Growing Town Brought A Touch Of Colour To The Water Supply (21 September 1973)
An adequate supply of wholesome piped water is taken pretty much for granted today. Yet history, even mid-20th century history in Bletchley and Fenny Stratford, teaches that this first requirement of any community is the last that should be presumed.
Practically all the towns and villages in North Bucks are where they are because originally there was room there for speedy agricultural development and water was immediately available or easily obtainable on the spot. Practically all are at least a thousand years old and it is salutary to reflect that it is only within the last 100 years that piped water has become largely available where needed.
How close to Bletchley still is in time to that original condition was once pointed out to me by the late and memorable Mr. Joseph Fennell, who died in the early 1950’s at the age of 92. Living in Oxford Street, a comparatively modern development off the road between Bletchley and Fenny, he recalled how the developer of the east side made a great effort to discover an underground supply of water thereabouts. Having found one, the developer then sank a well for the exclusive use of the occupiers of those properties.
Such wells were covered over and quickly forgotten when a piped town water supply was installed, but in my own time here two or three have been re-discovered – and in awkward places such as under the ground floors of more recent buildings.
I suppose it was only the invention of adequate pumping machinery that enabled water to be supplied over a distance involving varying heights. Bletchley’s first piped supply was pumped from Great Brickhill (which presumably had enough water to spare) but within two decades it became inadequate and a well was then sunk at Sandhouse.
In this connection I always read with pleasure and admiration a passage which appears in the year book for this district published by local journalist, Forbes Oldham, in 1908. This states:
“Beer Fenny Stratford has, but what she has not got in sufficient quantities is water. This is hard on the many teetotallers within her borders, though those others who may be cynically inclined might say that perhaps the number of teetotallers may in part account for the prevailing scarceness of water for general domestic purposes throughout the town and district.
“While this great scarcity has existed over many years, and still exists, it is sanguinely anticipated that in a short space of time it may be overcome through the success of the new Water Supply Scheme, already inaugurated and being rapidly pressed forward, which is designed to give Fenny Stratford an ample and adequate supply of water from a well at Sand House – on the London Road – to supplement, possibly to entirely replace, the present futilely inadequate supply from the Water Works at Great Brickhill, works which were inaugurated just 16 years ago with such flourishes of trumpets and triumphant shouts as led the residents to believe that in them they possessed an inexhaustible supply which would last out all their wants until the crack of doom – and even then be almost sufficient to extinguish the flames which we are taught will follow on that said particular “crack”.
But it was not an uncommon state of affairs. In my native village the water supply sometimes failed because there wasn’t enough pressure to reach that height.
As for that well “at Sandhouse – on the London Road” – I had already arrived here before it caved in and Bletchley’s water supply was cut off at the proverbial stroke.
Neighbouring authorities quickly answered the calls for help. I seem to remember a surface pipe being laid at one point which was rather like the pipes that were laid along London’s gutters during the war. Meanwhile the emergency supplies had to be paid for.
But it was the next water problem that is still remembered most vividly by those who lived here at the time in the older and lower parts of the town.
The water that came from the taps began to take on a brownish tinge and as time went on it became browner. Housewives in particular became loud in their complaints. The water spoiled their washing instead of helping to launder it.
Some thought the sediment must be sand getting into the water from new boring, but it was quickly found that most of it was not sand. It was rust that was being scoured off the old pipes by water whose flow was constantly increasing with the increasing amount of new housing and industry.
It was about that time – though it could have been later – that Mr. John Smithie, who was then water engineer in addition to his other jobs, took me along to Sandhouse and showed me that the water was perfectly clear when it went into the main.
It took much time and money finally to remedy matters, but in all it was yet another instance of those growing pains that have to be watched for and endured when what amounts to a new town is being added quickly to an old one.
In more recent times, of course, Bletchley’s water undertaking and several others have been merged with and formally handed over to the Bucks Water Board, with obvious advantages for all.
But harking back to that colourful water: although this was a nuisance it nevertheless gave rise to jesting. One quip I particularly relished because it could not have been appreciated in any part of the country which had not known Dr. Browne Willis, who founded St. Martin’s Church at Fenny.
One day I was trying to explain to two new colleagues the significance of that celebrated non-medico to this locality when one of them, not a Chinaman, broke in with: “Och mon, I ken it noo – and a’ the time here’s me been thinking ye’ve been spieling about yon water gi’ing us a’ the brown willies.”
End of lesson on local background.