Blaydon Council’s Water Supply to the Rowlands Gill Area

This essay won first prize in Gateshead Library’s Clarence Walton Local History Essay Competition in 1980.

To recount the story of Rowlands Gill’s water supply we must first look at a wider area and we must go back to a time when the village barely existed. Apart from a handful of buildings around the station and a few farms, there were only fields, rough tracks and the turnpike, the ‘trunk’ road from Derwenthaugh to Shotley Bridge. A short distance along this road Joseph Cowen had just sunk a drift mine which became known as the ‘Lilley Drift’ and he was building fourteen houses for his workmen. These were the first of the sixty-five houses which form Lilley and Cowen Terraces.

The Year was 1878 and Rowlands Gill, such as it was, lay within the district of the Blaydon Local Board (BLB), a Sanitary Board and the forerunner of the Blaydon Urban District Council. The Board’s district included several small farming and mining communities and the more populous industrial centres of Winlaton and Blaydon itself. Of these only Blaydon had a piped water supply, elsewhere there were only wells and springs; quite adequate for sparsely populated areas, but not for Winlaton.

The danger of wells and springs being contaminated with human and animal waste in such a tightly packed community, and the consequent danger of epidemics, was acute. Awareness of this danger was increasing; twice in living memory large areas of Tyneside had been ravaged by cholera and the drinking of polluted water was known to have been responsible.

The Public Health Act of 1875 had further highlighted the danger and indeed had given local authorities the responsibility of ensuring that water supplies within their districts were pure. Winlaton certainly needed a better water supply but its location on a hill more than 400 feet above sea level made this very difficult.

It was with this problem in mind that the BLB in June 1878 appointed a committee to meet with the Ryton Local Board (RLB) whose district adjoined that of Blaydon and which had similar difficulties supplying water to parts of their area. Their brief was to discuss the practicability of a joint scheme to supply water to Winlaton and to the RLB district from springs just to the north-west of Chopwell on the western extremity of the BLB district. Committees from both Boards met at High Spen one day in August 1878 and proceeded to Chopwell to examine two springs, one near Ashtree Farm and the other near to the present Greenhead Terrace. Together they yielded about 90 gallons per minute of unpolluted water and both were high enough to supply both districts by gravity.

For some reason the BLB declined to join in with the scheme and the RLB went ahead alone. Detailed plans were prepared but difficulties arose over land purchase. Eventually a parliamentary bill was promoted by the RLB to give them lowers of compulsory purchase. The BLB, to the annoyance of the Ryton Board, announced that they would oppose the bill unless they were given the right to a portion of the Chopwell water for their own district, if they required it. The RLB had no alternative but to agree and the bill, the Ryton (Parish) Local Board (Water) Act, became law on June 27th 1881. The RLB lost no time in carrying out the work. By December 1881 both collecting dams at the Chopwell springs **(Note 1)**, an interconnecting earthenware pipe, cast-iron pipes from the East Spring via Chopwell Wood and High Spen to Greenside and a network of smaller mains throughout the RLB district were all completed. Two service reservoirs were built at Greenside **(Note 2)** and by March 1882 both were in use.

In view of their previous actions we should not be surprised that in July 1882, almost as soon as the works were completed, the BLB decided to exercise their right to a portion of the Chopwell water. We may however be charitable and allow that this decision came as a result of the petitions from the inhabitants of Victoria Garesfield and High Spen who were rather annoyed at not having access to the water from the pipe which passed so close to them.

The BLB took almost two years to prepare their plans to supply High Spen, Barlow and Winlaton with water from the RLB pipe. Victoria Garesfield was initially excluded from the scheme but, in April 1884, after further petitions and the threat of a letter to the Local Government Board, the BLB decided to include it. Apart from small distribution mains the works were in two parts. The first consisted of a junction with the RLB pipe at High Spen near the present Excelsior Social Club, a pipe to a service reservoir at Barlow **(Note 3)** and a pipe from there to Winlaton by way of Barlow Lane, Knobbyends Lane and West Lane. The second comprised a junction with the RLB pipe in Chopwell Wood and a pipe to a service reservoir on the edge of the wood near Victoria Garesfield **(Note 4)**. Supplies were to be by street fountains or ‘pants’ as they were known and also directly into houses. The former method only was used at High Spen and Victoria Garesfield at this stage.

