Shire Oak’s buried secret…

More precisely, everything I can find out about Shire Oak Reservoir.

When I was a teenager, I used to pass the unassuming green embankment by the lights at Shire Oak without much thought. Everybody knew that there was a reservoir there, behind the railings; everyone also ‘knew’ that the reservoir had been built, cracked after it was completed, and was never used. As far as it went, that was all I knew; I never explored the site as a kid, and never really considered it. That was until 2006, when I became aware that South Staffordshire Water had asked for outline planning permission to demolish the structure and replace it with housing, which, after no little brouhaha, they gained. The site is currently up for sale – but activity seems to have taken place there recently, with brush cutting and evidence of  digging or drilling. Before the structure disappeared, I decided to find out a bit about it and record it for the reference of others.

Some of the information I have comes from sifting through the supporting documents submitted along with the planning application. Walsall Council places all this stuff online for all to peruse, and is to be commended for doing so, albeit from a sometimes cranky server and interface that seems to suffer moodiness that can only be attributed to some kind of cyber-PMT.

First of all, where is the reservoir? Check Google Maps, below, it’s the large rectangular grey structure below the crossroads.

This screenshot is viewing from the north, using Multimap’s Birds Eye View:

Birdseye

In essence, it’s a large, concrete and brick tank built on the peak of Shire Oak Hill. I don’t know the exact engineering function, but can speculate that its’ purpose was to act as a header tank for the locality. There’s a pumping station down in the valley at Springhill (called ‘Sandhills’ by SSWW), which one would assume pumped water up the hill to this reservoir, from where it would be supplied with a good head of pressure to homes and businesses in the locality. Similar structures exist at other high points – at Barr Beacon for instance, and there seem to be smaller ones at Gentleshaw and Tutbury. All of these were built by the remarkable enterprise that is South Staffordshire Waterworks Company, a private concern founded in 1853. This company, still in private ownership today, left its’ mark throughout the area in the numerous beautifully elegant pumping stations it commissioned, and in the care it showed for both customers and workforce – a potted history can be found here.

The online publication ‘A History of South Staffordshire Waterworks 1853 – 1989’ by Brian J. Williams and Johann Van Leerzem, has this to say about Shire Oak Reservoir:

‘Shire Oak Reservoir.
In connection with the latter station, H. Lovatt of Wolverhampton was contracted to build a service reservoir at Shire Oak, Walsall, on three acres of ground purchased from Thomas Marlow and his Trustees at a cost of £464.’

And…

‘This reservoir, original capacity four and a quarter million gallons, was constructed as an open receptacle during 1896-1897 and brought into service in May 1897. The floor consisted of mass concrete on gravel foundations, the walls, also of mass concrete, having vertical water faces and being stepped on the back. Both floor and walls were faced with blue brick. A substantial earth embankment gave support to the walls. In January 1900, cracks, which rendered the reservoir quite useless, developed in the bottom, the movement being due to subsidence consequent upon the working of the colliery at Walsall Wood. Subsidence continued to take place for some time. Certain reconstruction work, to ensure water tightness, was carried out in 1924 by W.H. Davey and Company, together with the installation of a reinforced concrete cover. Shire Oak Reservoir was taken out of use in 1938, despite a two and a half inch concrete lining being added to the walls to prolong its life.
Today the reservoir stands empty but still owned by the Company.’

So the rumours were true – the cracks did happen, and the reservoir has spent the best part of a century unused and empty. But what of the site now? The first time I investigated the reservoir was a snowy day in 2006 – I was out with the camera and wanted a good viewpoint. Having studied it in Google Earth, I thought that if I could easily get on to the embankment from the nature reserve – at that time there seemed to be a well worn track in the scrub from the southerly corner – then I could get an excellent panorama from the northern tip of the reservoir. Upon trudging up to the reserve, I found the site very well secured; old, sharp iron railings and dense hawthorn thickets stopped me in my tracks. Any gap in the fence had been carefully stopped up from inside by the use of wood, old railings and cut branches – I was to leave without success, but the ongoing planning fuss made me want to go back. I finally got round to it two weeks ago,  popping into the park by bike to find the site still too secure for casual entry. I took a poor photo through the fence,  returning last weekend on foot, wearing more suitable clothing. I won’t detail where I got in, as I was certainly trespassing and the decaying state of the structure roof would suggest that it’s not safe to be thereso I don’t advise anyone else to try. Mindful of being overlooked by residents of nearby houses, I scouted round the south edge of the compound near the bricked-up access doorway. I took these photos:

The roof has been cordoned off at some recent juncture; the posts sporting wind-shredded polythene tape can be seen around the perimeter of the roof, and they look fairly recent. Dotting the roof are  the original cast iron air P1000345vents and rotting, rusted access hatches, welded shut. One seems to have had concrete cast over it to seal it shut. At several points, there are freshly disturbed patches of soil and surveyor’s marker pegs. There were piles of cut scrub at the bottom of the southern embankment, and I noticed vehicle tyre tracks in one of the patches of earth. In short, someone has been working here, taking measurements and possibly drilling or taking some kind of soil sample. Perhaps plans are being laid for the final removal of this relic of an earlier, more socially-concerned time.

