Oxford's first waterworks, south-east of Folly Bridge

Folly Bridge waterwheel and Friar Bacons study

Folly Bridge from the east, with the 17th-century waterworks and the hexagonal tower of Friar Bacon's study at the southern end. Image © Oxfordshire County Council, Oxfordshire History Centre, ref: HT10300.

Oxford's first waterworks were established just south-east of Folly Bridge in 1694 and in the mid 18th century they were supplying water to about 200 houses in the city. They relied on a waterwheel to power a three-barrelled pump. The waterwheel also worked the engine which was used to bore out the elm 'mains' pipes which were laid in the principle streets of the city. However, the waterwheel did not work well when the river was flowing slowly, or in times of high water and flooding, and so Oxford's water supply was very unreliable (as well as being of poor quality, as the water was taken directly from the river, and was unfiltered).

Oxford's second waterworks, north-west of Folly Bridge

[Folly Bridge old pumping station]

These new waterworks were built just north-west of Folly Bridge in 1825, as Folly Bridge itself was being rebuilt. After closure in 1856 the waterworks building became a flock mill and from 1892 it was part of the City Engineer's Depot. It was demolished in 1971 and houses on Shirelake Close now stand on the site. Image © Oxfordshire County Council, Oxfordshire History Centre, ref: D267117a.

When Folly Bridge was rebuilt in 1825-7 the waterworks were moved to the northern bank of the river, at the western end of Isis Street (now Shirelake Close). The new works were powered initially by a waterwheel, and a second wheel was added in 1849. The waterworks can be seen on this plan of 1844, drawn up when wharves in the area were being sold at auction. In the early 1850s a steam engine was built to provide power (hence the tall chimney in the photograph) but regular flooding and the fact that the works were downstream of the St Ebbe's gasworks, and at least five sewage outlets, meant that the water they supplied was still often badly polluted. Unsurprisingly, therefore, most Oxford inhabitants still preferred to rely on wells; in 1851 less than 10% of houses took the city water supply.

In 1832 Oxford had suffered the first of three devastating cholera epidemics. The physician Henry Acland's pioneering work on the epidemiology of the outbreaks showed that the mortality rate, which was particularly high in the crowded working-class parishes of St Aldates, St Clement's, St Thomas's and St Ebbe's, was related to poor housing and to lack of proper drainage and sanitation. Acland and other reformers pressed for Oxford to adopt the 1848 Health of Towns Act, but whilst the university's commissioners were in favour, most of the city's representatives opposed it, fearing loss of local autonomy. Instead they decided to hold their own inquiry which was, ironically, delayed by another outbreak of cholera in 1849. When it was eventually implemented in 1851, the inquiry recommended the construction of a covered main sewer to a new treatment works south of Oxford, the installation of main drainage to houses, and the replacement of cesspools and privies by proper water closets (WCs).

Oxford's third waterworks, at Lake Street, New Hinksey

Pumping station Lake Street

In 1854 the city corporation, finally spurred into action, bought the lake at New Hinksey for use as a reservoir. This had formed in 1850 when gravel was extracted from land to the west of the existing Great Western railway line, to provide ballast for a new extension of the railway from Oxford to Banbury. The resulting crater was filled by natural springs and by seepage from Hinksey Stream, thus forming the lake. A new pumping station (now the South Oxford Community Centre) was built at the western end of the road leading to the lake - Lake Street - and it opened in 1856. The pump and engine houses were designed by the engineer James Jones who became the works' first manager. Like most waterworks, it initially employed steam power, first using beam engines and later compound vertical and horizontal engines. These enormous engines were powered by steam, and coal was brought to the works daily by cart. Once the former railway line had been removed following the closure of Grandpont Station in 1872 the water company bought seven acres of land immediately north of the pumping station from University College (an area known as the Step Ground) and dug out a cooling pond (now the boating lake). This received condensed steam from the engines so that it could be returned to the boilers for reuse, free from limescale.

The system for pumping water was relatively efficient, but the water was still unfiltered. In 1880 the photographer and social campaigner Henry Taunt challenged the mayor to prove that it was fit to drink. Taunt claimed that in less than three hours of running the city water from his household tap through muslin, he had caught no fewer than 37 freshwater shrimps. These he later displayed at the Town Hall under a microscope. Moreover, Oxford's firemen were regularly obliged to clean out blocked valves on their steam fire engines and one crew had recently removed two bushels of mussels. Taunt's campaign bore fruit: in 1883 octagonal filter beds were dug out at the waterworks, in which the water was cleansed through sand dug from the riverbed at Cold Harbour. The filtered water was stored in newly-built underground tanks.

[Waterworks workmen in filter beds D263922a]

Workmen washing sand in the waterworks filter beds in 1914. Two of the beds now form the open-air swimming pool. The pumping station with its chimney can be seen in the background. Image © Oxfordshire County Council, Oxfordshire History Centre, ref: D263922a

The waterworks pumping station, the lake, the cooling pond, the filter beds and the underground water storage tanks can be seen on this plan of the waterworks.