By mid 1885 the Board’s engineer, Mr. Hubert Laws, was able to report that water was being supplied to Victoria Garesfield, High Spen, Barlow and Winlaton, although not all the street fountains were in position. The reservoirs at Victoria Garesfield and Barlow were filled on October 19th and 26th respectively, thus reducing the excessive pressures previously experienced in parts of the district. A further report from Mr. Laws in July 1886 stated that the BLB district was receiving 13,000 gallons of water per day from Chopwell and that there was an ample supply from the East and West Springs, in fact 140,000 gallons per day were running to waste. Everything seemed satisfactory, but not for long.

With the increase in the number of connections to the system it became increasingly difficult to maintain supplies to the higher areas. Serious droughts during 1886 and 1887 increased the demand and made matters worse. During the summer of 1867 it was necessary to shut off supplies to both BLB reservoirs for forty-eight hours every weekend in order to fill the RLB reservoir at Rockwood Hill. This caused some friction between the Boards, especially when the BLB discovered that the RLB district was using twice as much water as their own district.

The situation had not improved by 1891 when a further problem arose. The Consett Iron Company were proposing to sink a coal mine near to the East Spring and the Company stated that these underground working’s would certainly affect the Spring, perhaps in ten to fifteen years. This prompted the BLB to examine other possible sources of water and they gave serious thought to proposals to bring water to the district from Laybourne’s Fell to the west of Chopwell, and even from as far away as Minsteracres **(Note 5)**. The Boards also approached the Consett Water Company (CWC) which supplied a large area bordering the BLB district from their reservoir at Smiddy Shaw **(Note 6)**, with a view to that Company providing a supplementary supply. This was more to resolve their immediate water shortage rather than the possible future problem. The CWC, however, were having difficulty maintaining their own supplies and were not prepared to add to their troubles.

An engineer of the Newcastle and Gateshead Water Company, Alfred L. Forster, was consulted and he told the Boards that the problem was not so much a shortage of water from the Springs but rather the inability of their main pipe to carry the required volume. He suggested that an additional pipe from the Springs to High Spen on the same route as the existing pipe would improve the situation. This pipe was laid during 1893 but in fact did little to alleviate the water shortage and, as an emergency measure, the RLB began pumping water from the Addison Pit **(Note 7)**, to reduce the quantity they required from Chopwell. The two Boards shared the cost of this rather expensive operation.

We can now return to Rowlands Gill for the building boom was about to start. Massive building schemes were in hand at Smailes Farm (the whole of the present village west of the Co-operative Stores), Ladysmith (the Derwent Park site) and Whinfield (the lower part of Highfield). Following a public meeting at Rowlands Gill on October 17th 1894, a deputation approached the BLB regarding a water supply but the Board took no action. In 1896, however, after the visit of another deputation, a scheme was suggested to supply Rowlands Gill from Victoria Garesfield Reservoir. Financial considerations made Blaydon Urban District Council (BUDC), the successor of the BLB **(Note 8)**, reluctant to proceed with this, and other possibilities were considered including supplies from springs on the south side of the Derwent and piped supplies from wells in the village itself, but no suitable sources were found.

In 1897 the County Medical Officer drew the Council’s attention to the lack of a water supply at Rowlands Gill and the Council then prepared detailed plans for the Victoria Garesfield scheme. Unfortunately the estimated cost of £685 17s. 9d **(Note 9)** was, the Council decided, too great. It was not until the Northern Allotment Society, who were behind the Smailes Farm development, offered financial guarantees that the scheme received the Council’s blessing. The plan was to connect Rowlands Gill with the Victoria Garesfield Reservoir by means of a pipe alongside the colliery railway to Pipe Bridge. Tenders from Messrs. Smith, Patterson of Blaydon for the pipes and from Samuel Dart of Annfield Plain for the work were accepted and the contracts were signed on July l9th 1898.

Meanwhile the situation throughout the area was becoming more serious. Winlaton was receiving only a sporadic supply of water from Chopwell and the Council decided to reopen all the public wells in the village. Warning notices were posted to the effect that water from the wells was to be boiled before drinking. They also began pumping water from a shaft in Winlaton Recreation Ground **(Note 10)** using a ‘wind engine’ to supply the power. Some time later this was damaged by a hurricane and was replaced by a gas engine.