Whist trawling the documentation P1000356on the council planning site, I came across an environmental report into the possibility of rare species living in the vicinity – it’s actually fascinating, and can be found here (PDF file, Adobe Reader required). Despite the rather jarring error  – the authors place the site in Staffordshire rather than the West Midlands – there is some really good stuff in there, including some rather wonderful, but grainy photos which I include below. In short, the site is home to nothing of note, except possibly the odd toad which was rescued and has probably now been squished on the Lichfield Road…

Hatch

An access hatch, from the Aurum report

Steps

The internal steps, from the Aurum report

Other material located on the Walsall Council planning site pertaining to the application to redevelop the site includes various site plans through time in one handy, download and keep PDF (Edit 10th November 2009: file has been removed by the planning department). They show the existing land owned by Thomas Marloin 1895, and how a small amount of land was given to the council in 1925 to enable the widening of the Shire Oak junction.

Returning to modern times, an outline application has been granted.  It’s reference is 06/2209/OL/E9, and can be viewed here by entering the reference in the search box – it’s a fairly unremarkable close of mixed housing types, but the application is just a fishing exercise to see if a full proposal would be accepted – the main concern being the traffic junction required to access the new development. Predictably, the local residents protested and the local councillors became very energised about the whole thing. There are several posts related to the topic on Councillor Mike Flower’s blog, the comments on which can be quite enlightening – this one in particular, where the concern seems to be more about living in proximity to social housing. Ooh, the outrage… and before you ask, yes I do, so there. Still, you’ve got to give Mr. Lennon credit for being honest.

The site is up for sale at the moment, and Savills have it priced at £1,800,000 – a bit different from the £464 invested in 1895…

In the belly of the reservoir, from the Aurum report

In the belly of the reservoir, from the Aurum report

I don’t particularly oppose any development at the reservoir. It’s an interesting construction, with a fascinating history, but is serves no purpose. On the whole, I’d rather brownfield sites like this be developed than ones in the greenbelt, or heaven forbid, on school playing fields. I’ve no doubt the site can be developed sensitively, and any work won’t have any significant impact on the park nearby. One thing is sure, however; when the come to demolish it, I’ll be there with my camera.

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25 Responses to Shire Oak’s buried secret…

  1. Pedro says:

    Thanks Bob for an interesting insight into a local feature!

    Regards Pedro

  2. A very interesting piece of local history. When I was a kid at school in Lichfield, I used to get off the bus by the reservoir and never took any notice of it. It was just there!
    Cheers Bob.

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  6. Arkrite says:

    Thank you Brownhills Bob for this info and the pictures.In about 1960 my Dad was made redundant from the railways and he got the job of caretaker at the Shire oaks resevoir.It must have been part time because he was care taker at Pelsall Infants & Junior school about the same time. He took me inside the resevoir once ,down those stairs to the bottom. Scary for a ten year old.
    I would have thought the place long gone.

  7. Richard says:

    I have driven past this place for over 15 years every day on my way to work and never realised that there was more to it than just a mound of dirt. I am sure the structure was of great embarassment back in its day, a millenium dome white elephant of its day. I am curious to know what was done about sourcing/storing water instead of using this site, as there was obviously a need for an enormous reservoir in the area at the time.

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  12. Adrian Bickley says:

    Just a belated footnote to what has been written above. Back in the mid 1970’s I used to live at Shire Oak and attended Shire Oak School. After school on summer evenings I would go with a group of friends who also lived nearby to play football or cricket on the roof of the reservoir. We knew we were trespassing but never thought twice about it, unless we heard a vehicle coming along the ruttted track which ran alongside the site, in which case we would dive for cover behind the hedge. There was no nature reserve in those days. I think the are behind the reservoir consisted of sandpits.

    • Steve Cooper says:

      Hey I remember those happy days at the reservoir and I remember Adrian Bickley!
      Hope you’re well.
      Feel free to drop me a line if you read this.
      Best wishes,
      Steve Cooper

      • Adrian Bickley says:

        Hey Steve! Stephen in those days, as I recall. I’m amazed that you read this. Never thought to check it until now. Those were some good times. A lot of memories of you and a few others, the whole of school life from five through to eighteen. Sometimes still seems like yesterday. Get in touch, by all means. It would be interesting to reconnect after all this time. All the best.

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  17. Kevin Carter says:

    As a young lad a number of us managed to get inside (c1998). Most terrifying & hilarious day of my life, Inside it was creepy and pith black but when climbing back over the iron pointy fence in a panic my friend had his jacket caught on the spikes and got stuck, fear changed to 6-7 boys laughing uncontrollably.

  18. Dave says:

    hi this bought back many memories as I used to live there from about 1974 to around 1980 with my parents my dad used to work for the South staffs water. Being 11 years old used to think it was a great playground riding my bike on the concrete top and often went exploring inside. Thanks

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