This information was published on our original website in 2014. We are in the process of updating the information, as some of the contents may be out of date.
The spring water of Malvern has long been famous for its healing properties, purity and abundance. Since at least the 17th century this has attracted people to visit the public springs on the Malvern Hills or to buy the bottled water. Throughout the following three hundred years as Malvern grew there were increasing demands on this precious resource, until inevitably the supply proved inadequate. In the 19th century these sources were first contained, tanked, channelled and piped for public use, but in the 20th century, as these limited supplies were replaced with water from elsewhere, the neglected springs often ran ‘to waste’ into road drains. In the 21st century this situation is beginning to change….
Abundance and Bottling
During a national drought in 1615 the Malvern springs continued to flow prolifically and “were (well) dressed as a token of gratitude for a plentiful supply of water” (Malvern Advertiser 1870). Perhaps because of this drought, in the early 17th century a song recorded the widespread popularity of Malvern`s bottled spring water;-
“A thousand bottles here,
were filled weekly,
And many costrils rare,
for stomachs sickly;
Some were to London sent,
Some of them into Kent,
Others on to Berwick went,
O praise the Lord.”(A “costril” is a type of leather flask.)
At least twenty-four commercial works are thought to have operated to bottle water from various springs during the 19th and 20th centuries. Today there is only one, Coca-Cola whose factory in Colwall uses the water from Primes Well, previously owned by Schweppes. The Royal family have continued to drink this bottled Malvern Water when at home or abroad, since Victorian times. To comply with current Environmental Health legislation, in 2007 Coca-Cola will now have to filter the water and remove the words ‘natural mineral water’ from the label, renaming it ‘Malvern English Water’.
Healing Properties and Purity
One of the first known mentions of the healing properties of Malvern water appeared in a poem published in 1622 by Richard Bannister in his book ‘A Treatise of One Hundred and Thirteen Diseases of the Eyes’.
“A little more I`ll of their curing tell,
How they help sore eyes with a new found well;
Great speech of Malvern Hills was lately reported,
Unto which spring people in troops resorted.”
To determine their purity, Malvern`s spring waters were analysed first in 1743 by Doctor John Wall when treating his patients at Worcester Infirmary and while developing the recipe for English bone china, now Royal Worcester Porcelain.
In the 18th century, when the level of the unpleasant taste of minerals in waters was believed to signify their power to heal, Dr Wall promoted the unusually clean taste and purity of Malvern water as its healing power and this attracted many famous and wealthy people to the town, eighty years before the commercial “water cure” began. He is popularly remembered in the rhyme,
“The Malvern water, says Dr John Wall,
is famed for containing just nothing at all.”
Public Spouts & Fountains
This influx of the gentry to ‘take the waters’ resulted in the first development of the Malverns from a series of hillside dwellings into a small spa resort. At that time the better off Malvern householders each derived their water from their own private wells beside their houses, while the poorer inhabitants collected water from the hillside springs. But in the early 19th century generous benefactors erected public spouts and fountains for the use of the less fortunate poor and for visitors, such as Lord Sandy’s Spout circa 1835 that still remains in water, but not now potable. Many other examples still remain but are nolonger working, including the 1835 North Malvern Tank and spout (now known as the Clock Tower), the 1840 Lower Wyche Spout, and the 1844 West Malvern Tap (all built by Charles Morris), the 1836 Wyche Spout and the later Jubilee Fountain at Malvern Wells built in 1887. The Malvern Spa Association hopes to reconnect spring water to all the above public sites as part of the Malvern`s Heritage Project springs restoration.
Water Shortages Begin
The hydropathic Doctors Wilson and Gully opened the first commercial “water cure” establishments in Great Malvern in 1842, exploiting the town’s existing springs and wells. Throughout the next 30 years the population increased rapidly as many new residents, visitors and patients were attracted to the Malverns, hoping to improve their health by taking the waters. Many new wealthier homes and boarding houses were built, each with their own well, while poorer dwellings often shared a new public spout. These houses were often built from Malvern stone quarried on the Hills. The consumption of Malvern water was increasing dramatically and as the residents became more “water conscious”, demands for spring water to be piped direct to their homes increased. In 1851 under the Malvern Improvement Act the Commissioners were allowed to levy a water rate not exceeding one shilling in the pound of the value of properties receiving a water supply. By 1855 the lack of rain, plus the now numerous hydropathic “water cure” establishments taking supplies from the hill and town springs, caused increased shortages of water throughout the Malverns.
