Manuscripts and Special Collections

Thomas Hawksley (1807-1893)

Image of Hawksley

Hawksley was the son of a worsted manufacturer in Arnold. In 1800 his father used the steam engine at his mill to grind corn, which he then handed over to the Corporation to be sold to the poor of Nottingham at reduced prices. The father had given the townspeople bread; his son gave them a constant supply of water.

Hawksley was educated at Nottingham Grammar School and then apprenticed to a firm of architects and engineer, in which he soon became a partner. In 1830, when he was only 23, Hawksley undertook the construction for the Trent Waterworks Company of a new pumping station adjoining Trent Bridge. (see Photographs 1-2)

Water was obtained from the River Trent by filtration through natural beds of sand and gravel and pumped by a cylinder steam engine through a 15 inch main to a reservoir on Park Row near the General Hospital. In 1832 Hawksley personally turned on the tap which supplied water under pressure twenty four hours a day to the streets, courts and alleyways, so that at any hour the housewives of Nottingham could fill their pails at the tap in the yard.

Hawksley did not invent the principle of permanent supply under pressure, but he was the first engineer to apply it to the very real problem of supplying a large industrial town. According to the historian J.D. Chambers, in the Nottingham Journal of 30 June 1949, 'His contribution lay in the ingenuity which he applied to overcoming the problems of plumbing . . . and above all, in the patience he brought to bear on the still more intractable problem of persuading plumbers to carry out his instructions'.

Nottingham was the first of more than 30 British towns (and several abroad including Bombay) to benefit from Hawksley's genius, which received greater recognition from local authorities and from foreign rulers than it has from British historians. Yet he was the first civil engineer to apply his talents almost exclusively to the enormous problems of urban living in an increasingly industrial society. His grasp of these problems and the versatility of his mind are illustrated in his replies to the commissioners who in 1844 enquired into 'The State of Large Towns' (see Document 1), but according to his biographer, T.H. Beare, in the Dictionary of National Biography published in 1901, 'His fame as a civil engineer will in a great measure rest on the many extensive schemes for supplying water to large cities for which he was responsible'.

Hawksley was one of the people examined by the Royal Commissioners for Inquiring into the State of Large Towns and Populous Districts (1844-1845). Hawksley explained how his system of constant supply could be adapted for hosing streets, for fire-plugs and engines, for public baths and wash-houses, and for the cultivation of market gardens. He advised the commissioners too on the use of sewage as liquid manure, on the provision of gas and on the general organisation of such public services. His clear grasp of Nottingham's peculiar problems is illustrated by his attitude to enclosure and to mortality.

He was an ardent champion of enclosure, and he exposed the selfish motives of the owners of slum property who resisted the enclosure of common lands with remarks such as 'If those lands are enclosed and built upon, our houses will be emptied' [First Report of the Commission for Inquiring into the State of Large Towns and Populous Districts, 1844: minutes of evidence, p. 329]

Of the death rate in Nottingham, which was 25 percent above the national average, he commented that the average age at death amongst males was only 20.5 years, although 'the situation of the town is decidedly salubrious, and the occupations of the people not necessarily unhealthy' [First Report of the Commission, 1844: appendix, p. 136]. He considered that better dwellings and proper sanitary regulations would increase the average age at death to over 30.

His obituary in The Times (Document 2) gives an overview of all of Hawksley's achievements.


Next page: Sanitation


Manuscripts and Special Collections

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