120 years since Lake District water arrived in Manchester: Anniversary of Thirlmere Aqueduct

The Thirlmere Aqueduct was built between 1836 and 1894

A feat of Cumbrian Victorian engineering, which brought hope and prosperity for one of England’s most successful cities, celebrates its 120th birthday today (Monday October 13)

The Thirlmere Aqueduct, which starts at Thirlmere reservoir, near Keswick, delivered its first drop of life-giving Lake District water to industrial revolution Manchester on October 13 1894 after a mammoth eight-year construction project involving 3,000 men.

And today, thanks to investment by water company United Utilities, it’s as good as ever, carrying up to 220 million litres of water the 83 miles to Lostock using only gravity. There isn’t a single pump in any of its pipes, conduits and tunnels.

The job of looking after the huge buried structure is down to self-confessed pipe anorak John Butcher, United Utilities’ regional supplies manager, who lives in Kendal.

“Thirlmere was one of three potential sources of water eyed up by Manchester in the 1870s. The city was in the grip of the industrial revolution and its local supplies were running out fast. Today the reservoir supplies communities in Keswick, Lancaster and the Fylde Coast too.

“One of the things which attracted those early water prospectors was Thirlmere’s height above sea level, because they needed to get water to Manchester by gravity. There are no pumps anywhere along the aqueduct. It takes water about 36 hours to reach Manchester this way travelling at about walking pace,” he said. “To take the same amount of water there by road would mean something like 10,000 tankers a day on the M6. It doesn’t bear thinking about.

Water arrives in Manchester's Albert Square on October 13 1894

“When the first water gushed from the specially-constructed ceremonial fountain in the city’s Albert Square on October 13 1894 there was jubilation. Onlookers stood with cups to get their first sip. It was literally a life-saver. In the mid 1800s, lack of clean water in England’s booming cities was claiming lives.”

As these pictures show, life on a Victorian building site was not safety conscious. Men wore flat caps and sturdy shoes and were equipped with little more than picks and shovels, with the odd bit of dynamite.

Tunnelling at Nab Scar, near Grasmere

John, whose popular evening talks the Thirlmere 100s have been known to be standing room-only, is often asked how many men died in the building of the aqueduct.

“We just don’t know. It probably says a lot about the attitude of the era to health and safety that no one even seems to have bothered to count. With that number of men working on it, there will have undoubtedly have been some casualties,” he said.

The last time anyone stood inside the aqueduct was in 2010, when repair work was carried out. It marked the end of a £25m renovation project which involved shutting the aqueduct down for a month every October for six consecutive years. Inside, it’s high enough to stand without stooping and in places you could drive a small car down it. Naturally, no-one ever would and hygiene is absolutely paramount.

Inside the Thirlmere Aqueduct during inspections in 2010

“It’s just an amazing structure and yet hardly anyone knows it’s here,” said John, who has amassed an archive of information about the construction over his 25-year career with United Utilities. “When you think of the technology the Victorians had available you have to take your hats off to them. In places, the aqueduct is hewn directly from rock and one story has it that two teams of navvies started on opposite sides of the mountain at Dunmail Raise, near Grasmere, and met in the middle just eight inches off centre. That’s quite some feat.”

Facts about Thirlmere and its aqueduct:

• Aqueduct completed in 1894

• Took eight years to build

• Originally it was 92 miles long and ended in Prestwich. These days it ends in Lostock, near Bolton and is 83 miles long.

• Thirlmere provides about 11 per cent of the North West’s water (one glass in every nine), supplying about 800,000 people

• Water takes 36 hours travelling by gravity at walking speed to get from Thirlmere to Manchester.

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