Manuscripts and Special Collections

What water records are used for

Because of their wide range and continuity, records of the water companies have enormous research and study potential. The University holds the most extensive collection of water records in the East Midlands region, providing a critical mass of evidence about a subject area of national contemporary as well as historical significance. Though many of the collections have common features, their inherent variety makes generalisation difficult. However, they can be a rich source of geographical, topographical, industrial, agricultural, economic, social, political and cultural information. Some of the major topics touched on by water collections at the University of Nottingham are given below.


Local and Community History

The Trent River Authority covered a specific geographic location in the midlands of England. Its activities impinged on waterside areas in many ways, and should be considered in any histories of the parishes involved. Annual reports, minute books and letter books record the Authority's business chronologically. Subject files, plans and photographs documenting the work of the Authority can also shed light on local areas and even individual properties, although in most cases files are not described in sufficient detail to enable searching for specific street names.

The lifespan of sites and structures of local interest can be traced over the decades by comparing material from across the various collections. For instance, there are contract drawings dated 1903-1905 of Wilford Suspension Bridge in Nottingham within the papers of hydrologist H.R. Potter, photographs from the bridge's construction in 1906 amongst the records of the City of Nottingham Water Department, photographs of subsequent work carried out in the 1950s on the arches of the bridge as part of the Trent River Board's improvements to the embankment for the Flood Protection Scheme, and Severn Trent Water Authority tenders and drawings for work carried out in 1983 to restore the bridge and replace the water mains under the timber deck footway. 

Work on the Victoria Embankment and Wilford Suspension Bridge arches, 1951 (RE/DOP/H/50/27)
Work on the Victoria Embankment and Wilford Suspension Bridge arches, 1951 (RE/DOP/H/50/27) 


The Hatfield Chase Corporation and the Brigg Court of Lincolnshire Commissioners of Sewers covered specific areas on the borders of Lincolnshire, Yorkshire and Nottinghamshire. Their minute books and orders record their business chronologically. Account books, rentals, lists of Participants and owners of unscotted land, conveyances and leases all provide evidence of landholding. Indeed, just about every document in these collections relates to the local area in some way!

Likewise, the activities of the Trent Navigation Company in building new cuts, locks and towpaths are important sources for the history of local communities. The economy of each area was affected by local landowners negotiating with the Company over access, and by the growth of river and canal-side businesses such as boatyards and inns. This was followed in many cases by economic decline when the railways began to take away much of the canals' trade.

One interesting document which provides evidence for a community which no longer exists is a mid-eighteenth manuscript account by George Stovin of the drainage of Hatfield Chase, with extracts from original documents (HCC 9111). Many Dutch people came to work on the Hatfield Chase drainage scheme. The area was also settled by French and Walloon protestant refugees (Huguenots), who were persecuted in France and modern-day Belgium for their religious beliefs. The manuscript account includes extracts from the registers of the Huguenot chapel at Sandtoft, Lincolnshire, 1643-1685, the originals of which have subsequently been lost. The last minister there died in 1681. 

Top part of the Sandtoft register 

Detail from the Sandtoft register, pp 36-366 (HCC 9011/1)




Topography and Environmental Management

The earliest records relating to changing water landscape come from the Hatfield Chase Corporation papers. The drainage schemes begun in 1626 radically altered the topography of the Level of Hatfield Chase. Maps and plans show the location of drains and provide evidence for changes over time. The collection includes records of water levels. These, plus the minutes, correspondence and reports, provide evidence about floods in the area, and the success or otherwise of the various drainage schemes.

The Brigg Court of Lincolnshire Commissioners of Sewers also aimed to prevent flooding and facilitate good drainage of the lands under its authority. Maps and plans show the location of drains and pumping machinery, and minutes and correspondence can also be used to analyze the work of the Court over time.

