The history of a local landmark
by Alison Bailey
It has always puzzled me why Amersham-on-the Hill was so slow to develop after the arrival of the railway in 1892. As you can see from the aerial photograph taken in 1919, most of the early development took place around Chesham Bois Common where entrepreneurial builders were constructing weekend homes for Londoners. Only a small number of shops and houses were built close to the station before WWI in the new town. However new research from a student at Westminster University has provided the answer. The lack of mains water was the key factor in slowing down development. The construction of Coleshill Water Tower in 1915 eventually solved this problem and the pace of development really picked up after the war.
It also explains the purpose of a large brick-lined tank, discovered in a garden in Amersham during building work last year. This was a rainwater collection tank, a common feature of pre-WWI housing in the area. Spring water from a well was used in most households but it was usually hard and not suited to doing the weekly wash as it caused soap to curdle. Rainwater was preferred for the laundry and good quality houses available for sale or letting were often advertised as having ‘both kinds of water’.
The Local Government Act of 1894 had a significant impact on the development of our local landscape. It introduced elected councils at district and parish level with responsibility for the provision of mains water and sewerage.
Prior to this, landowners were reluctant to invest in the infrastructure needed but wells and local springs dried up in periods of drought. In September 1891, the Amersham Board of Guardians met to discuss the problem. The master of the workhouse complained that “vagrants could not be bathed as usual; the well in the men’s yard was still dry, no water having been obtained from it for some months past”. The clerk also reported that some houses had “not had a proper supply for years” which was disputed by the landlords, George Weller who owned the local brewery and Thomas Tyrwhitt-Drake, the Lord of the Manor at Shardeloes. Any action to improve the local water supply would incur significant costs to them personally. This reluctance changed with the introduction of the Act. Of course, Weller and Tyrwhitt-Drake were both members of the new Amersham Rural District Council which now had the responsibility of ensuring an adequate water supply!
Amersham, Beaconsfield and District Waterworks Company
By 1895 the Amersham, Beaconsfield and District Waterworks Company was formed. The directors included the same George Weller and Thomas Tyrwhitt-Drake, and Sir Edward Levy-Lawson, editor of the Daily Telegraph, of Hall Barn Estate in Beaconsfield. The Council immediately awarded the company the contract to supply the infrastructure for the supply of water to local communities, which included the installation of a pumping station on Tyrwhitt-Drake’s land on London Road. Consequently, the contract for the provision of mains water was granted to a company which had amongst its shareholders the same individuals who also owned the land, sat on the council, and would benefit from any profits! The engineer to the company was Edmund Alderson Sandford Fawcett, George Weller’s son in law.
By 1897 the water pumping station at Amersham had been completed. In 1902 Amersham Town council further agreed to secure more land from Tyrwhitt-Drake to install a sewage-treatment plant. The Chair of the council at this time was William Gurney, another important landowner, and the session was chaired by George Weller who presided over the decision.
However, the original water pumping station did not provide enough water to support significant housing development at the top of the hill. In 1912, AB&DWC contracted with Messrs C. Isler & Co. for a third artesian well. The plan was to sink a well 260 feet below the surface of the Misbourne valley and to pump the water up to a reservoir 500 feet above sea level near Coleshill. But it soon became apparent that a further innovation was necessary to raise the pressure of the water to an adequate level. In 1914 the company was given the power to build the present water tower next to the Coleshill reservoir, by which means the water level was raised a further 100 feet above the surrounding countryside. This then supplied water for Amersham, Beaconsfield, Chalfont St. Giles, Chenies, Chesham Bois, Coleshill, Gerrards Cross, Penn, Seer Green, and part of High Wycombe.
Coleshill Water Tower
There is a strong local tradition that prisoners of war were used in the construction of the water tower. The spoil from digging out the foundations for the Tower was dumped into the top of a disused kiln at Kiln Farm (demolished when the main road between Beaconsfield and Amersham was straightened). According to the oral history of Coleshill residents, a small railway line was laid across the road, and trucks pushed over the soil by a work force which was partly made up of German Prisoners of War.
Apparently, the village children felt that the high windows of the tower provided a challenge that could not be ignored and held catapult competitions to see who was the best shot. During WWII the Coleshill Platoon of the Home Guard guarded the tower from saboteurs. To begin with telephone cable was in short supply. If messages needed to be passed between the Amersham-on-the-Hill Platoon and Coleshill, morse code was used via the tower and a third-floor bedroom in Devonshire Avenue across the valley!
The tower is 100ft high with an internal diameter of 18ft. Its location on the top of the hill makes it a local landmark. In 1995, the water tower was no longer needed and was advertised for sale. The building was converted into an unusual home with bedrooms in the tower and an adjoining single-storey living area. The project featured on the Channel Four programme Grand Designs.
Welcome to Coleshill.org
Tale of two towns: the development of Amersham-on-the-Hill and Beaconsfield New Town, M Roker as part of BA (Hons) History, University of Westminster, May 2021
British Newspaper Archive