1 Introduction

 This article describes how public water supplies came first to Horsham and then later to Cowfold. The first part was produced by the team at Horsham Museum and Art Gallery and is a detailed account of developments in Horsham from the 17th Century. The second includes extracts from the Parish Council minutes that provide a little background on how mains water finally came to Cowfold in the 1930s.

2 Public Water Supplies in Horsham

2.1 Developments up to and including the Victorian Era

Initial Accounts from the 17th Century

In the past water was free. It naturally flowed in rivers, bubbled up in springs and fell from the sky God given. Why pay for it? In fact, as the following story recounts, that attitude was prevalent for centuries, causing Horsham to have higher death rates than the big industrial cities in Victorian Britain. We take access to clean, fresh water for granted today but how it first came to Horsham is a fascinating story.

The first account of a public water supply in Horsham is in 1627. It was recorded that, “…the public fountain (fons publicus) in the North Street called Comewell, is very defective for want of a curb and, a nuisance, and is to be repaired before the next Court”.

Then, in 1646, mention is made of the Parish having to pay for the repair of the Normandy Well. It appears that the Borough looked after the North Street Well and the Parish looked after the Normandy Well. The records then stay silent for nearly 100 years, until 1742, when there is a remarkable agreement signed by William and Resta Patching stating that, “William and Resta Patching had undertaken to serve the Inhabitants of the Borough and Town with Water from and out of the River called Horsham River”.

The agreement also gave the Patchings permission to take up pavements and lay water pipes for a term of 500 years at a rent of 6d per year. One condition of this indenture was that water should be supplied free of charge to the Manor House, including water for the fountain in the “best” garden. Additionally, Resta and William ran the Town Mill and also had the authority to: “erect, set up or build any Engine or Engines for conveyance of Water in the said River to the inhabitants of the Town and Borough of Horsham with rights to lay pipes through the Church Field”.

The museum has a few fragments of these wooden pipes.

If fresh water was supplied, was sewage taken away? In the accounts of Horsham Gaol that were presented at the quarter sessions in 1743, there is an indication that sewage pipes were laid from the gaol at a cost of £2,700. The sewer was “sixteen inches wide and twelve inches deep, finding all material viz, lime, sand and stones” and it appeared to have been used for draining the Carfax, as it went through the area to West Street and beyond. At the same time fresh water was supplied to the gaol via pipes from the town waterworks even though there was a spring nearby. It would appear that the town got fresh water from the river, and had its sewage taken away by charging the County.

No interest in water

In 1836 Howard Dudley, the precocious 16 year old author and illustrator of Horsham’s first History book, would write, “The water around Horsham is of a very superior quality, and extremely abundant. It is intended shortly to supply each house by means of pipes”. This may have been a proposed scheme rather than a fully formed plan as it was another 40 years before it became a reality. However, the comment made by Dudley is interesting as the water in Horsham was very good but the water supply was heavily polluted as much of it came from shallow wells. Some 20 years later a report showed how much contamination was actually in the Horsham water supply. Horsham well water had 49 grains impurity per gallon compared with only two per gallon for Glasgow. Henry Burstow also recounts the story of Ned Hall:

The waterman… Well water at Horsham, too, was very hard and most people used to save all the rain water they could for washing purposes, &c. With his pony cart and barrel old Hall could always in summer time do a good trade in water, which he used to fetch from the river, selling it at a half-penny per bucketful, and with a wooden trough, fitted behind the barrel, watering the streets, charging 1d per time for watering the road in front of a house

Victorian “Do Gooding” Has No Effect 

 In 1858, the Local Government Act was passed. The following year, Robert Henry Hurst Jr. tried to persuade the town of Horsham to adopt the act but the final vote was 160 to 6 against.  Then, in 1862, scarlet fever struck and through the Literary and Scientific Institution Robert Henry Hurst made it known how much worse Horsham was in its death rate than neighbouring Sussex towns. He formed an action committee which issued a broadsheet headed “Health of Horsham” which showed that the drains were defective, the cellars were infested with rats and sewage, and that the wells were between 14 and 24 feet deep and, therefore, susceptible to pollution. The water was so bad that when it was heated a greasy film lay on top like scum and smelt appalling.

The total deaths per thousand were 25 for Horsham, 16 in the rural districts and 24 in the country as a whole. The solution was to create deep main sewers and find a pure water supply. What was even more shocking, during the outbreak of scarlet fever Horsham’s death rate was 15%, when 10% was considered high nationally.  The failure of quasi-local government committees to make the necessary changes possibly encouraged Robert Hurst to ask private companies to invest in the town infrastructure and reap the benefits.

