Embsay Moor Reservoir is approaching its 100th birthday. It was constructed between 1904 and 1910 and village historian Monika Butler has been researching its past, including the extensive coverage by the Craven Herald and West Yorkshire Pioneer. She will be giving a talk on the subject to an open meeting of Embsay with Eastby Horticultural Society in the village hall on Friday February 12. Here she gives a taster of what she has discovered.

Are you drinking a good cup of tea as you are reading this? If so, no doubt you filled your kettle from the tap without any thought as to where this water came from.

About 200 years ago, there was no continuous supply of clean water to Skipton. The first attempt to harness water from the surrounding hills rather than relying on wells had been made in 1765, when the Earl of Thanet agreed with a number of local gentlemen to harness the spring water rising around the present Shortbank Road and bring it into town in pipes.

For this privilege, the lessees had to pay every year at “the common dining hall of the castle of Skipton, the rent or sum of one pound of lawful money of Great Britain”. Standpipes were erected for use by the public at the Town Hall steps in Sheep Street, at the Market Cross, at Bunkers Hill and Mill Bridge, and in August 1824 a pipe was laid into Union Square, the most densely populated area of the town.

For almost 60 years, this supply satisfied the demands of the town, but by then the population, increased by workers at the growing number of mills and supporting industries, began to suffer both from shortages of water and inadequate quality, and local worthies again took the lead to alleviate the situation by tapping into springs on Rombalds Moor.

The “Company of Proprietors of the Skipton Waterworks” obtained an Act of Parliament in 1823 “for better supplying with water the town of Skipton, in the West Riding of the County of York”.

The first water flowed by the end of that year with further extensions in 1854, 1858 and 1864, the last one by extracting water from Skibeden Beck, which had to be disconnected following a court action by the riparian owners of the beck.

In 1876 water was again running short (Skipton’s population more than trebled between 1801 and 1881) and Whinnygill Reservoir was completed to provide further storage facilities. Unfortunately, a number of dry years, particularly 1887, necessitated the search for further supplies.

Enlarging Jenny Gill Reservoir to augment Whinny Gill proved too expensive. The moor above Eastby was explored and, in 1893, the Water Committee of the Local Board purchased the now-defunct, Eastby Mill. The collecting grounds were, however, not considered large enough and problems arose with the Duke of Devonshire’s refusal for a bore hole on the moor.

Another scheme involved damming Pottersgill, with a reservoir at Far Skibeden, and even diverting the Eastby supply into this reservoir to maximise the storage capacity. The latter scheme caused great discussion and was eventually voted out in a poll of local land owners and ratepayers.

By that time, the water committee was desperate and literally wandered the hillsides around Skipton, accompanied by one of the noted engineering consultants of the day, Professor Boyd Dawkins of Manchester, searching for a suitable site to provide water for the town.

As they descended the moor from Crookrise towards Embsay, the perfect site opened up before their eyes – the valley of Embsay Beck, below Tattersall Green, with the disused Whitfield Sike Mill and its adjoining six cottages at the northern end and then widening and deepening before reaching Good Intent, another former mill.

In January 1904, a statutory meeting of the ratepayers of Skipton heard from Councillor Dewhirst that Skipton Urban District Council intended to acquire land and easements at Embsay Moor and to construct new waterworks at a cost of around £70,000.

Despite some opposition, by the following summer the “Skipton Urban District Council Water and Improvement Act” had received royal assent and Messrs GH Hill and Sons, a firm with long-standing experience in building reservoirs, were appointed engineers for the project and began work. Approximately 40 acres of land (mainly ‘Embsay Pasture’) were purchased from the Duke of Devonshire and Thomas Parkinson, who also owned the disused mill and Moorfoot, the hamlet of cottages at the top end. There were no farms or dwellings on the land actually covered by the reservoir.

In July 1905, a temporary weir (which can still be seen above the current reservoir) gathered the water from the moor which was then conveyed to Skipton in pipes across the fields and down Rectory Lane into the Newmarket Street mains. This immediately improved the water supply to the town, yielding 150,000 gallons a day.

By October 1905, civil engineering firm Messrs H Arnold and Son of Doncaster had been awarded the contract for the main reservoir and started with the diversion of the main beck, running at the bottom of the gill, into a tunnel hewn through solid shale. This work took place day and night, advancing at around 10 feet a day.

Work then commenced on the embankment, the major part of the project, which was to take almost three years. The bulk of the embankment comprises more than 75,000 tons of puddled clay after a watertight foundation was sunk into the strata below. It also contains approximately 1,000 tons of concrete, which was a later addition to the design and for which the water committee had to obtain further funding.

Luckily, the blue boulder clay for the puddle could be excavated on site and was made pliable in so-called “pug mills” which pummelled the clay and removed any larger stones, making it suitable for puddling. Most stone for the walls, overflow and valve tower came from the quarry still visible at the moor today. Other materials, including wood for shuttering, arrived by train at Embsay station and were taken to the moorside by traction engines.

At the reservoir itself, a full gauge engine transported large quantities of material, small horse-drawn trucks moved material to the workers, an incline brought the stone from the quarry to the masons at a temporary stone yard on the eastern end of the site and a ropeway, the “blondin”, ran above the embankment. The entire construction, undertaken by about 100 navvies, progressed steadily in all weathers with only the tremendous flood of 1908 interrupting the work, although the half-completed dam probably saved Embsay from more damage than it otherwise sustained. The engineers lived in the cottages at Moorfoot, the bulk of the workers most likely in Whitfield Sike Mill and some, perhaps, in the village. Their spiritual needs were met by a navvy chapel (the building which still stands at the reservoir and which had been a wool store for the mill) and social and sporting events covered their leisure time.

It is a credit to the management that no workers were killed in the six-year undertaking.

By the end of 1909, the major part of the work complete and the dam watertight, the reservoir began to fill and on January 10 1910 had attained the full volume of more than 175,000,000 gallons.

On June 21 1910, Councillor WRG Farey JP officially opened the reservoir by operating a valve in the valve tower, allowing water to flow into Skipton’s main supply. At the ceremony, attended by local dignitaries as well as hundreds of onlookers, Councillor Farey was presented with a gold key for the valve tower which can still be seen at Craven Museum.

Although Skipton’s water supply was not filtered until the installation of filter houses at Embsay in 1931, the impact on the town of at last receiving plentiful and clean drinking water from Embsay Moor Reservoir was aptly expressed in the 1910 Craven Household Almanack: “Skipton will have a water supply so perfect in quality and so ample in quantity that it will never need to fear a water famine”. The Craven Herald and West Yorkshire Pioneer covered the reservoir construction in detail from beginning to end and young Maria Phillip took more than 80 photographs on-site which are held by the Craven Museum.