Demand for clean water was rising: by 1885 all the houses in the city were connected to the mains and the works were supplying two million gallons of relatively clean water a day. Several more engine houses were added to the pumping station, to house more and more up-to-date engines, as shown in the lower right-hand corner of the plans below, drawn by industrial historian Wilfred Foreman.

Waterworks plan 3

Plans of the Lake Street waterworks by Wilfred Foreman, 1974. Oxfordshire History Centre, ref: OXFO 352.6. Reproduced by kind permission of Mrs Sylvia Foreman.

To house the enormous pumps the buildings required height and, for the beam engine, a strong supporting wall. Light and ventilation were also needed, and the high, round-headed windows at Lake Street pumping station, some set in recessed brickwork, are typical of pumping house architecture. The original 1856 engine house faced Lake Street and the boiler house was immediately to the east of it. Adjacent to that was the works manager's house (now demolished). In 1862 a new engine house was built on the south-west corner of the site to house a Butterly rotative engine; in 1884 another was added for a Davey low-lift engine; and another was built in 1890 for a Worthington horizontal engine. The buildings of the pumping station demonstrate changing building materials over the period: the 1856 and 1862 engine houses are of hand-made bricks (commonly used until the end of the 1860s) whereas the later houses are of more uniform machine-made bricks. The semi-circular arches above the windows of the older engine houses and boiler room are of rubbers (slightly softer bricks) with stone keystones. A simple but attractive decorative scheme using dark blue engineering bricks (some stamped 'Joseph Hamblet West Bromwich') was used around the windows of the Davey engine house.

The conversion of the pumping station into the South Oxford Community Centre

The Lake Street waterworks ceased operation in 1934 because new waterworks had been built at Swinford. Soon after, RWM Gibbs, a popular Labour councillor for the South Ward (and later father-in-law of the prominent Oxford politician Olive Gibbs) persuaded the City Council to allow the redundant pumping station to be converted into a centre for recreational activities for local people. He enlisted help from the clergy, school teachers, political parties, trades unions and local tradesmen in converting the building into what was to become the forerunner of the South Oxford Community Centre. The conversion (except for the laying on of public services, which the Council paid for) was achieved entirely by voluntary labour. There were facilities for indoor games – darts and table tennis – a sewing room for dressmaking and other needlework, and a large hall which could be used for social events and as a gymnasium. A management committee was set up, with Gibbs as Chairman, to run what became known as the South Ward Social Guild. The committee included Mrs Horwood of Marlborough Road, whose 12-year-old daughter Brenda became treasurer. Brenda Horwood was involved with the Community Centre for the rest of her life. In September 2014 she unveiled the two local history boards at the Marlborough Road and Lake Street entrances to Hinksey Park. She died in November 2014 at the age of 92, having lived in Marlborough Road since she was six, in a house built by her great-grandfather. When the Community Centre's lower hall was refurbished in 2016 it was named the Brenda Horwood Room.

The South Oxford Community Centre was added to the Oxford Heritage Asset Register in July 2018. The register recognises buildings which make a special contribution to the character of Oxford and its neighbourhoods through their locally significant historic, architectural, archaeological or artistic interest. It is sometimes called 'the local list' and gives buildings a degree of extra protection in planning terms should proposals be put forward to radically alter or demolish them.

For old photographs and memories of the South Oxford Community Centre see:

For more information on the Lake Street waterworks see:

For more information on the history of Oxford's water supply see:

The hexagonal tower of Friar Bacon's study and the adjacent waterworks at the southern end of Folly Bridge. Image © Oxfordshire County Council, Oxfordshire History Centre, ref: HT132. (Click image to close)

[Folly Bridge waterwheel and Friar Bacons study HT132]

Plan of Folly Bridge and its surroundings, July 1844. The waterworks are in the top left-hand corner. Image © the Bodleian Library, ref: Bodl GA fol B 71, 132. (Click image to close)

[Auction of wharfs, Folly Bridge, 1844, Bodl GA fol B 71, 132, map]

Plan of the Lake Street waterworks and their surroundings in the early 1930s. Image © Oxfordshire County Council, Oxfordshire History Centre, ref: OXFO 352.6 MC3 packet 2, folder 43, 1. (Click image to close)

[Waterworks plan OXFO 352.6 MC3 packet 2 folder 43, 2]

The waterworks west of Folly Bridge, showing the two waterwheels (and the 'swing bridge' gates to the basin west of the bridge). (The bridge is to the left of the image). From the 'Vellum Book' schedule of the property of the city of Oxford, © Oxfordshire History Centre.
(Click image to close)

[Waterworks at Folly Bridge, Vellum Book]