Thirlmere’s 106 years of supplying water to Manchester

Date: Saturday 10th June 2000

IT takes precisely 27 hours for water to travel from the reservoir at Thirlmere into the heart of Manchester which, just as it was in the days when the huge water pipeline was opened 106 years ago, is rather longer than it takes to do the same journey by road.

So who can blame the chairman of Manchester waterworks committee for the rather childish game of turning on the tap to allow the first water out of the reservoir at one end … and then scurrying home in time to see the self-same water gushing from a fountain in Albert Square next day?

It was on 12th October, 1894, that Alderman Sir John James Harwood, one of the most far-sighted public servants Manchester has ever known, formally opened the reservoir which has ever since been a lifeline for his city.

But it was much earlier than that, on 24th June, 1875, that the real story of this extraordinary water supply began. It was then that the waterworks committee’s engineer, John Frederic Bateman, left it in no doubt that if it wanted more water to augment the critically short supplies from more local reservoirs, Manchester would have to look north to the Lake District.

At that time Manchester’s water was coming from the great series of reservoirs at Longdendale, high in the Pennines 18 miles east of the city, but it was clear that these reservoirs — which had supplied 25.5 million gallons of water every day since they were opened in 1851 —would soon be inadequate. Bateman reckoned supplies would last only another nine years which, he said, gave the Manchester waterworks committee rather less than that to come up with an alternative. His advice was simple: Look north.

Bateman liked the idea of taking water from Ullswater and Haweswater. The water was pure, the supply inexhaustible and, perhaps most important, it was the cheapest option.

A conduit could take 25 million gallons a day from Haweswater, and then go on — with another 55 million gallons from Ullswater — through an 8.5 mile tunnel 1,000ft below the summit of Kirkstone Pass and down through the Lake District via Troutbeck and Staveley to Chorley 79 miles away.


The pipeline could be split at Chorley to take some water to Manchester and some to Liverpool. Dams would be needed to raise the water level in Haweswater by 25ft, and in Ullswater by 7ft, but the whole thing was a pretty simple idea and would cost no more than £2.2 million, Bateman said.

He urged the committee to make up its mind quickly — because if it didn’t the people of Newcastle-upon-Tyne or West Yorkshire could get in first and claim the water for themselves. In 1875 the Manchester committee visited Ullswater, in a mission Sir John Harwood later described as “generally arduous and sometimes dangerous”. He might also have added “farcical”.

The committee arrived at Ullswater at around noon and, it seems, almost immediately rejected Bateman’s proposal on the grounds that there was a danger of pollution from the area’s lead mines, and that too many expensive houses around the lakeside would be flooded if the water level was raised to the required level.

“We were much struck with the quality and important character of the residential property on its banks, and the enormous cost that would have to be incurred by raising the lake should this property be submerged or injured in any way,” Sir John reported.

The committee, made up of men ill-equipped either physically or mentally for a hard day on the Cumbrian fells, decided to go back to their hotel in Keswick via Helvellyn, one of the highest and toughest mountains in the country.


They wanted, they said, to see for themselves the mountains which formed the east watershed of Thirlmere and the west watershed of Ullswater. It was a journey that took all of 10 hours — and one in which two of them became so tired they had to ride on a packhorse and one got stuck in a peat bog — before they staggered late at night into a pub on the shores of Thirlmere.

Afterwards Bateman, spurred by the committee’s negative comments about Ullswater, looked again at his idea. On 22nd June, 1876, he reported to the committee that, apart from Ullswater and Haweswater, only one other lake was high enough to supply Manchester with water without a need for pumping.

Thirlmere, he said, was 56ft higher than Ullswater and, thanks to the fact that it received 30 per cent. more rainfall even than Haweswater, could be relied upon to produce a never-ending supply.

The lake would need to be raised by 35ft, with a dam at one end, and an aqueduct would have to be built through “rough and ragged” country, but as an engineering project it would present no difficulty, he said.

A three-mile tunnel, a mere 270ft below Dunmail Raise, would be needed, but the Thirlmere option had the benefit of being able to provide a convenient supply to the “good houses” above Grasmere, Rydal Water and Windermere.

Better than that, it would cost £170,000 less than the Ullswater scheme and could be completed in five years rather than seven.

