It seems like we’re in a period for odd historical tangents and discoveries. It all started with Peter ‘Pedro’ Cutler’s classic bit of gentrified nimbyism from ‘Captain’ Harrison at Aldershaw(e). From there, we alighted at Sandfields Pumping Station at Lichfield, and found a wonderful, but neglected steam engine. We’ve found since, via Peter’s further diligent research, and that of Dave Moore, a chap clearly expert on the matter, that there was a long forgotten water tower in Brownhills.
Peter found the following in the History of South Staffordshire Water online document:
Directors, shareholders and invited guests assembled at Station Street, Walsall on Tuesday 26th October 1858 to witness and participate in the opening of the South Staffordshire Waterworks. A specially decorated train consisting of seventeen first class coaches, transported the party from the Lichfield area to Walsall. Among the distinguished guests were Lord Hatherton, Lord Alfred Paget MP, Lord Ward, the Bishop of Lichfield, Charles Forster MP and the Mayors of Lichfield and Walsall…
…At noon the party boarded the special train at Walsall Station en route for Lichfield. The first stop was Brownhills where the standpipe was inspected. It was contained within a tower one hundred feet high, up which water was pumped so as to obtain an altitude sufficient to reach the most elevated position in the area to be supplied.
How come nobody has ever mentioned this before? It almost feels like it’s a wind-up. However, it clearly isn’t. I just don’t know how we’ve got through three and a half years of this blog and it’s never been (knowingly) mentioned.
Here’s the tower in question. It’s referred to as a ‘Surge Stack’, and was clearly a handsome, square section brick tower, right by the South Staffordshire Railway bridge over the Wyrley and Essington canal, near the Pelsall Road in Brownhills.
In the picture, the photographer is facing the Pelsall Road. The field on the right is now the Watermead estate.
We’ve mentioned the Superalloys chimney here before, and it’s demolition was notable. I’ve never heard anyone mention this tower up until now. It must have been clear and visible on the Brownhills skyline. Does anyone remember it? It’s before my time, so I went looking to see what I could find.
My first point of call was Google. That turned up a single page PDF on the South Staffordshire Water archive site. I’ve converted it to an image for ease of use.
This is a handy illustration, but I’d question the assertion about the reservoir. The highest point between Walsall and Lichfield is Shire Oak Hill at about 172m AOD (in case you’re wondering, Pipe Hill in Lichfield is about 125m AOD, with the pumping station at about 118m AOD). There was indeed a reservoir constructed atop of Shire Oak Hill, but the project famously failed, and it stood derelict for 90 years before being demolished for housing.
A faint bell was ringing in my head, but I went looking through aerial images of Brownhills from Aerofilms, and in the various books and so on. Nothing covered the spot, or featured an ominous stack in the background.
Even the 1945 Google Earth imagery is a tad unclear, but I do believe we can see the shadow.
It was sometime around this point that I remembered the question of the ventilator. Earlier this year, I’d got hold of a auction plan for the Swan Pub, of whose date I was unsure. It turned out that it was probably from the sale of the Roberts Estate in 1914, but what snagged my interest at the time was a feature marked at the side of the railway bridge as ‘Ventilator’. Here’s the fragment of map in question:
It seems it was actually present in this form in the mapping record for a long time, although the footprint was too small to make it on to 1:25,000 or 1:50,000 mapping, although I find the lack of note of a 100ft tower a bit odd.
Here’s a 1916 map of the area:
Here’s the same area in 1962:
I’ll be honest here, I’m finding this all a bit peculiar. We have a tower, chimney or stack that clearly existed, at around 100ft tall, looming above a gerally flat area of Brownhills. Yet it has never, ever been mentioned on here. I can’t find any pictures other than the one above by Morturn, clearly the one used on the South Staffordshire Water Archive document.
There can’t be a huge tank up there, but the water has a long way to climb. There’s no outward evidence of a pump. How was the water conveyed to the top? Where was the standpipe? There’s clearly no easy road or track access, and nothing marked on the map.
I’ve looked at dictionary definitions of ‘ventilator’, and ‘surge stack’. The only reference to the former I can find in relation to anything water related is the venting of air tanks to normalise pressure as they drain. The second, I can’t find any derivation of.
In a last ditch effort, I searched the history of South Staffordshire Water document for ‘Brownhills’. Bingo.
In this section of text from page 44, the purpose of the ‘Surge Stack’ is explained. It’s necessary to bear in mind that the water mains were lain along the route of the railway, which peaks at Brownhills, just where it crosses the canal, in fact (remember, it’s below the canal via an aqueduct at Newtown, and level with it at Highbridges or Norton Junction). Consider also that the driving source for the water supply was Sandfields at Lichfield and it’s miracle pumps.
Although constructed at different levels, all the reservoirs at Walsall, Wednesbury and Tipton are supplied at the same time by Lichfield’s engines. This is effected by an arrangement of the valves, the mains being protected from fracture by the operation of an air pipe about one hundred and twenty feet high, which has been constructed at the summit of the main at Brownhills, the air pipe being carried twenty feet above the level of the highest reservoir.
The tower was indeed a ventilator. It was a pressure and air vent at the high spot in the pipework running between Lichfield and Walsall, where air would otherwise gather. It appears that this was an open pipe or pressure activated relief, opening at a level above the natural water level of the combined system. This is genius. Water wasn’t pumped up the tower at all, and there would have been plenty of pressure at the bottom to supply the standpipe. This was a safety device.
Nowadays, this feature is duplicated by clever mechanical and electromechanical valves, sitting at ground level.
There must be folk around who remember this structure. The picture shows a very tempting cat ladder up the front. Surely some local scallywag must have climbed it for a bet? To exist as late as the 1960s, surely someone got up there and took a picture of the town?
I had no idea about this, and I’m totally open minded. That such a thing can remain unmentioned for so long is a complete mystery to me – so come on, folks – what do you know?
Please comment here or BrownhillsBob at Googlemail dot com. Cheers.