Manuscripts and Special Collections

Nottingham's water supply

Detail of woman collecting water from a standpipe in the street, 1931-2

Wells and springs

In the 18th century there were perhaps two dozen public wells scattered all over the town. Several of them were in churchyards which also served as cemeteries, opening up the possibility of contamination by decomposing bodies.

Unfortunately cemeteries were not the only source of pollution. The historian Blackner, writing in 1815, listed nine corporation pumps. He wrote that the pump opposite the south end of Sheep Lane (now Market Street) had been removed because 'the ordure, which accumulated year after year in the vaults on the Long-Row had so far penetrated the rock as to ooze into the well, which rendered the water, at times, quite nauseous to the taste, and altogether unfit for culinary purposes' [Source 1].

The (Old) Nottingham Waterworks, 1696

This was the first recorded public waterworks company in Nottingham. An engine-house, water-wheel and pumps were erected on the south bank of the river Leen at the bottom of Finkhill Street (approximately on the site of the Canal Street entrance to the present Nottingham Evening Post building). The water was pumped to a small reservoir near the junction of Park Row and the Ropewalk. From there pipes carried water to many parts of the town but increasing contamination of the Leen led to many complaints about the quality of the water.

You can locate the engine house and the reservoir on Map 2 and Map 3 in the first theme of this website, 'Mid-19th century housing in Nottingham'.


Perhaps the purest water in the town was obtained on Zion Hill (in the Canning Circus area). From the end of the 18th century the Zion Hill Water and Marble Works raised water from two wells near Alfreton Road, employing steam engines which also sawed marble and powered a number of lace machines. Part of the supply was piped to houses in the town and part delivered manually by water carriers known as 'higglers'.

James Granger, writing in 1902, recollected from his younger days seeing 'carts going about the town with fresh drinking water and selling it for a half penny per bucket' [Source 2], and the Nottingham Annual Register for 1840 lists six 'higglers'. Until recently there was still a public house called 'The Jolly Higgler' on Ilkeston Road.

Granger also wrote that he had reason to believe that Messrs. Walker, the proprietors of the Zion Hill Works, received five thousand pounds from the Nottingham Waterworks Co. for terminating their supply of water to the houses of Nottingham [Source 3].

The Nottingham Waterworks Company, 1845

The Nottingham Waterworks Co. which 'bought out' the Zion Hill Waterworks was not the old 1696 company, but one of two new companies launched in the 1820s. The first, The New Waterworks Company, was located between Sherwood Street and Mansfield Road and supplied the north-eastern side of the town. The second new company was the Trent Waterworks Company. In 1845 the three companies Old, New and Trent were amalgamated when Parliament passed the Nottingham Water Act. Until 1880 the engineer to the joint companies (which were eventually bought out by the Nottingham Corporation) was Thomas Hawksley, the greatest water engineer of the 19th century.

Later developments

The first of the modern pumping station drawing on the supplies secreted in the Bunter sandstone was erected at Haydn Road, Basford, in 1857. By 1969, 23 million gallons of water were supplied daily from boreholes and pumping stations to the Nottingham area. Since 1899, water had also been supplied also by the Derwent Valley Water Board. This authority served not only Nottingham but also Leicester, Sheffield and Derby from reservoirs in the upper reaches of the river Derwent.

As part of the reorganisation of the country's water services in 1974, the Severn-Trent Water Authority was created, which took responsibility for the greater part of the west and east midlands. It took over the installations and services of the smaller authorities and boards which it replaced throughout a large central slice of the country.

For more information about water companies in the Nottingham area, see the Water Resources pages on the Manuscripts and Special Collections website. 

Source 1. J. Blackner, History of Nottingham, p. 26

Sources 2 and 3. J. Granger, Old Nottingham, Its Streets, People etc., Vol 1 (1902), p.9


Next page: Thomas Hawksley (1807-1893)


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