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10 February 2021: Chelmsford’s water systemA view along a canal towards city buildings

It was just as well this evening’s meeting of our local National Trust Supporter Group was on Zoom as the roads and paths outside were snowy and icy.

Our speaker was Anthony McQuiggan. He lives in Galleywood, which had one of Chelmsford’s earliest clean water supplies; that may be why he took such a keen interest in the subject.

The ancient Greeks and Indians were among the first to discover the benefits of boiling water and filtering water through sand. Further progress was made by the Greeks and the Egyptians. The Romans are famous for their aqueducts but there was no real progress between Roman times and 1627, when Sir Roger Bacon discovered desalination. There were further advances in the 17th and 18th centuries. The first commercial sand filter water plant in the United Kingdom opened in Scotland in 1804.

Chelmsford’s first water pipes were initiated in 1341, when the Black Friars obtained a licence to lay a conduit to their newly-acquired property from a well in Chelmsford. A public open drain was laid from what is now Tindal Square along the High Street to discharge into the River Chelmer.

Each parish was responsible for providing water. This was done through the provision of wells and pumps in a number of places. In 1683 the Mildmay family granted the inhabitants of Chelmsford a 99 year lease enabling them to enter Mildmay land for the purpose of maintaining pipes taking water from Burgess Well in Galleywood to the conduit in Chelmsford. Unfortunately when the lease expired in 1782 the then landowner disputed the inhabitants’ rights to keep and maintain the pipe. The matter came to an end in 1789, when the pipe was cut off by the building of Shire Hall.

In 1790 a new public conduit was built in Tindal Square. The new conduit was topped by a statue of a Naiad. This was replaced in 1814 and the Naiad statue lost; it was later found and is now in Chelmsford Museum.

In 1852 plans were made for a public water supply and sewage treatment plant for Chelmsford. The Conduit was moved to the junction of the High Street and Springfield Road, where it remained until it was removed as a traffic hazard in 1940. A reservoir was built at Burgess Well and water pumped to a further reservoir in Wood Street. A further spring in Great Baddow was also utilised.

The water from deep wells and boreholes only needs chlorination before it can be classed as potable. River water is more problematic. The first water treatment works to extract water for Chelmsford from the River Chelmer at Sandford Mill was opened in 1930. The wells and boreholes were closed later in the 1930s. A reservoir was built in Galleywood in the 1950s but this is no longer used. Galleywood itself did not have mains water and sewage until 1959. Chelmsford’s water now comes from other areas of Essex with the main reservoir being at Hanningfield. The former water treatment works at Sandford Mill now house an industrial museum and the Marconi Museum.