The Reservoirs that Weren’t

According to Dr Alice Owen, “When planning major infrastructure projects in the UK, there is often an assertion that the difficulty of such projects is a modern phenomenon.   We grumble that great plans have to deal with many, often conflicting, constraints and considerations and it was all so much easier in the great era of Victorian engineering that delivered much of our water infrastructure still in use today.”

That inspired Dr Katy Roelich, Dr Owen and Dr James Stark to create a small, interdisciplinary project, that combines engineering, social science and historical enquiry to suggest that the view is too simple. Exploring a previously uncatalogued archive of the development of Leeds water infrastructure, held at Leeds Industrial Museum at Armley Mills, has revealed the fascinating story of “the reservoirs that weren’t”.

The Cultural Institute, partnering with Leeds Museums and Galleries, supported a project to catalogue the rest of the archive contents, with the aim of uncovering the mystery of the reservoir. Why was such massive infrastructure envisaged, designed and signed-off — but never realised?

Together with a final year undergrad student in History and English, as project intern, the researchers worked through seventeen large boxes of uncatalogued items about the reservoir including contains parliamentary records, petitions, transcript of debate and a copy of the Act of Parliament that was passed to enable the reservoirs to be built as well as contemporary press cuttings and correspondence. The records demonstrated the famed ambition of Victorian infrastructure.

In 1901, the Leeds Corporation applied to parliament to build six large reservoirs a long way north of the city.  Only one of these reservoirs was ever built.  Reasons for abandoning plans for the other five included issues of politics, economic impacts, demand modelling, competing infrastructure, competition for water between cities and towns, and geology amongst others.  Many of these issues have resonances in contemporary infrastructure planning.

The reservoirs that weren’t was also featured in Medium