Photograph showing Cavendish Bridge destroyed after flooding in 1947 in Shardlow, Derbyshire 

Cavendish Bridge destroyed after flooding, Shardlow, Derbyshire, 1947 (RE/DOP/H42/90)



The Trent River Authority's work included drainage schemes to keep water levels steady (such as the pumping engines inherited from the Hatfield Chase Corporation in 1941), and the construction of capital building works such as the Nottingham Flood Prevention Scheme. Maps and plans, plus minutes, correspondence and reports, are all useful for researching these themes.

The series of photographs from the engineer's department (RE/DOP) and files within the papers of the Authority's hydrologist, H.R. Potter (HRP), show the efforts taken to collect evidence of the cause and effect of the devastating floods which periodically occurred, and document the work of the Authority in trying to combat them. Data collected by the Water Resources Section of the Authority on rainfall, evaporation and river levels, as part of their Hydrometric Scheme, along with published summaries in the annual reports, provide information on the changing environmental conditions in the catchment area.

Packet of material relating to Nottingham floods in 1960, collected by H.R. Potter (HRP/F/1/3/13)
Packet of material relating to Nottingham floods in 1960, collected by H.R. Potter (HRP/F/1/3/13) 


Nowadays, most traffic on rivers and canals is connected with leisure activities, but traces of industrial heritage remain. Maps, plans, surveys and reports in the records of the Trent Navigation Company help to explain the context of the bridges, locks and warehouses which can still be seen along river and canal routes.


Engineering History

The draining of the Level of Hatfield Chase was an enormous and expensive undertaking. The Hatfield Chase Corporation collection (HCC) contains many documents detailing how the works were carried out and maintained, which students of such schemes will find extremely useful. There are plans, surveys and reports, and many papers relating to the steam pumping engines which were set up in the nineteenth century. Similar records exist for the Brigg Court of Lincolnshire Commissioners of Sewers.

Plans, surveys and reports in the Trent Navigation Company (RtN) collection provide details about how improvement works were carried out, and their cost. There are many eighteenth and early-nineteenth century letters and reports written by the Company Engineer William Jessop, who also worked on many other canal projects in the Midlands. Some letters of application from people responding to job advertisements for engineers and toll collectors give an idea of the kind of personnel involved in river and canal work.

The papers of the Derwent Valley Water Board (DVW) reveal the sheer scale of major engineering infrastructure work constructing dams, creating reservoirs, building aqueducts and laying pipes to supply growing cities with water from the Upper Derwent Valley. Plans of Birchinlee Village, the temporary 'tin town' built to house the workers (and their families) involved in the construction of the Derwent and Howden Dams, give an insight into the social conditions for the workforce behind these major engineering efforts.

The records of the City of Nottingham Water Department (R/HR) will be useful primarily for historians of engineering, waterworks and sanitary provision. The Engineers' Reports, which survive in a series from 1890 to 1974, and the minutes of the Water Committee which run from 1890 to 1962, provide a narrative account of developments over the period during which a large number of pumping stations were constructed and modern sewage treatment began.

Photograph showing the interior of Boughton Pumping Station, early 20th century  

Interior of Boughton Pumping Station, early 20th century (R/HR/1/8/1/271) 



The works carried out by the Trent River Authority in the twentieth century were also complex and expensive. Printed reports, plans, blueprints, surveys and photographs detail the complex work involved in projects such as flood prevention and warning schemes, or the efforts taken to secure sufficient water supply to meet estimated future demand. 


Agricultural and Economic History

The purpose of draining the Level of Hatfield Chase was to reclaim pieces of land, which could then be used for agricultural purposes. The effect on the land of draining, flooding, warping and so on are all recorded in the records of the Court of Sewers and the Corporation (HCC). 

Plan of Hatfiekd Chase 1776 

Detail from a plan of Hatfield Chase, 1776 (HCC 9046)


Improvements in inland navigation were closely connected with developments now known as the Industrial Revolution. Better navigation was necessary in order to transport raw materials such as coal to the manufacturing towns, and finished industrial products needed to be carried around the country to be sold. The canals were a result of industrial expansion, and also a stimulus to it. Papers from the Trent Navigation Company (RtN) such as accounts, correspondence and reports provide evidence about the company's economic fortunes, and the changes which occurred over time.