Members of the Manchester waterworks committee made up their minds very quickly. On 2nd August, 1876, they decided to buy the necessary land.But they had reckoned without Thomas Stanger Leathes, Lord of Manor of Legburthwaite and a member of an old county family which had owned the Thirlmere estate for 300 years. He was greatly opposed to the scheme and would not allow the committee access to his estate or give permission for anybody to go over his land to see the lake.


The committee had to wait for old Thomas to die, whereupon they were able to buy the estate from his son, George, who had spent 20 years in Australia and didn’t have much sentiment for the family home.

As a consequence of the authority acquiring the valley, Alderman John Grave, as committee chairman, became Lord of the Manor of Legburthwaite and Wythburn, a position he held quite cheerfully — right down to fulfilling his obligations to keep a stallion, a bull and a boar for the common use of his tenants.

Manchester City Council passed the plan by 43 votes to one on 4th July, 1877, and the necessary Bill was presented to the House of Commons in December in the same year. In response, landowners set up the Thirlmere Defence Association, led (until the committee agreed to buy all his land) by John Harward, owner of the Hollens estate at Grasmere, who, it seems, was more concerned about the disturbance he would suffer while the aqueduct was being constructed.

The association insisted: “The needless introduction of engineering works on a large scale into the Lake District is a thing much to be deprecated.

“Few people whose taste is not utterly uneducated will share the confidence of the corporation in their power to enhance the loveliness of the beauties of the Thirlmere valley.”

The Bill got its second reading in Parliament on 12th February, 1878, and was duly referred to a select committee. Sir John Harwood and two councillors, meanwhile, went to the Lake District to confront their opponents.

At a meeting with local residents in Windermere, they explained how much money would be brought into the area during construction. It would, they said, bring extra employment and an increase in trade for shopkeepers — whereupon the meeting took a vote in favour of the project.

After hearing a similar speech at a meeting in Ambleside, the secretary of the defence association said he realised he had totally misunderstood the scheme and would have no more to do with the people who opposed it. At a meeting in Grasmere people voted in favour of it after being told that farmers would get more for milk and butter, and butchers more for meat.

The Bill passed its third reading in the Commons and, as it made its way to the House of Lords, the Bishop of Manchester decided to go to see for himself.

“If Thirlmere had been made by the Almighty expressly to supply the densely-populated district of Manchester with pure water, it could not have been more exquisitely designed for the purpose,” he concluded.

The Bill got Royal Assent on 23rd May, 1879, but, because the urgent need for the reservoir was lost when Manchester was hit by financial depression, construction work did not start for another six years.

Squads of workmen were brought into the area, living either as guests in local farms or in huts at Legburthwaite, Armboth and Wythburn. A school, set up at Legburthwaite to give the navvies’ children something to do instead of wandering dangerously over the fells, became a soup kitchen when work was suspended through frost and heavy snow.

On 22nd August, 1890, Sir John James Harwood laid the foundation stone for the embankment which was to become the dam at the north end of the lake. Four years later, on 12th October, 1894, Sir John and Alderman Sir Anthony Marshall, Lord Mayor of Manchester, attended the formal opening ceremony in front of a huge crowd of people from the Thirlmere valley.


Sir John told them: “You who dwell in the home of poets among the Cumberland hills are justly proud of these lovely dales and peaceful lakes. You imagined that we were about to transform all that delighted you into the semblance of a mill dam, and you fought as stoutly as Englishmen always fight.

“Well, have you seen in your journey around the lake any resemblance to a mill dam? Is their anything hideous in the handsome embankment we have formed?

“Is there one of you who thinks that jaded men and women, who seek restoration to health and strength in the quiet contemplation of the unspeakable beauties of nature, will be deterred from seeking all they need in this sequestered region because we have applied this watershed to the purposes of civilisation? No. A thousand times no.”

Sir John turned the wheel which let water into the aqueduct for the first time and the next day, back in Manchester, he turned the water on in a temporary fountain in a packed Albert Square.

The water had come precisely 94 miles and 1,642 yards, through 45 miles of pipes, 14.125 miles of tunnels and 36.75 miles of covered channels cut in the rock — all falling, without the need of a single pump, at a steady 20 inches per mile all the way to Manchester.