Cleadon Water Tower: a work of art which saved countless lives

It is one of the most visible landmarks in the North East. On a clear day it can be seen from Hartlepool and swathes of County Durham.

But dominant upon the skyline though it is, we have to wonder how many thousands of people have looked at and admired Cleadon Water Tower from afar, without actually realising what it is.

As it is such an ornate building the unknowing passer-by could be forgiven for thinking it is a folly, like Penshaw Monument. Yet it was a functional and very important and literally life saving building - its deliberate resemblance to an Italian campanile notwithstanding.

The building

The superb Cleadon Water Tower.

As we all know, the 100 ft tower and its outlying buildings are in the Italianate Rundbogenstil style. Clearly.

Victorian architecture was often more aesthetically pleasing than it needed to be, something we can still appreciate today (how many developments from as recently as the 1960s and 1970s have now been demolished?).

Inside the tower, a 141-step spiral staircase corkscrews its way up the flue. Outside is a balcony 82 feet above the ground with views of Penshaw Monument, the Northern Spire, Roker Pier, cranes beside the River Tyne and the wind turbines at Nissan. It is the widest view of the North East from almost anywhere without taking to the air.

Origins

The tower looks the same today as it did here in 1900.

Historically, cholera has seldom been reviewed favourably. But, while it doesn’t atone for everything, were it not for cholera there might not have been a Cleadon Water Tower to admire.

Britain’s first cholera epidemic broke out in Sunderland in 1831. Improvements in water quality were clearly essential, but would not be come in time for the 32,000 Britons who died from the disease in 1831 and 1832.

Initially, little was done, and therefore the next pandemic in 1848-49 killed another 62,000 more people across the country. Decisive action was finally taken.

The Public Health Act of 1848 was passed and water quality was at its essence. This meant improved drainage and provision of sewers, the removal of all refuse from houses, streets and roads and the provision of clean drinking water; all of which we now take for granted.

As this wintry scene shows, the tower can be seen from many miles away.

Then, in 1852, the Sunderland and South Shields Water Company was created by another Act of Parliament. It was eventually subsumed by Northumbrian Water.

Cometh the hour, cometh Thomas Hawksley

Thomas Hawksley was a prominent civil engineer from Nottingham. He loved nothing more than to improve the nation’s water supply. In fact, he was water supply mad, having previously worked on two Sunderland water stations: Humbledon in 1846 and Fulwell and many others beside.

The scheme for Cleadon was designed by Hawksley and built between 1859 and 1862. A number of wells were constructed between Cleadon and Hesledon, extracting the clean water from in the area’s magnesium limestone.

Cleadon Water Tower in 2022.

The pumping station was originally operated by steam (the steam powered machinery was finally replaced by electrical equipment in 1930) from coal fired boilers with 470 pounds of coal, about a fifth of a ton, used each hour.

Two large arches in the west wall gave access to coal wagons. A blacksmith's workshop was found on the eastern section.

The way it worked was that the engines powered ram and bucket pumps into the 270 ft deep well. The ram and buckets moved up and down, producing a vacuum in the shaft which forced the water up. A giant syringe. Genius.

The water was then diverted to a huge underground reservoir which held around 2 million gallons of water.

Sunderland and South Shields Water Company asked Thomas Hawksley to come up with something similar in Ryhope, which opened in 1867 and operated for a century.

Historical importance

A beautiful building in a beautiful setting.

The importance of these developments can hardly be understated. Over the last 200 years there have been more famous feats of civil engineering in what became known as Tyne and Wear: sports stadiums, bridges, tunnels, follies.

They all have their uses and places in history, but none of them were ever a matter of life and death. The Cleadon Water Tower, on the other hand, saved countless lives when the country was regularly in the grip of cholera.

The fact that it is so pleasing on the eye and visible from so far away is a bonus.

Later

World War Two saw the tower put to unforseen use. It was used as a navigational landmark by British ships and pilots. Unfortunately the Luftwaffe used it too. It was also an ideal lookout post to spot enemy aircraft. A telephone was also installed at the top to speed up important communications.

Radio stations still use the site as a transmitter.

In 2021 it featured in the Guardian’s Tyne and Wear section for a feature called “Five of England’s less-visited counties for days out and short breaks”, along with nearby Bede’s Way, Jarrow Hall and Seaburn.

Retirement

The end of Cleadon Tower as a waterworks came in the 1970s when Derwent Reservoir in the northern Pennines first came into use. But it has at least escaped demolition and is now protected by the Grade II* listing awarded in 2013.

It is described by English Heritage, who decide the listings, as “a handsome and imposing example which is outstanding in terms of its scale and grandeur”.

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Other buildings on the site, such as the boiler house, blacksmith shop and engine house have now been converted into homes.

They are no less ornate and every building at the pumping station served a crucial purpose. Yet it is the magnificent tower which has most captured the interest of visitors to Cleadon and its beautiful hills.

Nevertheless, it is still one of the more underrated of the North East’s landmarks.