As the Industrial Revolution developed new challenges were thrown up. A rapidly growing population in the nineteenth century, much of which was concentrated in new mining villages throughout the Northumberland and Durham coalfield, together with the growth of new industries and expansion of older ones in towns like Sunderland (now a city), produced a rapidly increasing demand for water for domestic and industrial requirements.
Various sources were used to meet this demand. Rivers, natural springs, surface reservoirs and wells were used. In North East Durham, however, abundant supplies of good quality water were on the doorstep, or, more correctly, in the cellar, for it lay within the geological stratum known as magnesian limestone.
During the first half of the nineteenth century repeated cholera outbreaks, both nationally and locally led to a much greater concern for water supplies. The creation of the Sunderland and South Shields Water Company in 1852 was one local result of this.
At the time the Company received the Royal Assent there were several pumping stations in districts around Sunderland but the urgency of water demands pressed heavily upon the Company. In 1864 four acres of land at Ryhope were acquired and in May of the following year Thomas Hawksley, in his position as Engineer to the Company, was asked to provide designs and specifications for the ‘new works’.
Construction of the engine house was not without its problems. The beam engines and their house form an integrated structure. Not only did the foundations have to serve as foundations for most of the engine components, as well as provide support for the well heads, but also the massive rocking beams had to be supported at some twenty-two feet above ground level. Therefore engine and engine house construction had to proceed together, but not in such a manner that they would interfere with the sinking of the wells.
There were various reasons for the discontinuance of the use of the station in 1967. Ryhope is very close to the North Sea and the persistent abstraction of water by a few fairly local pumping stations led to the water table dropping below sea level, with the risk of salt (‘brackish’) water entering the system. Since water from Ryhope was untreated there would have been major problems!
Another reason for the demise of Ryhope as a water source was that the water from such a supply was very ‘hard’ since the water, as it filtered through the magnesian limestone, collected various undesirable salts, such as calcium carbonate. Remember the inside of your kettle some 50 years ago? Impounding reservoirs such as Derwent and Kielder were coming ‘on line’, with lower running costs than local pumping stations, and producing quite ‘soft’ water – reckoned to be better for the heart than hard water, and better for laundry, but not as good for making tea!
The engines were built by R & W Hawthorn and cost £9,000.
The station provided water to the region for 100 years and our volunteers have operated the station as a museum for over 50 years, quite a successful and impressive record in its own right.
The Museum is now regarded as one of the finest single industrial monuments in the North East of England and is both a Grade II* listed building and an Ancient Scheduled Monument. Although the station no longer pumps water, the two 100 horsepower beam engines are kept in working order by volunteer members of the Ryhope Engines Trust, and ‘steamed’ periodically for the benefit of our visitors.
In addition to the beam engines, built by R & W Hawthorn, are three ‘Lancashire’ boilers of 1908, two of which are in regular use, a blacksmith’s forge, a waterwheel, numerous steam engines and pumps, waterworks accessories such as depth recorders, and many items concerned with the distribution and uses of water in home and industry.
The volunteers at Ryhope are the life blood of the ongoing preservation project at the museum. We not only run the museum on a day-to-day basis but also manage the Trust and plan for the future.
If you think you would like to help us in some way, either as a guide, an engineer, stoker, cleaner, painter, welder, tea room helper etc. etc. the list is endless! Please contact us or come along to any of our regular working sessions, you will be made most welcome.