Another approach to the Consett Water Company in 1897 was successful. The Company were in a somewhat better position since the construction of a new reservoir at Hisehope **(Note 11)**. They proposed to provide a supplementary supply from their main pipe at Villa Real near Consett and to construct a service reservoir at Horsegate between Chopwell and High Spen **(Note 12)**. They would connect with one of the joint BUDC/Ryton Urban District Council (RUDC) pipes **(Note 8)**, which their pipes would cross at a point south of Chopwell Hall Farm (now called West Chopwell Farm). The contract with the CWC was signed on the same day as the contracts for the Rowlands Gill works, July 19th, 1898.

At about this time the Newcastle and Gateshead Water Company began selling water to the BUDC to supply the Blaydon and Stella areas and to the RUDC to supplement their supply from the Chopwell springs. Both of these supplies were taken from the massive thirty inch main which had been laid in 1894 from Newburn to Gateshead passing through the BUDC district.

The Rowlands Gill scheme did not progress smoothly. The contractor, Samuel Dart, proved unequal to the task. Apparently he had no foreman, no skilled workmen, hardly any tools and he frequently left open trenches at night without supervision or warning lights. His contract was terminated in February 1899 and the remainder of the work was shared between Joseph Lumsden of Whitly and the Council’s own workmen. Complaints from Rowlands Gill about the delay were numerous and the Council fitted a hydrant at the end of the completed section of pipe to enable the residents to obtain water. A further problem arose during the later stages of the work when the North Eastern Railway Company demanded payment for allowing the Council to lay pipes across their two bridges in the village, one near to the station and the other near Cowen Terrace. The Council refused any payment, pointing out that the roads across the bridges were public roads and had been such long before the railway was built.

It is difficult to determine precisely when water first reached Rowlands Gill but it can be narrowed down to late 1899 or early 1900. From the beginning all supplies in the village were taken directly into the houses, the council having decided to allow no new street fountains and to phase out the existing ones.

During 1899 there was a sudden loss of volume from the East Spring. The Council feared a water famine and arranged an emergency connection with the CWC pipe which, though not completed, had already been laid beyond the proposed junction. The water loss proved only temporary but the connection with the CWC pipe was retained and the Council officially took water from that source from August 1900 when the Horsegate Reservoir was completed. This reservoir was a disaster from the beginning. In theory there was sufficient pressure to enable water to reach the reservoir easily, but because of the length of the pipe and the associated frictional losses, it was extremely difficult to fill the reservoir. The CWC supply was a great disappointment to the Council which had expected an abundance of water. However, with water from the two springs and the CWC pipe and the reduced demand from the Ryton district, the position in much of the area had improved but, alas, Winlaton was still not receiving an adequate supply.

In 1902 the Consett Water Company amalgamated with the Weardale and Shildon Waterworks Company to become the Weardale and Consett Water Company (WCWC). The old Weardale Company obtained their water from the huge Waskerley Reservoir **(Note 13)** and had in fact been selling water to the Consett Water Company since 1900.

In a further effort to improve Winlaton’s supply, a second connection with the Consett Company’s system at Horsegate Reservoir itself was proposed. This plan was adopted and a pipe was laid from Horsegate to Barlow Reservoir with a branch directly to Winlaton through a ‘pressure reducing tank’ **(Note 14)**, bypassing the reservoir. Further branches were laid to High Thornley and, through a second pressure reducing; tank, on to Rowlands Gill. This pipeline was completed in 1902 but did little to improve Winlaton’s position and pumping from the Recreation Ground continued. It did, however, give a second supply to Rowlands Gill which had grown considerably by that time.

Little change took place until August 12th 1906 when the disaster predicted fifteen years earlier finally struck. The East Spring, the main source of water, suddenly failed. The BUDC committee responsible for the water supply held an emergency meeting. The position was critical; the West Spring was supplying a little water to the two Councils but Horsegate Reservoir was, as usual, virtually empty and hardly any of the WCWC water was getting through. The higher areas – Barlow and Winlaton – were without any water for two days. The BUDC arranged to take all of the water from the West Spring and threatened the WCWC with legal action if they did not improve their supply. The Water Company took immediate action and somehow managed to get two feet of water into Horsegate. The position was stabilised but unsatisfactory. It was frequently necessary to shut off water supplies to the lower areas to maintain even a poor supply to Winlaton.

