Hiding in plain sight?

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.

Brownhills Surge Stack

This image was posted on Flickr, by reader Morturn, earlier today, who linked to it in a comment to the Harrison Nimby post. Morturn describes it thus: ‘This 100ft stack was built by the South Staffordshire Waterworks Company. It contained a stand pipe; water was pumped to the top so as to obtain an altitude sufficient to reach the most elevated position in the area to be supplied. It was demolished around 1970’

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.

Brownhills Stack

This file – from the South Staffordshire Water history site – helps illustrate where the stack was. This triggered something in my memory, which I’ll come to later. The note in this file records a reservoir on the high spot between Walsall and Lichfield was never built. Surely, it was, and was the failed Shire Oak Reservoir project? Click for a larger version.

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.


1945 Google Earth image showing what I believe to be the Surge Stack casting a shadow northeastwards. Click for a larger version.

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:


Back in September, I found this on the 1914 Swan auction plan. Wide eyed and bewildered, I asked, ‘What’s that all about then? Anything still there? Mineshaft beneath, or something else?’ Click for a larger version.

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:

1919 Pelsall Road

The 1916 1:2,500 map shows the stack marked as ‘ventilator’. This is a good one to look at for change in the immediate area, too. Click for a larger version.

Here’s the same area in 1962:

1962 Pelsall Road

The very same area on Ordnance Survey 1:2,500 mapping from 1962. much has changed, but the ‘ventilator’ remains. Click for a larger version.

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.

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24 Responses to Hiding in plain sight?

  1. brian stringer says:

    Used to swim in the canal by this stack as a kid. Never knew what it was. It was here that we heard the news of another lad drowning in the canal elsewhere which put us off for a bit, an incident which I recalled in THE CLAYHANGER KID.

  2. David Evans says:

    Hi Bob
    a BIG thanks to you and all for helping to solve this riddle.” Invisible before our very eyes!”
    I wonder who built it! Imagine the scaffolding and safety measures of the time!
    kind regards

  3. Rich Burnell says:

    Fascinating stuff Bob. I showed this to my 85 year old granddad in law today who remembered it well. Interestingly my Uncle in Law who is 54 and has lived in Brownhills his whole life has no memory of it. He would have been a young teenager in the early 70’s when it was supposed to have been demolished. It is possible he simply didn’t pay much attention to such things in his youth, also possible that it was demolished a bit before our date of 1970. Does anyone have any more info on this? My Grandfather in Law also mentioned a second large chimney which stood on Lichfield Road where castings now is. Apparently it was part of a large chemical factory; The hill above the canal on Lichfield road was known locally as ‘Chemical Hill’ for some years before the Chemical factory closed. I wonder if there are any pics of this ‘second’ chimney as well?! Great local history work in action here, well done!

  4. Pedro says:

    June 1903

    The overflow from Shire Oak Reservior…it was proposed to pipe the ditch to take the water and also the storm water. The Council and the Company to pay half each. Objection by some as the ditch was thought to be sufficient for requirements, and also that the Council would be liable for any damage which might be sustained.

    Sale by auction January 1911

    Lot 5….A freehold piece of building land, containing 1,200 sq yards or thereabouts, situate at Shire Oak, near the South Staffs Water Works Reservoir, with a frontage of 20 yards to the main Lichfield to Walsall road.

  5. Clive says:

    Nice bit of detective work, well done to all involved. thanks.

  6. morturn says:

    Thank you for your kind comments, however I am not an expert, I just happen to care about the Sandfields Pumping Station and it unique Engine; built in the Black Country to supply fresh water to many of the Black Country’s industrialised towns.

    The engine at Sandfields is a Cornish type engine, which by its very nature of operation has to have a constant load to operate. As the name employs, this type of engine was developed in Cornwall and used for de-watering tin mines, the load was provided by the column of water pumped up the mine shaft, in some cases over 1,700 feet!

    Cornish Engines were favoured by the Waterworks companies be of their efficiency, however a fix load had to be artificially created, so towers were built. There is still one at Kew Bridge Waterworks in London, which had five Cornish beam engines (see link)

    This tower did that same job, and was made redundant in 1927 along with the Cornish engine. I think it is quite sad that such a magnificent monument like this had been lost, when you demolish building you also erase memories; I would hate to see the building and engine at Sandfields go the same way.

    • Chris Pattison says:

      Just to clarify a point in the last paragraph, the surge stack was built when the railway main was laid i.e. c. 1856/7. The Cornish engine was not commissioned until 1873, the three James Watt engines being the sole pumps until that time. Whilst the Cornish was not used after 1927 my understanding is that the surge stack was still in use up to 1971 when the railway main was abandoned.

  7. Andy Dennis says:

    I don’t recall the tower, which would have been visible from many angles, so I think it must have been demolished well before 1970. I wonder if they did it Fred Dibner style? Surely, somebody must remember it being demolished.

  8. gabriel says:

    Could the tower be the vertical structure visible in the distance on this pic?

    • Peter says:

      It would seem the direction etc would be right, looking at the photograph it would appear that there are two stacks? The one you mention and then another slightly (on the photograph anyway) to the left. Fascinating stuff.

    • Clive says:

      Hi Gabriel. I believe you could be right, well spotted.

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  17. Adrian Bickley says:

    Fifty-two years old. I would have been travelling up and down that road quite often from the late 60’s onwards. I remember the railway and the sidings, but have no recollection of this tower. It’s the kind of thing that would have caught my interest, so I find that surprising.

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