On 31st August 1865 the first Ordinary General Meeting of the Horsham Waterworks Company was held at the Literary Institution. The prospectus was issued to raise £5,000 on the basis that:

an experimental Well has been sunk upon Land in Park Terrace East, Horsham, belonging to Mr Michell, with a view of testing the supply …The abundance of the supply, obtained at a depth of only 75 feet, has exceeded the most sanguine anticipation of the promoters of the Experimental Well, and has been secured at a comparatively trifling cost” it goes on to state that “the water from the main spring enters the Well at a rate exceeding 60,000 gallons a day. It has also been ascertained that, notwithstanding the heavy rain-fall of the recent winter, no land springs have found their way into the Well.”

In 1868, Dorothea Hurst, the sister of Robert, wrote in her “History of Horsham” about the wells of the town:

 “There is a considerable variety in the water of the springs in this parish, which ranges from very hard to very soft; some few have a brackish taste, others are more or less impregnated with iron…In general, however, the quality of the water is considered good, and some of the wells are remarkably pure and unfailing. This observation particularly applies to an ancient well, called…”The Normandy Well”….The Normandy  Well is open and runs partly under one of the houses; it is only about four feet in depth, and yet in the longest drought the water always stands up sufficiently high to allow a pail to be dipped into it. It has been the custom to use the water from this well for the baptisms in the church

Dorothea then goes on to discuss the new water supply and offers a different perspective on the comments made by her brother. According to her writings, the real reason for the establishment of a new water company was not the poor quality and contaminated water, but was actually driven by the effects of a couple of dry seasons.

Most of the old wells are from ten to fifty feet in depth, twenty-five being perhaps the average; but the recent dry seasons, especially those of 1864 and 1865, have proved that the supply at this depth is not sufficient for the existing needs of the town. To remedy this defect a company has sunk a well of seventy-five feet, and a large reservoir has been formed a quarter of a mile on the eastern side of the town.”

Victorian Zeal Takes Over 

 On 12th April 1875 a public meeting was held with a resolution to adopt the Local Government Act. The Public Health Act of 1875 forced the issue leaving little room for manoeuvre. In May a poll was held to confirm this decision and 518 voted for it, 222 against. Work could now begin on sorting out the town’s problematic water and sewage.

The local government bought out the Water Company for £7,000 bringing it under their control. In May 1879 Horsham’s drainage system was completed at a cost of £13,560, almost £6,000 above the original estimate of £7,590. In 1882, Kelley’s Directory states that, “a large reservoir…in the high lying ground near the union house, for the constant supply of the district” was to be constructed. This became the Star Inn Reservoir, built near the Workhouse in Crawley Road, which opened in 1883.

The possibility of fresh clean drinking water led the town to create a drinking fountain in honour of Queen Victoria. As we take drinking water for granted we do not understand the pride felt by the people of Horsham for the fountain, so it now stands largely ignored on Charts Way rather than having pride of place in the Carfax. Photographs from the Museum’s collection show the pride the town took in the feature at the time.

By the end of the century Horsham had apparently resolved the issue of unsafe drinking water and sewage contamination that was first brought to public attention in 1850s. It now had a public drinking fountain that tourists as well as Horsham folk could be proud to drink from, and a fountain that praised and paid homage to Queen Victoria, a Queen who had overseen the transformation of Britain’s infrastructure including its water supply.

Before we finish the century, in 1898 when the Anchor Hotel was being rebuilt, an event occurred that reminded people of the medieval wells in the town. On Saturday 19th March it was reported that:

“during the work of making up the roadway in the Market Square the steam roller and its driver had a narrow escape from an accident. While running the roller backwards the driver felt the ground sinking beneath him. He at once put on full steam, and on feeling solid ground again, stopped dead. Meanwhile, the ground between the front & back wheels of the roller fell in, disclosing a large well about Twenty two feet deep and with Nine feet six inches of water in it. The roller was soon got out of its awkward position, and on the following Monday the well was pumped dry and then filled in” 

We know about this incident because a fine illuminated testimonial recounting Mr Henry Penfold’s endeavour was presented to him by Horsham Urban district Council “as a mark of their appreciation of the presence of mind displayed by him”.

2.2 Twentieth Century

New Century, Old Problems

 One of the most unusual notices put out by Horsham Rural District Council was a November 1919 invitation to tender for “divining for water and sinking wells upon 28 sites selected for building dwellings for the working classes scattered throughout the Parishes of Billingsurst, Cowfold, Horsham Rural, Ifield, Itchingfield, Lower Beeding, Nuthurst, Rusper, Shipley, Slinfold, Warnham and West Grinstead.”

