Water: it has always defined our relationship with this corner of Walthamstow. For centuries the River Lea provided transport and powered mills that were vital for local industries. The area was justly famous for its good fishing. But from the mid-19th century this rural landscape of rivers, marshes and farmland was dramatically transformed by the creation of the reservoirs. London’s rapidly growing population urgently required a greater, more reliable supply of clean water and Walthamstow was chosen as an ideal location for this purpose. Ten reservoirs were created between 1863 and 1904, each one a greater feat of Victorian and Edwardian engineering skill, and have provided millions of Londoners with their drinking water ever since.
In 1852, the East London Waterworks Company (ELWC) was granted permission to develop land at Walthamstow for reservoirs and by 1863, the first stage of the reservoirs development was completed with the construction of Reservoir Nos. 1, 2 and 3. Collectively they occupied just under 18 hectares of land and were all laboriously hand-dug by teams of ‘navvies’. In 1866, a drought in London and serious problems with water quality resulting in a cholera epidemic, drove the second phase of construction - Reservoir Nos. 4 and 5 were now added. With London’s fast growing populating, the High and Low Maynard Reservoirs were completed in 1870 for additional water storage whilst in 1887, a Davy compound engine (a new and powerful type of steam engine used widely for pumping at waterworks and mines during the late Victorian era) was installed at the Coppermill for use in the fast-expanding reservoirs system.
In 1894, the Engine House was built and remained in service until the 1980s - known initially as Ferry Lane Pumping Station, and later, the Marine Engine House, it was designed by ELWC’s architect H. Tooley under the watchful eye of Chief Engineer W. B. Bryan. Underneath the building was a network of underground reservoirs, chambers and pipes that linked the reservoirs and reached as far as Stoke Newington. In 1895, the East and West Warwick Reservoirs were completed and named after the Countess of Warwick, heiress of the local Maynard family, who sold the land to ELWC.
© Geologists’ Association visiting Lockwood Reservoir excavation 1901
In 1897, Lockwood was the last reservoir to be created and also the largest – covering 30 hectares and excavated to a depth of around 8 metres. Named after one of the ELWC’s directors, it was a major engineering feat for its day - requiring a huge labour force of 1,250 men. Unlike the first reservoirs, which were dug mainly by hand, Lockwood was constructed with plenty of steam-powered pumps, engines and cranes - as well as a team of 50 horses!
In 1904, the Metropolitan Water Board became the new owner of Walthamstow Reservoirs following a series of mergers and nationalisation. In 1940, Walthamstow was hit by the first of many German bombs during the Blitz in World War II and several of the reservoirs were damaged whilst Lockwood’s water level was lowered to limit potential flooding during the war years. In 1951, the Ferry Boat Inn and Coppermill were designated Grade II Listed Buildings for their architectural features and unique place in local history.
In 1973, the Thames Water Authority became site manager following the creation of new regional water authorities, public bodies responsible for water supply, navigation, land drainage, sewage treatment and fisheries. A few years later in 1975, Walthamstow Reservoirs’ important status for London’s wildlife was officially recognised for the first time with its designation as a Site of Special Scientific Interest. In the 1980s, the Marine Engine House was decommissioned and as a result, was used mainly as a storage space until it was redeveloped as part of the new Walthamstow Wetlands over 30 years later.
In 1989, the water supply and sewage treatment aspects of the Thames Water Authority were privatised, leading to the company of today and in 2000, the site was designated part of the Lea Valley Special Protection Area for wildlife - also gaining international ‘Ramsar’ status as a major part of the valley’s internationally important wetland habitat.
In 2017, after several years of planning, buildings restoration and habitat enhancement, Walthamstow Wetlands re-opened to the public with the reservoirs continuing to provide Londoners with their daily drinking water – just as they’ve done continuously for the past 150 years. Follow the Touchstone Trails and travel back through time to explore some of the milestone events that have shaped the Wetlands’ unique industrial heritage.