In 1864 the lack of water in the growing town encouraged fourteen Doctors to present a petition to the Council on the dangers to health of an inadequate water supply. Meanwhile the Mill Stream dried up leaving insufficient supplies for the steam driven Barnards Green Mill and the Commissioners were sued. As a consequence the Urban District Council was fined £320 for diverting and tapping springs at Rushey, Green, Little, Wide and Firs Valleys. Residents of North Malvern also complained that the Quarry Companies were using most of the water from Morris’s Tank leaving them with little for domestic use.
An angry controversy raged in 1866 over the water supply problems and sewerage, in which earth closets were strongly advocated instead of water closets owing to the shortage of water. By 1867 Malvern`s roads had become so dusty due to lack of rain and increased traffic, partly from the new building works needing deliveries by carts of heavy quarry stone, that visitors began to stay away. These complaints began to have a negative effect on the bookings at the many local boarding houses, so the Council then introduced a street-watering cart for the first time to try to improve the situation.
The first domestic water meters began to be introduced in Malvern during 1868, in an attempt to charge more fairly only for the amount of water used. From 1871 “the rent for the supply of water to all houses and premises of more than £10 rateable value is not to exceed one shilling for every 1,000 gallons of water supplied. £10 and under, the price is not to exceed six pence per 1,000 gallons.” Penalties for non-payment were fast and severe. If accounts were not paid within seven days the Local Water Board could cut off the supply and after a further seven days notice, could remove all meters and pipe-work, forcing residents to use the public spouts. Even so during the Depression, in 1928 the losses incurred through non-payment and greater costs were a substantial £7,678 and so new Orders for increased Malvern water charges were established in 1931 and 1949. In North Malvern one family who earned a meager living from taking in laundry, continued to use the Clock Tower public spout as their only water supply until it was cut off in 1947.
Reservoirs and Repercussions
The first known publicly piped domestic supplies were obtained from a well on Malvern Common, north of Peachfield Road and west of the railway and pumped from this well to a reservoir constructed in 1876 on the east side of the main Wyche Road in Malvern Wells, to supply houses in Great Malvern. In this original 1870`s distribution scheme several miles of water main were laid, much of which was still in use until at least the 1950`s. The well and pumps have long since disappeared but the Lower Wyche Reservoir with a capacity of � million gallons still exists today, now owned by Severn Trent.
To supply the inhabitants of Malvern Link, in 1877 the Local Water Board constructed the North Malvern Service Reservoir on the hill above the Morris public spout and Tank. This new reservoir relied for its supplies on the springs and surface water from the North Malvern Valley, but in 1872 the first attempt at its construction ended in disaster. During a severe storm a torrent of water from the valley above caused the reservoir to collapse before completion, injuring several workmen, apparently because the mortar was not fully set and the design of the structure was faulty. The site was abandoned and the second reservoir was built slightly higher up the hillside with a capacity of � million gallons. It was rarely completely filled from the valley supply, but unfortunately it was now at too high a level for its water to be supplemented without a pumping station and so could not be used in conjunction with the Lower Wyche Reservoir and the Great Malvern distribution system.
After 1896 water was piped here from a new tank at the Wyche holding Dingle Spring water, but this supply was still four feet below the reservoir and so could only partially fill it. In the 20th century the reservoir was supplied with treated water pumped from Bromsberrow and to avoid any possible contamination in 1970 the pure spring water that originally supplied it and the Morris spout inside the Clock Tower, was piped ‘to waste’ into the road drain.
By the 1880`s the supplies to Great Malvern became inadequate for the ever-growing population. Under the Malvern Hills Acts beginning in 1884 the role of the Malvern Hills Conservators was gradually established to care for most parts of the Hills and surrounding commons, including many of the public springs and wells. The Conservators were formed to conserve and protect all these areas for public use from the increasing encroachment by new private buildings and fences, and to protect the ancient rights of the registered commoners.