With their main independent supply of water gone the BUDC and the RUDC decided to ask the WCWC and the Newcastle and Gateshead Water Company to take over the supply of the Districts completely. An Act of Parliament, the Blaydon and Ryton (Transfer) Act was promoted by all the interested parties and in 1906 Blaydon and Ryton Councils handed over the responsibility for water supplies to the two water companies. The Newcastle and Gateshead Water Company took over supplies to the whole of the Ryton Urban District and to Blaydon, Stella, Derwenthaugh and Winlaton Mil1 in the Blaydon Urban District. The WCWC took over the remainder of the BUDC waterworks including those of Rowlands Gill.

The story would be incomplete without a brief account of the changes that have taken place since 1908. In 1919 a pipe was laid from Hookergate to supply the new Council houses at Highfield. A pressure-reducing valve was installed in this pipe near to St. Patrick’s Church. Then in 1937 a pipe was laid from Blackhall Mill to Hookergate through Chopwell Wood. This was to give Barlow and Victoria Garesfield Service Reservoirs and Highfield a supply which was independent of the troublesome Horsegate Service Reservoir.

In 1948, with large Council building schemes in hand at Rowlands Gill and Highfield, the Durham County Water Board **(Note 15)** completely rearranged the system. They laid a pipe from Flint Hill Service Reservoir **(Note 16)** to Rowlands Gill by way of Burnopfield. This was connected to the existing distribution system of the village through a pressure reducing valve near to the railway station. The following year this pipe was continued up Hollinside Lane and on to Barlow Service Reservoir and Winlaton.

Finally, in 1972, a huge trunk main was laid to a new service reservoir at Friarside **(Note 17)** and from there a pipe was laid across the disused railway viaduct and up Stirling’s Lane to connect with the distribution system near to the junction of Strathmore Road and Dipwood Road. The trunk main itself was continued across the viaduct and on to a new Barlow Service Reservoir **(Note 18)**. The Victoria Garesfield Reservoir was abandoned as part of this new arrangement as was the pipe from Flint Hill, although the latter could be restored by simply opening a valve beside the Derwent Road Bridge. At present Rowlands Gill is being supplied from the reservoir at Friarside, and Victoria Garesfield and Highfield from the 1937 pipe through Chopwell Wood.

Horsegate Reservoir now has a very limited use supplying only Chopwell and a small part of High Spen. The difficulty in getting water to this reservoir has been overcome by the installation of a pump in a wooden shed behind Chopwell Workmen’s Club.

Of the two springs at Chopwell nothing can now be seen, but the West Spring still flows **(Note 19)**. Several of the original pipes still carry water including the first pipe laid through Chopwell Wood in 1881; but what a change in circumstance, this pipe which once supplied two Local Boards now supplies only a single fire hydrant in the Wood.



1. Collecting Tanks at Chopwell.

West Spring near Ashtree Farm. Ordnance Survey Grid Reference NZ 106588.

East Spring near Greenhead Terrace. Original location of tank NZ 11725855, moved about 50 yards when the Consett Iron Company built their railway in 1893. New location NZ 11715859.

2. RLB Service Reservoirs at Greenside.

Rockwood Hill NZ 133619 and Low Greenside NZ 141628.

A service reservoir has two main functions: a) to store water when the demand is low (overnight and weekends) so as to provide extra water for peak demand periods, b) to reduce pressure. Water supply pressure is measured in feet – the difference in height between the source and the consumer. When the supply is given through a service reservoir the supply pressure is determined by the height of that reservoir irrespective of the pressure of the water entering it. Supply pressures between 50 and 200 feet are ideal.

3. Barlow Service Reservoir (now disused).

Location NZ 153606. Height about 560 feet. Capacity 150,000 gallons.

4. Victoria Garesfield Service Reservoir (now disused).

Location NZ 142583. Height about 430 feet. Capacity 44,000 gallons.

5. Water from Laybourne’s Fell and Minsteracres.

Laybourne’s Fell. Water from this source was actually used by the Consett Iron Company at Chopwell Colliery to supply their power station and for quenching the coke ovens. The Iron Company’s waterworks consisted of a collecting tank near Ravenside (NZ 098564), a pipe to a storage reservoir behind Greenhead Farm (NZ 119587) and pipes to the colliery.

Minsteracres. The BUDC considered taking water from four streams and a well near Minsteracres but this was never done. Four collecting dams were proposed at locations NZ 027552, NZ 030551, NZ 050560 and NZ 051560. A six inch pipe was to carry the water to Chopwell by way of Fairley and Whittonstall.

