For most of the nineteenth century, demand for water supply in the borough of Leicester and its surrounding area left the waterworks company – and its successor Leicester Corporation – constantly chasing demand by increasing capacity.
The Leicester Waterworks Company was founded in 1846 and the following year secured an Act of Parliament to build a reservoir and treatment works at Thornton, to the west of the town.
The company struggled to attract capital until the Corporation promised to invest £17,000 of the required £80,000 in return for guarantees of a dividend of 4% per annum until 1883 and all the company’s net profits over 4½% for ever.
Thornton Reservoir began supplying up to 1.6 million gallons in 1853, but within ten years Leicester suffered two serious water shortages, in 1863 and 1864, and Leicester Corporation took shares in the company to finance the reservoir and pumping station at Cropston which opened in 1871.
When the Waterworks Company proposed to increase its capital further in 1874, the Corporation decided to purchase the company outright by means of an enabling Act in 1877.
The water level of Cropston Reservoir was raised to increase capacity in 1887, and in 1890 parliamentary powers were sought to establish another reservoir at Swithland.
A further severe water shortage in 1893 was relieved only by taking an emergency supply from Ellistown Colliery which customarily supplied Coalville, and construction of the new dam began the following year.
Swithland Reservoir was built at almost the same time as the Great Central Railway line to London, which crosses it on two viaducts. This stretch of railway now forms part of the Great Central Railway (Loughborough) heritage line.
In preparation for the opening of Swithland Reservoir in 1896, the Cropston pumping station was extended to pump water between the three reservoirs.
No sooner was this system in place than Leicester Corporation went to Parliament for powers to extract water from the Derbyshire River Derwent. Other authorities had similar ideas and were obliged to collaborate by forming the Derwent Valley Water Board and building the reservoirs at Howden (1912), Derwent (1916) and Ladybower (1945).
The Leicester legacy of this race to build reservoirs includes three reservoirs and two former pumping stations.
Cropston Pumping Station, built for the Leicester Waterworks Company in 1870 and extended by Leicester Corporation Waterworks in 1894, was stripped of its engines and boilers in the 1950s and has been sensitively converted, retaining what was left of the internal installation, to a restaurant, wedding and conference venue by the current owners, Simon and Liz Thompson in 2015: https://www.thepumpingstation.co.uk.
The bar and restaurant space is in the former boiler house and the adjacent 1894 engine house retains the overhead winch which serviced the machinery below. The 1870 engine house is now a private residence which includes the spiral staircase up the truncated chimney to an observation deck.
Visitors park their cars among the ornamental filter beds, below which is an underground brick reservoir which, in time to come, could become an exciting visitor attraction.
Water supply engineering has the happy advantage of enhancing local amenities. People are resistant to having their land flooded, but the end-result is attractive, from Derbyshire’s spectacular lakeland to the quieter landscape of the Charnwood Forest in Leicestershire.
The Pumping Station, Cropston is a lunch stop on the ‘Cemeteries and Sewerage: the Victorian pursuit of cleanliness’ (September 16th-20th 2021) tour. For details of the itinerary, please click here.
Swithland Pumping Station is not accessible to the public.