The records of the Stoke Bardolph and Bulcote Model Farms (RSB) will be useful primarily for agricultural and business historians, with ledgers detailing productivity and crop types, spanning a period which saw the use of animals in transportation and farm work being gradually replaced with motor vehicles and machinery.

Trent River Authority files containing correspondence with small companies concerning licensing and abstraction show fluctuations in use and demand, helping to build a picture of the health and success of local industries. 


Family History

Researchers trying to find out more about ancestors who lived in the areas covered by the Hatfield Chase Corporation or the Brigg Court of Sewers may well find relevant documents in the collections. There are deeds, leases, rentals and lists of names of owners and tenants in the Hatfield Chase collection (HCC), and rate books, accounts and lists naming occupiers of properties assessed for the Brigg Court of Sewers (Br).

It might also be possible to find records of presentments for failing to maintain drains; or ancestors might have signed a petition asking for new drains, or been issued with a warrant of distress for failing to pay a scot or rate. The collections also include records relating to people who worked for the organizations as engineers, surveyors or labourers.  

Order of the Court of Sewers 1826  

Detail from the Order of the Court of Sewers sitting at Epworth, 1826 (HCC 6221/2), listing jurors and the tenant of land charged with repairs


Wage records in the Stoke Bardolph and Bulcote Model Farm collection (RSB) may be interesting for family historians trying to find out more about relatives employed at the farms.

Researchers trying to find out more about people who worked as engineers, surveyors, labourers or administrators for the Trent River Authority or its predecessors should contact Manuscripts and Special Collections for further advice, as recent personnel records can be affected by Data Protection legislation. Numerous photographs recording the work the Trent River Authority, Severn Trent Water Authority and Severn Trent Water give an insight into the changing working conditions of male and female staff and contractors employed by the organisations, though individuals are not normally identified.


Water supply and health

Nottingham was one of the towns which led the way in the provision of clean water, pumped under constant pressure, to yards and private houses. This was started in the 1830s by the engineer Thomas Hawksley, but unfortunately the records of the Trent Waterworks Company do not appear to have survived to shed more light on this achievement. Most sources for the initial provision of piped water and sewerage systems in Nottingham are to be found in contemporary newspapers and reports, many of which are held at the Local Studies Library on Angel Row in Nottingham.

The records of the City of Nottingham Water Department (R/HR) include Engineers' Reports, which survive in a series from 1890 to 1974, the minutes of the Water Committee from 1890 to 1962, and a series of plans and photographs. These will be useful for students of twentieth-century water engineering developments.

Files within the papers of Severn Trent Water (RST) document more recent efforts to meet growing demand for water through the construction of new borehole pumping stations, advances in the chemical treatment of water, and the adoption of practices such as the blending of water from different sources to improve drinking water quality. 


Photograph of the Bestwood Pumping Station, early 20th century (R/HR/1/8/1/5)




Business History

Students of business history will find the records of the various water organisations provide a lengthy time span for tracing changes in business practices. It is interesting to note the differences in styles of internal communication over the decades, from the brief and functional correspondence between staff in the 1930s to the informality of the staff newspapers of the 1970s and 1980s. The water industry had to cope with a large number of changes to infrastructure and areas of responsibility, imposed by various Acts of Parliament. The records give some insight into how these organisations coped with frequent reorganisation, working hard to ensure continuity of supply and service.

Front cover of 'Stream' newspaper for Severn-Trent and East Worcestershire Waterworks Company employees, April 1980 (RWA/Pr/1/11)
Front cover of 'Stream' newspaper for Severn-Trent and East Worcestershire Waterworks Company employees, April 1980 (RWA/Pr/1/11) 


Ephemera and annual reports show the changing styles of engagement with the consumer, and collections of newspaper cuttings reveal the attitudes of the public towards water companies - particularly in times of severe weather conditions.



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Manuscripts and Special Collections

Kings Meadow Campus
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Nottingham, NG7 2NR

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