Pump House History

The Pump House Environment Centre was opened in 2004.
The building that houses it used to be a crucial part of
Worcester’s waterworks until it closed in 1995.

The central part of the building, where you'll find the café and shop, sits over a huge tank that used to hold clean, filtered water that had been drawn from the River Severn by pumps in the buildings either side. The pumps lifted the clean water up into reservoirs that served the city.

If you want a more detailed account of the Pump House's history, read on. And if you want to read a fascinating history of Worcester's water supply, follow this link to 'The Greatest of Blessings'.

WMAG; (c) Worcester City Museums; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation
Barbourne Water Tower, 1894, painted by Harold Jarman. With permission of Worcester City Museum collection.

1. Before the Pump House
For most of Worcester’s history, nearly all residents obtained water from wells. The first piped water supplies in Worcester, instigated in the 15th century, brought water from wells near the city centre to monasteries – including one near Worcester Bridge. The water ran into troughs that can still be seen today in the Cathedral cloisters.

By the early 17th century, three large cisterns (tanks) had been installed in the city centre. Water flowed into the cisterns along wooden and lead pipes from the River Severn, pushed by a pump driven by a water wheel. By the 1650s, a ‘Water House’ pumping station stood on a small island under the old Worcester Bridge (which then ended a little further north, at Newport Street). The building housed a water wheel that stood 6m (20ft) high. The island was cleared away when the new bridge was built in 1781.

In the 1770s, the city’s main water supply was derived from the river from Barbourne, close to where the Pump House stands today. A water tower was built, to give the water a head of pressure, and water was lifted up to its top by a pump powered by a large water wheel at the bottom of the tower. Water flowed from the tower to a huge iron reservoir that stood near the Cross, in St. Nicholas Street, in the city centre. In 1807, the tower’s water wheel was superseded by a 7 horsepower steam engine, and that was replaced by a better, more powerful engine in 1830. Water from the reservoir in the city centre supplied about one-third of the population – although each pipe was only supplied for an hour twice a week.

The Diglis Weir, about a mile south of Worcester Bridge, was built in 1844. The weir permanently raised the level of river by about 3 metres (10 ft), and isolated Worcester from the tides. Before then, Worcester was the highest point up the river to be affected by the tides.


Image via the British Library, with no copyright restrictions.

2. Insanitary conditions
The growing urbanisation of Britain in the 19th century led to concerns over water quality. Reports in the 1840s described awful conditions in Worcester, with cesspools and night soil (the collected contents of cesspits) located very close to water supplies.

A large manure depot, home to a huge pile of night soil, was across the road from the waterworks. It had a drain that led to the river just upstream from the waterworks’ inlet pipe. The Public Health Act of 1848 was a move to improve the conditions in towns and cities, and it placed authority for water supply, drainage and sewerage under a single body, in London: the General Board of Health.

The Act was controversial among many people in Worcester, in particular those who would have to pay for improvements and those who would lose control over water supply and sewerage.

In 1854, the Board of Health appointed a prominent civil engineer called Thomas Hawksley to formulate a plan for a new waterworks for Worcester. Hawksley's plan proposed taking water either from the River Teme or the River Severn, and using steam engines to pump it to settling tanks and filters, then up to a new reservoir on Rainbow Hill. The Teme, to the south of the city, had cleaner water, but building a waterworks next to the Severn would be cheaper: about £21,000 (equivalent to about £1.3 million in today's money) compared to nearly £24,000 if water was taken from the Teme.

Thomas Hawksley (1807-1893) – image in the public domain.

3. Building the Pump House
And so, as a result of Thomas Hawksley's report, the River Severn was chosen and the council bought land near the existing waterworks, at Barbourne. A pipe would carry water from the Severn across what is now Gheluvelt Park, over Barbourne Brook, to settling tanks and filter beds.

Thomas Hawksley was appointed consultant engineer for the new waterworks, and on 17 March 1857, the foundation stone was laid. The building was completed in November 1857, and housed two large steam engines that drove pumps. At that time, the entirety of the building was what is now the West Wing – to your left as you stand at the main entrance looking out.

One pump drew water from the river into two large settling tanks on-site, each holding 820,000 litres (180,000 gallons). There were also three sand filter beds. Filtered water was held in a tank next to the engine room – the tank is underneath the environmental centre – right below your feet. The second pump lifted the clean water to a reservoir at Rainbow Hill. In 1868, the East Wing was built – the part of the current building that is behind the shop. It too housed two steam engine-driven pumps. New filtration tanks were also built.

In 1894, partly as a result of higher-than-average rates of typhoid, three new filter beds were installed – and the incidence of typhoid dropped dramatically. A year later, the steam engines were removed, and engineers installed pumps driven by electric motors. In the same year, another reservoir was completed at Elbury Hill.

In 1902, a concrete roof was built over the clean water tank, reducing the buildup of algae. In the 1920s, two more new filters were added, and the area of the works grew to about 3 hectares (nearly 8 acres). Two new reservoirs were also constructed.

One of the settling tanks before demolition.
One of the settling tanks before demolition.


Nick Owen opening the Pump House Environment Centre. Behind Mr Owen, in the grey jacket, is Cecil Duckworth, who founded the DWT.

4. Becoming an environmental centre 
In 1995, the waterworks between Gheluvelt Park (named after the Battle of Ghulevelt, 1914) and the river was closed. Worcester City Council purchased the site in 2000. The settling tanks were removed and the Pump House footprint was simplified.

In 2001, the decision was made to convert the Pump House into an Environment Centre run by the Duckworth Worcestershire Trust.

On the 26th August 2004, Nick Owen, from BBC Midlands’ ‘Today’ news programme, and Cecil Duckworth, chairman of The Duckworth Worcestershire Trust, opened the Pump House Environment Centre to the Public. The Riverside Park was also officially opened that day. The new bridge to link Gheluvelt Park with Gheluvelt Riverside Park was installed in 2006.

‘Friends of Gheluvelt Park’ was formed in 2004 to work with Worcester City Council, the Duckworth Worcestershire Trust, local Residents Associations and others to develop and increase the use of Gheluvelt Park. The Friends continue to be active and work on projects and events in the park.