The mid-Victorian era saw a rapid rise in the population in Reading and this was reflected in a parallel growth in housing and in business. This meant there was a need for a supply of water as well as a need for the disposal of sewage. The Public Health Act of 1848 resulted in municipal waterworks being established and this included the Bath Road Reservoir.
Bath Road Water Tower (Jo Alexander-Jones)
In 1850 the Reading Union Water Company applied to Parliament for permission to construct works on the River Kennet to abstract water, so that eventually every house in Reading would be able to have a constant supply of clean water. To provide an effective water system there needs to be sufficient water that can be supplied at a guaranteed water pressure. The system needs a source of water, a storage reservoir, a water tower for storage and to increase the pressure and a pumping station which refills the tower from the ground level reservoir. A tower’s height measurement is given as TWL (top water level) and BWL (bottom water level). Usually the distance between the two is approximately 10 feet. The overall height varies between 100 feet and 200 feet.
The new waterworks had a reservoir with slow sand filters at the Bath Road site supplied by a pumping station at Southcote Mill, then known as Southcote Water Works, on the Kennet and Avon canal,. The unfiltered river water was pumped to the open reservoir at Bath Road, allowed to settle before being passed through sand filters. The filtered water was then pumped to a filtered water well for eventual supply via iron pipes to the users by gravity pressure. The completion of the waterworks in 1852 marked the date when Reading was first provided with a filtered water supply.
Bath Road Water Works Map courtesy of Thames Valley Archaeological Services
As a result of the 1868 Reading Local Board Waterworks Act the Corporation of Reading acquired the waterworks and circa 1870 the Corporation built the brick water tower. At the same time a pumping station was built on the site. This pumping house worked with the Southcote pumping station until the later closed in the 1890s having been superseded by the superior pumping works at Fobney Lock. The map above shows the site’s layout with the reservoir and three filter beds, plus the water tower labelled as ‘Tank’ and the pumping house shown just above the MP – mile post notification at the bottom of the map. By the early 1930s the western-most filter beds had been removed. Then by 1960 reservoir is shown as not being in use and the filter beds had been reduced to one located at the centre of the site.
The filtration beds and reservoirs were located within an earthen bund, accessed by a set of steps from the south central part of the site. The steps were of brick construction overlaid by a stone slab and held together by cement mortar. The filtration beds were at the southernmost end of the bund and consisted of a covered circular tank. Around the edges were various cast iron inlet and outlet pipes. A set of iron ladder rungs were laid into the wall on the southern side for access. To the north of the main tank was a further small, brick built, covered tank. Behind the filtration beds was the rectangular, covered reservoir. Architectural plans suggest that the reservoir had approximately 45° sloping sides and a flat base and the proposed cover was constructed of iron, supported on columns and girders. In 1939 a new reinforced concrete reservoir was constructed to replace the front reservoir which was brick and had a corrugated iron roof.
Bath Road Water Tower (Jo Alexander-Jones)
Architecturally, the water tower is of the high Victorian design with polychromatic red and blue brickwork. This magnificent ornate brick structure had the relatively mundane role of supporting the high-level cast iron storage tank that held about 112,000 gallons of water. As ever the Victorians built an ‘industrial palace’ for this civic utility supply. This tank remained operational until the 1970s and is now Grade II listed.
Water Tower Internal Layout courtesy of Thames Valley Archaeological Services
Internally the tower was divided into six equal sized rooms. Each room originally had individual access from the north or south sides and four of the rooms had further access from the east and west sides. The walls were of plain brick with a horizontal line of stone blocks which was where the water tank sat. The floor treatment varied from room to room with concrete floors found in rooms 1, 4 and 5, flagstone floors found in rooms 3 and 6 and a wooden floor in room 2. Within room 2 were the stairs leading up to the tank at the top of the tower.
Water Tower Internal View courtesy of Thames Valley Archaeological Services
Water Tower Roof courtesy of Thames Valley Archaeological Services
The pumping station is still in place. It originally housed two 8-horsepower vertical steam engines, which were replaced in 1894 by two large steam engines, with an even larger one being added in 1902. The two smaller engines were again replaced in 1927 this time by three electric pumps and a further diesel pump, presumably replacing the larger steam pump, was installed in 1931.
Bath Road Pumping House (Jo Alexander-Jones)
The onsite pumping station is built of red brick and has slate pitched roofs. There are Dutch gables on the south and east elevations. Over time the building was subjected to alteration and extension and the original chimney was removed. Whilst it is not itself listed it can claim importance as a functional and physical relationship with the adjacent listed waterworks buildings and structures.
Pumping House interior courtesy of Thames Valley Archaeological Services
Internally the building was sub-divided into seven rooms. Entrance was gained through a pair of double doors in the south façade into room 7. The floor was of concrete and the ceiling was timber clad. Room 8 was accessed via a set of steps up to the raised metal floor. Room 9 was a large double height room with two rows of skylights in the roof, which was supported by metal trusses. The room housed a hoist mechanism that could track along the length of the building, built by Appleby Frodingham steel company. The I-beam across the room was built by Herbert Morris of Loughborough, crane manufacturers.
Facing the Bath Road there is a very attractive continuous limestone boundary wall, with cast iron railings set in at intervals extending for the entire frontage of the site. The railings have decorative foliate bud finials and scrolled backstays. The boundary wall and railings are of typically mid-Victorian style and clearly date to the time of the establishment of the site. Sadly they were ‘de-listed’ in 1995.
In 1996 and 2007 Thames Water had proposed residential development on the site, but neither was successful. Finally, in 2014 the site was redeveloped and the site now comprises a series of residential properties with the water tower and the pump house being made into apartments. The water tower remains listed.
Bibliography and Sources:
- Berkshire Archaeology: Ancillary buildings – Bath Road Reservoirs, Bath Road (MRM17561)
- Berkshire Archaeology: Limestone boundary wall and cast iron railings, the waterworks site, Bath Road (MRM16232)
- Berkshire Archaeology: Reading Water Works – Bath Road (MRM17563)
- Berkshire Archaeology: Reservoirs and filter beds – Bath Road Reservoirs, Bath Road (MRM17562)
- Berkshire Archaeology: Station supervisor’s house, the waterworks site, Bath Road (MRM16231)
- Berkshire Archaeology: Victorian pump house, the waterworks site, Bath Road (MRM16230)
- Berkshire Archaeology: Water Tower, Bath Road (MRM15888)
- BIAG News No 21 Autumn 2009 – A Layman’s Potted History of the Bath Road Reservoir – Graham Grifiths
- Historic England Listing – Water Tower, Bath Road (1113397)
- Southcote Mill Website
- Thames Valley Archaeological Services Bath Road Reservoirs, Reading, Berkshire: Building Record (2014)