In 1887 a “Great Drought” was reported with many springs drying up to a trickle from May to November. These acute water shortages resulted in a Parliamentary Bill, The Malvern Water Act of 1891. This authorized the construction of the British Camp Reservoir to collect spring and surface water from a large network of catch-water drains on the Malvern Hills. The substantial stone and earth dam and the reservoir were completed in 1895, opened by the Duchess of Teck, and when filled by the heavy rainfall the following year was heralded as the solution to all the water shortages previously experienced in Great Malvern. The building costs to be paid by the small community of Great Malvern reached the huge sum of �60,000, much of this raised by loans for the scheme. These loans were still being paid back by the inhabitants of the town in the 1950`s.
Droughts and Disputes
The area that the British Camp Reservoir supplied was soon optimistically extended to various other parishes of Herefordshire and Worcestershire under the Malvern Link Urban District area, including Colwall, Cradley, Mathon, Madresfield and Newland. But as this reservoir had originally been built high on the hills in order to use gravity to supply Great Malvern, it was now evident that a reservoir at this high a level suffered from the disadvantage of only collecting water from the small proportion of the watershed that was above it. Within ten years the supply again proved inadequate. By 1901 Malvern`s spring water supplies from the hills had become critically low and the reservoir dried up completely during the drought of 1902.
In 1896 the Wyche Pumping Station and the Upper Wyche Reservoir were constructed to supply the higher levels of Great Malvern, plus West Malvern and Colwall. The same year the Malvern Link Water Act permitted the construction of further tanks under the hillsides at Hayslad and the Dingle in West Malvern to help alleviate the existing water famine in Malvern Link. By the drought of 1902 the situation was so bad that pumps were installed at numerous points around the hills where water was still available, to provide a precarious, intermittent supply.
During this period of water shortages, for several years the villagers in West Malvern protested against their loss of the Danzell and Dingle springs, which had been taken into the public supply. Subsequently compensation water was afforded to certain properties previously enjoying the benefit of these springs. In certain cases the supplies were free and in others the charge was agreed at nine old pence per 1000 gallons. As no authority was put in place for this charge to be increased, a number of householders today still benefit from paying this fixed amount under the 1904 Danzell Spring Agreement. The full sewerage rate is however charged on their metered water usage.
In 1903 an eight-inch borehole was sunk near the Gas Works in Malvern Link to a depth of 878 feet and a main laid to the North Malvern Reservoir. It was hoped that this borehole would yield 225,000 gallons of water per day, but it yielded far less, only 100,000 gallons daily owing to difficulties in extracting the very hard water. In this emergency private sources were temporarily tapped instead and then a second borehole twelve inches wide was sunk on the same site to a depth of 950 feet, both together yielding a total of only 170,000 gallons daily.
The Final Solution?
In 1905 Malvern suffered a further severe drought. The Council lobbied Parliament to retrospectively authorize the previous emergency works and for a scheme to tap an entirely new source of supply. This Bill, the Malvern Water Act 1905 enabled the sinking of two boreholes at Bromsberrow, with the construction costing £25,000 for an engine house, steam pumps, a boiler house and a worker’s cottage and the laying of a ten inch main to supply British Camp Reservoir, where it was mixed with the Malvern water. All this work was completed by the end of that winter. With some later improvements the Bromsberrow Waterworks was officially opened on 29th March 1907, and this source assured an adequate supply of treated water to Malvern for the next 35 years, though it could no-longer be described as Malvern water.
In 1908 the Malvern Gazette Editor summarised the situation.
“Last year saw the opening of the new Waterworks, the Free Library and the new Sewage Disposal Works in Barnard`s Green. The water scheme met with no little opposition from a certain section of the council, but better counsels prevailed, and the whole district is now benefiting by a supply of water unequalled in purity and unlimited in amount.
“Undoubtedly the undertaking was expensive, but we are assured that in the near future the burdens which it imposed will be lightened, and if this be so, the one crying grievance of the opponents of the water scheme will be taken away. So far as water is concerned, Malvern need fear nothing in the days to come. Next in importance to the supply of pure water is the disposal of sewage, and from a recent paper, delivered by the Town Surveyor before the Sanitary Institute, it is apparent that in this matter also, Malvern is ahead of all communities of its size, and the practical immunity from infectious diseases which the district has recently enjoyed ought to be the greatest advertisement which the town possesses.
“The die has been cast, and the aim of those who have the directing of affairs is to make our town a residential holiday resort. The day-tripper may come if he chooses, but he will not be encouraged, and Malvern is to be the home of the retired, leisured class. This course is inevitable, and those who had hoped to make the town a second Blackpool will live to see the wisdom of the guiding influence, which directed the benefits of the vulgar holidaymaker into other channels. The beauties of the Malverns have been reserved for a class well able to appreciate them.”