In Horsham the water supply for Council housing was drawn from the town’s supply and not from localised wells. Whilst it might seem very old fashioned, in reality 30 years earlier Horsham Council would have had to place the same sort of advertisement, as its supply wasn’t that extensive.


 Although the Government and the nation were in retrenchment following the First World War and the Spanish Flu pandemic, the Urban District Council still chose to implement a major improvement in the quality of life for most of its residents; the enforcement of sanitation.

The Council’s Sanitary Inspector undertook a-street by-street survey of sanitation in the town and in June 1922 he reported the findings as below:

Number of houses without flushing tanks 830
Requiring separate closets 58
With earth closets 26
With privies 22

The District Councillors agreed that all properties should have flushing tanks, and all earth closets should be removed and replaced with proper flushing systems. The house owners or landlords were given one year to get the work done. The one drawback was that the town was also suffering from periods of poor water supply. In 1922 the town converted its steam driven water pumps to electricity, unfortunately however, the water problem would continue throughout the 1920s and beyond. The expanding use of water closets, whilst desirable, had a distinct effect on water supply.

In 1925, the situation was very severe, as a booklet published in 1932 explained:

“By this time it was evident that a new supply of water was a necessity owing to continued growth of Horsham, the increase in the amount of water used and to the falling-off in the flow of water to the wellsAt the same time, owing to various technical difficulties, the amount of water stored in the Star Reservoir (it had been constructed in 1877 – actually 1883 – near the Star Inn on the Crawley road) was reduced from 500,000 gallons to only 78,000 gallons. There was no filtration or purification of this water, it being delivered to the consumers exactly as received in the wells, and iron in suspension in the water was a source of much complaint.

In May of that year a request to supply water for swimming baths at the new Manor House School caused some discussion in the Council.  In 1926 it was reported that the test boring for water at Whites Bridge yielded 20,300 gallons per hour. It was hoped that this would help solve Horsham’s water shortage; however, there would be shortages for some time as shown in a 1928 newspaper account:

“Since the last meeting the yield of water had decreased by 1,200 gallons per hour and, in spite of notices having been sent out asking consumers to curtail the use of water as much as possible, the consumption had increased by 25 per cent.” 

Just to reinforce the issue, the local paper carried a notice by HUDC informing residents that, on Monday 23rd from 6pm to 6am, a number of roads would be without water. In all 37 roads, or part of roads, are listed.

The 1930s 

 The greatest commitment to the future of the town wasn’t the restructuring of the schools, or the investment in the market, both of which are symbolic and important, but the creation of a new sewage and waterworks that would provide fresh water for 30 or more years. Or so the planners predicted.

The first development was the provision of a constant supply of fresh clean drinking water. It had taken two years of investigation and the previous decade of water shortages, to come up with a solution. The solution was dramatic, extensive and expensive at a time when austerity was in the air, although not yet the watchword. The Council wanted to borrow £60,791 in order to provide water “for the town until 1960 at least”, as well as hopefully supplying the surrounding villages. The scheme would consist of two boreholes at White’s Bridge, as well as the necessary plant and mains, and a reservoir with a capacity for 1,600,000 gallons.

The Council’s decision to require flushing toilets also put increased demands on the water supply. In 1894, with a population of 8,500, around 50,000,000 gallons were pumped, while in 1929 with a population of 12,500, around 94,500,000 gallons were pumped. The Council’s new sewage scheme ran in a circle around the town consisting of 7.5 miles of concrete pipes, which relied on gravity rather than pumping. At the start of 1931 there was an announcement for water pipes, and at the end of the year there was another for sewage pipes. Both required significant additional employment and were unlikely to have happened without the grants.

In 1932 The County Times carried a fascinating if slightly breathless account of the construction of both the water and sewage pipe work describing how:

A small mining community is established in the field between the disposal works and Guilford road.  Down the shafts Welsh miners struggle to cut out the wet clay to form a tunnel through which the sewer can run. Shafts are sunk 50 feet apart so that miners in each one have to excavate a 25 foot tunnel in order to meet their comrades in the next shaft. Further along the field where the ground falls, it is possible to lay the sewer in an open trench. Let’s go down this one, says Mr. Atkinson, pointing to the most formidable shaft. I follow him down a ladder by the side of the shaft having first politely refused an invitation to descend in a swaying bucketDown below, standing in slush; we crouch in the tunnel while the roof dribbles on our backs. Across the way, in the flickering light of a candle, is a miner beating the merry tattoo of the road mender with a compressed drill as he carves out the clay.The work of sewer laying began last December, and it will keep gangs at four different points busy for two yearsAbout ninety men (half of whom come from distressed areas) are engaged in this scheme.” 