6. Smiddy Shaw Reservoir.

Location NZ 044462, completed 1877, capacity 305 million gallons, capable of supplying 1 million gallons per day.

7. Addison Pit.

NZ 168642. Sunk 1864 and operated by the Stella Coal Company, depth 380 feet. Water from Emma and Stargate Pits drained into the Addison. The pit yielded 12 tons of water to every ton of coal drawn.

8. The Local Government Act (1894)

This Act turned Sanitary Boards such as the BLB and RLB into District Councils. So December 1894 saw the birth of Blaydon Urban District Council (BUDC) and Ryton Urban District Council (RUDC).

9. Cost of Rowlands Gill Scheme.

The initial estimate of £685 17s. 9d (£685.87) was somewhat on the low side; the Council actually borrowed £1700 for the scheme.

10. Pump in Winlaton Recreation Ground.

Location NZ 173621. The wind engine was installed in 1898, the supplier was a Mr. Sanderson of Bedford and the installation was undertaken by Douglas Bros. of Blaydon. The gas engine which replaced it in 1905 was supplied by Messrs. J.L.H. Andrew & Co. of Stockport at a cost of £78. The gas engine was of 7½ B.H.P. and drove a 3 inch centrifugal pump.

11. Hisehope Reservoir.

Location NZ 022465, capacity 106 million gallons, capable of supplying 1.8 million gallons per day.

12. Horsegate Service Reservoir.

Location NZ 125596, height 797 feet, capacity (present day) 916,000 gallons.

13. Waskerley Reservoir.

Location NZ 022442, constructed 1872, capacity 450 million gallons, can supply 2.2. million gallons per day.

14. Pressure Reducing Tank (PRT) and Pressure Reducing Valve (PRV).

As the names suggest, these are devices which accept water at a high pressure and deliver water at a lower pre-determined pressure. The PRV near Rowlands Gill Station (used 1948 to 1972) took water from the 9 inch main from Flint Hill at a pressure of 700 feet and delivered water to the village at a pressure of 250 feet.

15. The Durham County Water Board

The Durham County Water Board took over the area supplied by the WCWC in 1920 and was itself succeeded by the Northumbrian Water Authority in 1974. In 1937 the DCWB added another major reservoir to those previously mentioned – Burnhope. (Location NY 844388, capacity 1357 million gallons.)

16. Flint Hill Service Reservoir.

Location NZ 167545, height 870 feet.

17. Rowlands Gill Service Reservoir.

Location (Friarside) NZ 162570, height about 370 feet.

18. Barlow Service Reservoir (new).

Location NZ 151600, height about 550 feet.

19. West Spring.

The collecting dam at the West Spring and the pipe to the East Spring were sold to the Consett Iron Company in 1908 to supplement the Company’s water supply from Ravenside. In recent years open-cast mining took place in this area. At the commencement of the work the spring was plugged. However the water broke through and flooded several fields. A culvert now carries the water under the levelled site of Chopwell Colliery from which it flows into a burn.


  • Minutes, Committee Proceedings and Plans of the Blaydon Urban District Council.
  • Minutes and Plans of the Blaydon Local Board. Minutes of the Ryton Local Board.
  • Plans of the Ryton Urban District Council.
  • Plans of the Northumbrian Water Authority.
  • P1ans of the Consett Iron Company.
  • ‘The Consett Story’ – Consett Lions.
  • ‘Water to Tyneside’ – C.W. Rennison.
  • ‘Epidemic Diseases’ – A.F. Gale.
  • ‘The North West Durham Water Supply’ – Ian Mason (C.S.E. Project).
  • ‘History of the Parish of Ryton’ – W. Bourn.

Thanks are also due to the following individuals for information and assistance (and tolerance).

  • F. Mason, J. McNeil, G. Ridley and W.M. Surtees of the Northumbrian Water Authority.
  • F. Manders, T. Marshall and the staff of Gateshead Central Library.
  • G. C. Bennett of the Engineering Department of Gateshead M.B.C.
  • The caretaker and staff of the former BUDC offices, Blaydon.
  • J. Walton, former draughtsman, Consett Iron Company, Chopwell.
  • D. Wheatley, farmer, Ashtree Farm, Chopwell.