Prejudice against people for reasons of class, race or gender was common in Britain at that time, but this focus on the class of holidaymaker desired for Malvern soon lost prominence when the First World War (1914-18) took the majority of young men in Britain off to fight in Europe. The hotels, boarding houses and grand middle class homes of the town lost their male servants and gardeners, many never returning as they were injured or killed in action.
Solving War-time Shortages
During the Second World War (1938-45) sixteen bombs fell on Malvern, one damaging the Willow Spring at Wyche Cutting. In May 1942 two Government establishments, T.R.E. (Telecommunications Research Establishment) and R.D.E. (Radar Defence Establishment) were unexpectedly sited in Malvern. Their numerous personnel, plus billeted troops and the wartime evacuees already sent to Malvern, strained the water resources to the limit. In August officials from a number of Government Departments met at Malvern in connection with some “top-secret” building programme, which later was revealed to be for five military Hospitals, including St Wulstan`s. The consumption of water had already increased from 600,000 gallons daily to approaching 1000,000 during the war, and now needed an additional 350,000 gallons more daily. It was clear that existing supplies would be totally inadequate.
Another borehole of twenty seven inches in diameter was sunk at Bromsberrow, with a new engine house, electric pumping plant and second, larger main laid to British Camp Reservoir. But during the construction work the old steam pumps installed in 1905 broke down and with no standby plant and no possibility of buying new plant at short notice during wartime, this proved to be the most serious crisis situation yet. As the water pressure at Bromsberrow was much greater than that experienced in normal waterworks practice, the prospect of finding suitable replacement pumps seemed remote, but after an intensive search two old pumps were located in the bottom of a Black Country coal mine. They were in poor condition and larger than required, but soon one good pump unit had been constructed from the two and put to work. Later the left over parts were built into a second unit and these gave excellent service until long after the war ended. The Bromsberrow Waterworks still operates today as part of Severn Trent Water.
Under the Conservative Government led by Margaret Thatcher, in 1987 all Britain`s nationalised water supplies were privatised and sold off to the newly established water companies. Today at least a quarter of ‘Britain’s’ water companies are now in foreign ownership. Sometimes Malvern householders informed Severn Trent Water that they had a private well or spring, only to find that their water source was then capped off and a water meter installed to record the amount they used. The owner was then charged, not for the natural supply, but sewerage for taking away the water they used.
Throughout the 1990`s the policy of privatising water spread to other Governments around the world where previously accessible public supplies were frequently enclosed and fenced off. At some sites riots broke out and on one occasion all the water company employees were killed by desperate villagers. In several countries including America, those who could not pay their bills had their piped water supplies cut off, forcing many thousands of the poor to beg or steal water in order to stay alive. In 2006 the Labour Government here began debating whether the water companies in Britain should now be allowed to cut off non-payers from piped water supplies…
With increases in global warming and the consequent pollution of many water supplies through flooding, pressure to control the diminishing sources of pure water will increase even further in the future. Malvern`s pure springs emerging at a high level will become more valuable than ever before, both economically and as potential life-savers for those with polluted supplies. Perhaps in this future the MSA`s aims “to conserve, protect and restore” the public and private springs of Malvern, will become an increasingly vital task.
Of over 100 recorded spring water sites around the Malvern Hills, today only six accessible public sources still flow with spring water that is usually pure enough to drink. These are St. Ann`s Well, Holy Well, Evendine Spring, Hayslad, Westminster Bank Spring, and Malvhina. With a National Lottery Fund grant the Malvern Spa Association in partnership with the Malvern Hills Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty are planning to reconnect spring water to six more sites if possible in 2007 and restore the structures of further twelve sites as part of the Malvern Heritage Project.
Rose Garrard, Dec.2006
With thanks for contributions from:
Tim and Anna Brazier, Michael and Sylvia Gardener and Jim Black
- c. 1907 Water Supply Table, Malvern Library
- 1908 Malvern Advertiser (Malvern Gazette Jan 2007)
- 1953 report by C. Judson, MHDC Surveyor and Water Engineer
- For sources of further information see the bibliography in Malvern “Hill of Fountains” by Rose Garrard 2006