Dominating the skyline of Cleadon Hills along with Cleadon Windmill is the impressive and rather imposing Cleadon Water Tower. Little has changed with this view in the last 150 years and Cleadon Windmill can be forgiven for feeling a little over shadowed by this 100ft tower which was once part of the former pumping station.
The early 19th century saw the population of Sunderland and surrounding areas expand dramatically leaving many working class people living in slums. When the first outbreak of Cholera hit Sunderland in 1831 over 200 people lost their lives raising concerns on a national level about the quality of the drinking water. The population continued to grow rapidly during the mid nineteenth century which coupled with the expanding requirements of the Industrial Revolution saw a need for health improvements in the area.
Action was needed and it came in the form of the Sunderland and South Shields Water Company which was created following an Act of Parliament in 1852. A number of wells were constructed stretching from Cleadon in the north to Hesledon in the south to take advantage of the clean water that was trapped in the magnesium limestone. The works were designed by Thomas Hawksley and were built between 1859 and 1862. Hawksley was an expert in his field as a nationally renowned water supply engineer having previously worked on two other stations, one at Humbledon in 1846 and another at Fulwell in 1852.
When first built the plant was operated by steam and it took around 470lbs of coal an hour to power the two Cornish engines which powered ram and bucket pumps into the well. As the ram and buckets moved up and down it produced a vacuum in the shaft forcing the water up. The water was then piped away to a large circular underground reservoir. This reservoir held around 2 million gallons of water and when it was covered over in 1954 was said to be the largest covered dome in Europe. The well itself was 12 foot in diameter and 270 feet deep.
The plant successfully supplied clean drinking water to the people of the South Shields area, extracting around 1.5 million gallons of water every 12 hours. In 1930 the plant was electrified and the steam power plant was removed and replaced by electrical equipment.
The tower is easily the most recognisable feature of the station and although it is oriental in style reminiscent of a Chinese pagoda, the tower was actually built to resemble the Italianate campanile bell towers. This large chimney provided a draught for the boilers as well as the dispersal of smoke, steam and waste gases. There is a balcony 82 feet above ground level and it has a staircase of 141 steps which spiral around the central flue.
In later years the tower together with the Paper Mill Chimneys at Grangetown were used as navigational landmarks during the Second World War. A telephone was also installed at the top of the tower as its height and location made it an ideal lookout for enemy aircraft. There is also talk of the existence of a bunker at the base of the tower, which children used to play in after the war until it was later covered in.
The opening of the Derwent Reservoir in the 1970’s saw the demise of the pumping station. The tower itself now houses a number of radio aerials and luckily has survived the threat of demolition, while the other buildings on the site which made up the pumping station, such as the boiler house and engine house have now been converted into unique luxury dwellings.
Pumping stations such as this one really did change the face of industrial Britain and the design and extravagance of the buildings themselves epitomised Victorian architecture.