History of the Water Works

History of the Water Works

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Early Developments

At the beginning of the nineteenth century, the bulk of the population of City of Glasgow lived north of the River Clyde. The main sources of water for the City were the untreated waters of the Clyde, the Molendinar, the Camlachie Burns and public and private wells. It is estimated that there were around thirty public, and possibly as many private, wells. The quality of water from these wells varied greatly and water borne diseases were very common. There were two major cholera outbreaks in 1832 and again in 1849 when 3,777 people died, with the worst areas affected being those with the poorest water supply. Various schemes were tried by the magistrates to develop a good water supply for the City but none was successful.


A philanthropic businessman, William Harvey owned land at Blythswood in the west of the City. He built a reservoir there and channelled water to it from wells on his estate at Willowbank near Charing Cross. From the reservoir he filled water carts which toured the streets selling water to customers at a halfpenny per stoup. It is estimated that his profit from the sale of water was £4000 per annum.

The first Glasgow Water Company Act was passed by Parliament in 1806, and the company began to supply water early in 1809. Water was raised from the Clyde in the area of Dalmarnock before passing through filters which, depending on the level of the river, were not always effective. The water was then carried by pipes to smaller reservoirs for distribution in the City. The engineers who developed this system were James Watt and Thomas Telford.

A second company, The Cranstonhill (Water) Company, obtained a Bill in 1808 authorising it to supply filtered water to the City. The water they pumped from the Clyde at Anderston was intended for the west of the City. The Clyde however was  becoming polluted by effluent from the increasing population and the development of  industry and the Company had to relocate upstream to Dalmarnock.

The Cranstonhill Company however was not profitable and the two companies were amalgamated by an Act of Parliament in 1853 which bound the newly amalgamated Glasgow Water Company to extend their works, and form proper filter beds. Three years were allowed for the work to be carried out. Once completed the main area of distribution continued to be the north of the Clyde.

Picture of Cranstonhill Water Works at Dalmarnock by permission of Glasgow University Library - Special Collections
Picture of Cranstonhill Water Works at Dalmarnock by permission of Glasgow University Library - Special Collections


The Initial Development of the Gorbals Gravitation Water Company

gg3As the City developed, the population spread to the south of the Clyde. In the 1840s the population of the Gorbals area on the south of the river was increasing rapidly and the area was not well served by the existing water companies. The main water supply for the population was street wells which were frequently very polluted.

In 1845 the Gorbals Gravitation Water Company was established as a private company, but the Parliamentary Bill licensing it to function was hindered in its passage through Parliament by opposition from the Glasgow Water Company. The Act of Parliament establishing the Company was eventually passed on 3rd August 1846 and the period allowed for completion was two years from the date of the Act. In addition, the land on which the reservoirs were to be constructed had to be acquired from Sir John Maxwell and Sir Hew Crawford and disputes over compensation for the latter also delayed the development.

The Act allowed the Gorbals Gravitation Water Company “to provide fresh water to the inhabitants of the Gorbals district, Pollokshaws, Govan, and all intermediate and adjacent places”. In return for their investment, the Company was allowed to levy a charge for the supply of water.

The source of the water was in the uplands of Renfrewshire. Water from the Black and Little Lochs, flowed along the Brock and Walton burns to Waulkmill. The reservoirs of Waulkmill Glen, Littleton and Ryat Linn were the first to be built to capture this water.



The engineer for the project was William Gale, elder brother of James M. Gale who later worked on the Loch Katrine scheme. Work began in January 1847 when adverts appeared in the press for ground works associated with the reservoirs and between 1847 and 1848 the reservoirs were constructed as planned. More than a thousand men were employed on the construction which was repeatedly delayed by continuing legal squabbles over compensation and by trouble making by competitors.


Some local material was used in the construction, with the walls of the reservoirs being constructed of Northbrae sandstone, key stoned and held by (Calmy) limestone cement.  The reservoirs were made water tight with pitch and puddle. The length of the embankments of the reservoirs gives some idea of the scope of the undertaking with Ryat Lynn being 161 metres and Waulkmill Glen 183 meters. Waulkmill Glen was the biggest of the three original reservoirs and covered an area of almost 50 acres with a capacity of around 36 million cubic feet.

