meandered in order to supply them. The river originally closely followed the 100 foot contour so that it deviated whenever it came to a side stream - up one side of the valley and down the other. Subsequently most of the deviations have been by-passed with embankments and aqueducts across the mouths of the tributaries. There was also a deviation around a ridge at Wood Green by-passed by a tunnel.
Thanks Richard. That's helpful feedback. This point did get rather lost in my original. I've now made an edit to better reflect Colthurst's original design.
A fantastic piece. Thoroughly enjoyed reading it and looking at the amazing photographs.
Thank you Hugh.
Missed this when first posted - thanks to Parkside Malvern for reposting on Twitter. A great article with some wonderful photos Hugh.
I have lived very near the Hornsey Reservoirs all my life and my mum's family back into the 1800s (on the Campsbourne estate where i still live).
I clearly remember the buildings mentioned and the many filled reservoirs with many waterbirds, sadly mostly gone now. More recently the building of the Moselle housing estate, New River Village and the Smithfield Square development have all but obliterated much of the land. The addition of the hideous chemical treatment plant on the west side of the reservoirs site was an unwelcome addition in the 1980s (i think).
Sugden - a name i well recall as a large family of that name lived in the area north of Hornsey High Street and children also attended Campsbourne school in the 1950s and 60s. They had obviously come down in the world by then!
My aunt lived on the east side of Myddleton Road, near High Street into the 1960s (when slum clearance replaced the road with new council houses and flats). Her house backed onto the dustyard and the huge dust destructor chimney was a major landmark.
In the 1960s when we moved to the new Campsfield Road (the former northern half of Myddleton Road) which links to the footpath (Penstock Path) through the reservoirs site, the abundance of standing water attracted not just birds but clouds of gnats which made a walk to Wood Green a nightmare. However they attracted swifts/swallow/bats etc to the top of my road as food. We regularly had bats and owls flying at night on the edge of the reservoirs and Ally Pally's Newland Fields.
Pigs - my aunt, born 1910 and my mum, born 1924, both told of largish runs of pig pens running from Newland Road (from the Dinosaurs Playgroup) alongside the reservoirs for many years. in the 1970s when the fields were opened to the public (they had been locked and used as the school playing fields prior to that) you could still see remnants of the pig pens.
Thank you for this wonderful article.
Thanks for those personal memories, Lesley.
The recall by the generation before you about the last piggy remnants of Hornsey's rural heritage reminds us how close that past still is.
A terrific read with a huge amount of research behind it, well done! As someone who is interested in our industrial heritage, this ought to be published as a booklet perhaps?
Thanks, Andy. As to publishing it as a booklet, maybe. Even in this internet age, I think publishing something physically still counts for more than publishing it on the internet. But my understanding of publishing, even self-publishing is that it's a lot of faffing around. That's why I say, maybe.
I'd like to add my thanks for this impressive research. The photo in fig.15 brings a level of detail I've never seen.
The map (available from Old Maps) showing the GNR 'in progress' (1850) but probably recording features a bit earlier shows the lane in the photo bisected by the old course of the new river: that's the first time I've seen anything like this. The map even suggests that the lane may have continued in an arc to rejoin Turnpike (Tottenham) Lane somewhere around Westpoint (Goulding Court), before the railway split the fields. The photo also shows the pre railway contours - I imagine the gradient of the lane must have been similar to the modern day New River Avenue at the bottom Cross Lane (where the change is quite dramatic). The lower level, within c.1m of Western Road/Hornsey Park Road must have been the same level as Brick Place - so the site is buried some 5m below the modern ground level. On which subject, could it be possible that the feature at the western edge of the railway embankment in the map is the moat of Brick Place. The location relative to the parish boundary suggests not and yet it is strikingly similar in scale and orientation. Just a thought.
Added Fig.s 21 & 22. Thank you to Christine James for permission to use the second photo.