How Typhoid Altered Lincoln’s Skyline

by Samantha Ann Rose Brinded – Level 3 History Undergraduate

The city of Lincoln is famous for its magnificent 11th century cathedral which stands proudly atop the aptly named Steep Hill. It cuts a striking figure on the horizon, standing beside the medieval castle which looks protectively over the city below. The silhouette of these buildings are part of what make Lincoln so recognizable. However, there is another building that can be spotted which is often over-looked, yet deserves consideration in its own right – the Westgate Water Tower.

Westgate Water Town

Standing tall along the skyline, the tower fits in well with its surroundings. It complements rather than competes with the cathedral’s towers, and its machicolations, arrow-loops, and corbels make it seem part of the neighbouring castle. In fact, visitors to the city often mistakenly think the water tower is part of the castle when, in reality, there is some 800 years which set them apart. The tower was built in response to an outbreak of Typhoid Fever in the city in 1904 which ultimately caused the death of over one hundred of its residents.

Typhoid fever is a highly contagious bacterial infection, which spreads through contaminated food or water. In Lincoln, it spread through a polluted supply of water due to sewage. However, this was not a problem that arose overnight. Sewage and sanitary problems had been plaguing Lincoln for a long time prior to the epidemic. In 1857, local coroner James Hitchens reported in the Lincolnshire Chronicle, ‘in Lincoln we have a corporation, and typhus fever; a board of Lighting, Paving and Cleansing, and scarlet fever; a Sanitary Board and diarrhoea; all more prevalent than has been known for years. We have also a water company, and streets stinking in our nostrils for want of flushing the channels.’

Ten years later, the issue had still not been resolved when two doctors condemned the conduit by St Mary’s church as unfit to drink from and the worst they had come across outside of London. At the time, this conduit was the city’s main source of drinking water. The problem lay with where the city drew its water from, the river Witham. Along the banks of the river the water was open to pollution from manure and gas works, this seeped from its source into tributaries and, ultimately, into the stomachs of Lincoln’s inhabitants. Finally, after petitions, reports, and many complaints, the city’s sewage problem was rectified, for in 1881 a new sewerage system was built, connecting almost every household to a main sewer. Nevertheless, this only resolved one of the city’s problems; it would be another three decades until the issue of accessing clean, safe-to-drink water was solved.

St Mary’s Conduit

On 23 February 1905, The Times first reported the outbreak of Typhoid Fever at Lincoln: “The city of Lincoln is in serious trouble, from which it will have great difficulty in extricating itself. For two months it has been suffering from the severest epidemic outbreak of typhoid fever experienced in England since that which occurred at Maidstone in 1897.” The journalist wrote that the fever had started with just one isolated case reported in December but, by the time of publication, the number had swiftly risen to 680.

Some, like one gentleman from Newark, donated clean water to the suffering city, whilst the more enterprising individual sold it for 2 pence a gallon. Yet, this was not a long-term solution. One answer came in the form of chemical treatment, but this was not successful, as The Times reported in March: “It may be free of bacteria, but it is unpleasant, and, after all, water is wanted for consumption, not for analysis… The end is drinkability, and, if the process of removing bacteria makes water undrinkable in other respects, it is a failure… People complain of the effect of making tea with this water; it is excessively strong and bitter, as if stewed.”

Whilst solutions were being tried and tested, those suffering from the infection sought help from the fever hospital and many of the pop-up hospitals erected over the city, such as those at the Drill Hall and Blenkin Memorial Rooms. It would take months for the city to see the last of the epidemic and even longer to fully recover from its effects. While people mourned dead friends and family, an unsurprising distrust in the local water supply rose. A permanent solution had to be found.

The Drill Hall was made into a temporary hospital for the Typhoid epidemic

The answer lay 22 miles away in a reservoir at Elkesley, Nottinghamshire. Due to the passing of a Bill, Lincoln was granted the right to pipe water from this source and store it in the purpose-built water tower. During the construction of the tower, several Roman artefacts were discovered including jewellery, bottles and coins. Arthur Smith, curator of The Lincolnshire City and County Museum (now The Collection), ensured they were donated to the museum, where they still form a part of the collection today.

Roman copper alloy ring, with small key attached and Roman buckle, found during excavations at Westgate Water Tower (Courtesy of The Collection: Art & Archaeology in Lincolnshire)

As previously mentioned, the building was designed to complement the already existing features of up-hill Lincoln. Darley Dale gritstone was used, its colour furthering the continuity, whilst the top of the tower, the section most visible on the horizon, is decorated with the fleur-de-lis, a recognized symbol of Lincoln, having taken pride of place on its crest since at least the fourteenth century.

Today, the water tower is still used for its original purpose, though despite holding 300,000 gallons of water it would be hard-pressed to meet current demands and so only supplies water to uphill Lincoln. Although it is not usually open to the public, Anglian Water, who currently look after the tower, sometimes hosts school trips and open it up for heritage days. It is certainly worth a visit: despite being over a hundred years old, it remains relatively unchanged and the metal and brick work are a stark contrast to the medieval style exterior.

The cylindrical tank, with domed base to aid the water’s circulation

Although not part of the city’s medieval heritage, the Westgate Water Tower stands as testament to another important point in the city’s history and thus deserves recognition in its own right.

Further Reading:

Gurnham, Richard. A History of Lincoln (Chichester, 2009).

Pacey, Trevor. To Fetch a Pail of Water – A Story of Water in Lincoln City (Lincoln, 2011).

Thank you:

Antony Lee at The Collection and Lincolnshire Archives for providing me with information and images on the Roman finds excavated from the tower site.

Richard Poole for the use of his photo of Lincoln’s skyline.

Jon Pawson, Lincoln manager at Anglian Water, for providing me with more information and opening up the tower for me.