In April 1933 the Water Committee issued handbills and placed adverts in newspapers stating that the new water scheme would start on 4th May 1933. On 5th May the County Times lead with the news that “Horshams Water Fears Now Banished… Fears of a water shortage that have beset Horsham for the last few summers will be finally banished by the new supply system which was brought in to operation yesterday. In addition to certainty and purity of supply the scheme will result in the pressure of water being doubled. This is caused by the force of gravity, the reservoir being about 300 feet higher than the old pumping station.”

3 A Cowfold Perspective

Mains water came to Cowfold in 1937. Prior to this, reliance was placed on wells and there were often shortages of drinking water in the village during dry summer months. David Pavitt, who was an eminent researcher of Cowfold history in the 1960s and 70s, noted that: “when the building of the bungalow known as Barwood on the Bolney Roadwas planned in the 1930s, completion was delayed because the sinking of a well on site failed to find water.”

As noted above, in 1919 an invitation to tender for divining and then sinking wells in various parishes, including Cowfold, was issued by HRDC; there is no evidence that this tender exercise was taken forward and the village was still without a recognisable water supply nearly 20 years later.

In order to get more background on the provision of a water supply in the village, the minutes of meetings of the Parish Council during the 1930s were examined. These were written longhand in bound minute books by the Parish Clerk and an example is shown below. At this time, Ordinary Meetings were held on a quarterly basis; in addition, Parish and Annual Meetings were held each spring.  Colonel C B Godman was the Chairman of the Council at this time and other members included some prominent characters in the village: Dr Dickins, two Fowler Brothers, Thomas and William, Ronald Gander and William Sprinks.

Although the minutes do not contain a lot of detail on the water supply issue, the following references were found:

Quarterly Meeting of the Council

16 October 1933

“Dr Dickins addressing the meeting spoke of the desirability of a water supply for the Parish as owing to the drought this summer a good number of people were short of water, which was in reality a public danger.

After considerable discussion it was agreed that Col Godman call and discuss the matter with the Clerk to Horsham Rural District Council, after which a Public Meeting should be called.”

Extraordinary Meeting of the Council

14 December 1933

“The water question was then discussed at some length. Finally, on the proposition of Mr S Fowler and seconded by Mr Heyward and carried, it was agreed that the Clerk write to the Mid Sussex Joint Water Board asking them if they would be prepared to lay on their water main to Cowfold and if they were willing to give the approximate cost for laying the main and also the cost for the supply of water.”

Quarterly Meeting of the Council

15 January 1934

“As the Mid Sussex Water Board had been unable to give their report on the water question for Cowfold until after their meeting on Jan 19th, it was agreed for the Parish Council to meet on Thursday Jan 25th at 7pm.”

Extraordinary Meeting of the Council

25 January 1934

“A reply from the Mid Sussex Water Board saying they were unable to supply the village with water was read.

Proposed Dr Dickens, seconded Mr S Fowler and carried that the Clerk write to Horsham Rural District Council that the Council was desirous of getting a better water supply for the village and informing them that the Mid Sussex Water Board were unable to supply. It was further agreed that an emergency meeting of the Council be called if a reply to the letter should warrant it.”

Quarterly Meeting of the Council

25 October 1934

“Dr Dickens addressing the Council spoke of the great shortage of water in the Parish and the slow progress made with regard to the proposed water supply and it was unanimously agreed that the following letter be forwarded to the President of the Local Government Environmental Board, Whitehall:

On behalf of the Parish Council of Cowfold, I am instructed to bring to your notice the very serious condition existing in the Parish due to the shortage and lack of water many of the residents being very short of drinking water, others having none. Several requests have been made to Horsham Rural District Council but up to date nothing has materialised with regard to our supply.

 We trust you may take such steps as may be necessary to assist us to remedy this very dangerous deficiency.”

Annual Meeting of the Council

Monday 12 April 1937

“It was also agreed that the Clerk write to the RDC calling their attention to the odd pieces of pipe and fittings left from the water mains operations and urge their removal before the Coronation festivities.”

Extraordinary Meeting of the Council

Monday 1 November 1937

“It was agreed that the Margaret Cottages Committee meet at the cottages at a date suitable to all to look into the matter of the water supply as a notice had been received as the existing supply needed purification or connection to the public water service.”

Quarterly Meeting of the Council

Monday 3 January 1938

“It was agreed unanimously that Messrs Fowlers’ estimate of £24 for laying on the water to the Margaret Cottages be accepted being the lower of the two.”

4 Commentary

The account of bringing water to Horsham and the Parish Council minutes for Cowfold demonstrate how very slowly local government at town, district and village levels moves on an issue that has major public health implications – it took 30 years for Horsham to get the basis for a water supply and more than another 50 years before anything like a recognisable adequate water supply was provided for Cowfold.