Heritage and Identity: The reservoirs of the Washburn Valley c.1860-1989

Picture of Swinsty Reservoir, Washburn Valley. Image Copyright Kate Jewell, 2005 licensed for reuse under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic license.

Picture of Swinsty Reservoir, Washburn Valley. Image Copyright Kate Jewell, 2005 licensed for reuse under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic license.

The management of water is one of the major problems facing world leaders today. Whilst it is a commodity that is taken for granted in the West, many countries in South America, Africa, and Asia still struggle not only to supply water but to provide clean, safe water. Indeed, the provision of clean water in Britain is relatively modern; some towns only started to provide the high pressure constant supply we know from the early twentieth century. Therefore, there are many lessons that governments and leaders have learned in the relatively recent past which are of use to leaders in the present. My research examines the reservoirs of the Washburn Valley, about 15 miles north of Leeds, and how the building of these reservoirs impacted socially and culturally on the inhabitants of the valley, and how this in turn affected the landscape as a site of heritage. These reservoirs serviced Leeds, a major industrial city which underwent large population growth during the nineteenth century, which in turn placed a much higher demand on water supply. By examining an under-researched area of the country, I hope to bring forward ideas on water management and how they can affect perceptions of place amongst both people within the valley and those from outside.

The four reservoirs in the Washburn Valley were built in two phases: Lindley Wood, Swinsty, and Fewston reservoirs in the lower valley were built between 1869 and 1879, and Thruscross in the upper valley was completed in 1966. They were built by Leeds Corporation Waterworks following the proposal of engineer Edward Filliter who was tasked with finding a clean source of water for the increasing domestic and industrial demands of the growing city. Whilst these structures are man-made, some would argue that they have heightened the beauty of the valley, with Fewston Reservoir being particularly picturesque (Bradley, 1988). However, the reservoirs have been and remain contested sites for those local to the valley, for example the building of Thruscross Reservoir required the flooding of West End. This village was not only a part of the built heritage of the valley but had been depopulated some fifty years earlier by the Corporation (Parsons, 2014). Therefore, a contrast emerges between the view of the valley that is informed by its external aesthetic, and the view that has been shaped by events that affected the internal inhabitant.

Examining this contrast in detail will be at the heart of my research, and as such an interdisciplinary approach will be adopted. My research will look to build on work from environmental historians who are interested in the landscape as a site of narrative, urban historians who have focused on urban networks and the role of engineers in actively changing the landscape, and heritage scholars who view heritage as a social and cultural construction. The reservoirs have had an enormous impact in providing water to the city of Leeds, and arguably in creating a site of tourism and leisure for visitors who want to walk, cycle and fish. However, it would be wrong to ignore the impact that they have had on the inhabitants of the valley and their predecessors.

Because of the nature of this research, especially in examining the impact of the reservoirs to the inhabitants of the valley, it is important to engage in public outreach. The main vehicle for this will be working with the Washburn Heritage Centre, who engage in a wide variety of exhibits on all aspects of life in the valley. Engaging with the public will help to chart an internal identity, or possibly identities, held by inhabitants. However, it will also allow external visitors to see the internally held view of the reservoirs. As such, engaging in public exhibitions will help the public to see how heritage identity is formed, and will hopefully help them to question previously held assumptions about the landscape.


Having always had an interest in history, I studied for a degree in Modern History at Leeds Metropolitan University, now Leeds Beckett University. For my undergraduate dissertation, I examined social identity within Yorkshire County Cricket Club between 1918 and 1962. After graduating in 2012 I took a year out to work, returning to university to study for a Masters degree in Modern History from the University of Leeds, graduating in 2014. My Masters dissertation examined the role of the provincial newspaper of my hometown Middlesbrough in representing the community during the 1930s. I am now back at Leeds Beckett University as a PhD student with the AHRC-funded Heritage Consortium supervised by Dr Shane Ewen and co-supervised by Dr Rob Ellis of the University of Huddersfield.


Twitter – @123McTom