The Early Days of Running Water

A chance remark on Twitter left me thinking about the early days of water supply in Leeds. In my second novel set in the city, Cold Cruel Winter, I have a scene set in the pumping station by below Leeds Bridge (as it’s shown in the 1725 Cossens map).

Some houses in Leeds – the wealthier ones, obviously, received running water from the end of the 17th century. Engineers George Sorocold and Henry Gilbert undertook work todrawn water from the river Aire and pump it through a network of pipes to a reservoir on Wade Lane, above St. John’s church. From there pipes were laid to the houses of subscribers (there’s also mention of hydrants for fire engines; how true this is, I’m not sure). However, although they might have had running water, the ways of hot water on tap were still a long way off.

A water wheel, it would seem, was attached to the bridge (the third span, evidently), and, once lead pipe had been laid under the streets, a total of 2.5 kilometres, or a little over a mile, it reach the reservoir or cistern. Historian Ralph Thoresby recalled the pipe being laid under Kirkgate. The process began in 1694, with Sorocold, an engineer who’d work in Derby, among other places, evidently in charge of th4e project; certainly it’s his name that’s most associated with it.

The lead pipes for pushing the water, which was pumped by early steam engines through the system, were of lead, 75mm in diameter, and possibly some were bored trunks from elm trees, which were commonly used for pipes in the early days of water and sewage.

It’s perhaps surprising that the rich folk of Leeds had running water so early, one of the first cities in England to offer this. But it was a subscriber service, and likely not cheap. In a place with a population of between 6-7,000, only a few would have been able to afford it so it might well have been a while before there was a good return on investment. But within 60 years there was a need for a new pumping works, and a century after the system was built, three new cisterns were added, close to where Albion St. stands today – by then Leeds had around 17,000 residents and was, to some degree, fat off the wool trade.

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