The reservoirs had various associated workings, some of which can still be seen, such as the draw-off tower in Waulkmill Glen Reservoir. The tower is octagonal in shape and accessed by a footbridge. It is possible that this tower is the earliest such structure in Scotland. When the reservoirs were in use the water was drawn from them through the draw-off tower, which housed a self-activated sluice system, before going to the filters through pipes and an arched stone culvert, 104 meters long and 1.5 metres wide.


The filter beds were filled with sand, which when fouled, could be removed, washed and then put back for use. The remains of the upper and lower filter beds and the water courses can still be seen.

Eastwards, towards Corselet Road, stood the sluice system, an arched red sandstone structure, built into the landward side of the embankment and facing onto two regulating basins through which water flowed. The regulating house or meter house, a small octagonal building, held part of the flow control and probably had Venturi meters and telemetry to manage the discharge to Glasgow via two twenty four inch cast iron mains pipes, running via Pollokshaws.



The remaining Brock Burn acted as a let-water, which could be controlled before it tumbled down a stone lined waterfall into Waulkmill Glen itself.


The engineering work required to construct the reservoirs and the gravitational water system was immense, and they remain an impressive example of Victorian engineering at its best. A significant number of the population to the south of the Clyde now had access to clean water and it had been noted during the cholera outbreak of 1849 that the incidence of the disease in the areas served by the Gorbals Gravitation Water Company was less than in other areas. This was one of the considerations which helped to convince the Corporation of Glasgow that “it would be for the benefits of the public that the works for supplying the City with water should be conducted by the Corporation”.


Extension of the Company

In 1850 an Extension Act was passed, which authorised the Company to extend its area of supply to Rutherglen, Barrhead, Nitshill, and surrounding areas. Again the work had to be carried out within a specific timescale and when this was not done the powers of this Act expired.


In July 1853, a further Act was passed with the same conditions as the 1850 Act but including the Burgh of Renfrew. As a result of the passing of this Act, Balgray Reservoir was constructed in 1853-54 and further extended in 1860. It covered an area of approximately 150 acres and had a capacity of nearly 120 million cubic feet. This was more than double the capacity of the three original reservoirs. A significant improvement in the construction of Balgray Reservoir was that sediment carried down from the hills could settle out before the water was passed through to the lower reservoirs.

gg11The principal physical feature of the reservoir today is a draw-off tower, situated on Aurs Road. Similar in style and purpose to the draw-off tower on the Waulkmill Glen Reservoir, it controls the flow of water to the lower dams.

It houses a large, cast iron cylinder which has openings at various heights controlled by sluices that feed water into two 24-inch diameter pipes. This allows the flow of water to the lower dams to be controlled.

 On 10th May 1855 an Act of Parliament was passed granting Glasgow Corporation Water Works the right to construct the Loch Katrine water supply scheme and in the same year the Corporation took over the Gorbals Gravitation Water Company, and managed the public water supply throughout the entirety of the City of Glasgow and much of the surrounding area.


The Reservoirs Today

Improvements to the Gorbals Gravitation Works continued until the 1970’s but since 2000, the works have been decommissioned and gradually demolished. Today they are maintained by Scottish Water who keep the levels fairly high, but the water is no longer used for the public water supply.

In 2008, Historic Scotland surveyed the remaining buildings and gave category A classification to the draw-off tower, the sluices and the regulating House associated with the Waulkmill Glen Reservoir and a category B listing to the draw-off tower on Balgray Reservoir.


Another building, now a private house, which originally housed the Directors’ Board Room and accommodation for the superintendent of the Water Works was C listed. The workshops attached to the rear of the house and  the  water testing  house, a small  single room  building near the house also have a C listing. This action by Historic Scotland will preserve the existing structures for the future.

Today, the reservoirs still dominate the landscape in the southern part of the recently developed Dams to Darnley Country Park and are increasingly recognised as an important site for natural history. Once the reservoirs contributed to the health of the population by providing clean water and today they still serve the same purpose by providing an area which local people can use for recreation.



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Mearns History Group  acknowledges the help of Brian Skillen and Dams to Darnley staff in the preparation of this web page.


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