The Waterworks, Baths & Washhouses at Hemel Hempstead

From the Herts Advertiser,  23rd October 1867

In Victorian times many English towns were busy building waterworks, and the arrangements varied from place to place, but many had addition facilities. This article, from the Herts Advertiser of the 23rd February 1867 describes the facilities that were provided in Hemel Hempstead.

In the autumn of 1865 we gave our readers an account of the establishment at Great Berkhamstead, by a limited liability company, of public waterworks, baths and washhouses, and we expressed a hope that the admirable example set by the Berkhamstead people would lead to a like provision being made in this and other towns for the cleanliness and comfort of their inhabitants. We are happy to say that that example has been followed by the good people of Hemel Hempstead. A company was formed last year under the title of "The Hemel Hempstead Waterworks and Laundry Company (Limited)," with the following threefold object: "To furnish a copious and continuous supply of water for private or public purposes, to afford increased facilities for bathing, and to undertake contracts for washing wearing apparel and clothes generally." The contract for the erection of the works was taken by Messrs Atkins and Son, gas and water engineers, of 52, Fleet-street, London, who erected the works at Berkhamstead. A piece of land was purchased for a site opposite Marlowes Chapel, and a more central and convenient position it would have been impossible to obtain. The buildings are of considerable extent, and the front of the baths has some claim to elegance of appearance. There are two entrances leading to the baths (for women on the right hand side, and for men on the left) the arches of which are supported on stone pillars, with elaborately carved capitals.

Between the two entrances is the pay office, and on the left are the private rooms of the managers of the works. Passing by a fountain in front of the building, we enter the bath house on the gentlemen's side. There we find a pleasant subdued light shed over the interior by means of coloured glass in the double skylight. The fittings, and everything about the appearance of the place, prove that no trouble, no expense has been spared to provide for the comfort and enjoyment of the visitor. Perfect as the arrangement of the Berkhamstead baths seemed to us, these appear more admirable still. Of course we did not intrude into the sacred privacy of the ladies department, but we can vouch for the gentlemen's baths that nothing remains for the most fastidious person to desire. There are six baths in each department, respectively under the control of male and female superintendents, four of which are first-class baths, and two are second-class. The first-class baths are elegantly, not to say luxuriously fitted up, and each compartment is provided with a looking glass, a brush and comb, a boot jack, a watch stand, flesh and nail brushes, a large sponge, a clothes brush, a thermometer, and various other conveniences. Nothing seems to have been neglected, and nothing forgotten. The baths are arranged to suit all requirements. A visitor at a moment's notice, and at moderate cost, can have either a warm or a cold bath, a shower bath, a vapour bath, a saline, or a medicated bath. The bath house is heated by steam pipes, and is effectively ventilated at varying levels throughout the building. Waiting rooms are provided for the convenience of the bathers. The second-class baths are but little inferior to those of the first class. The bath house is open every day in the week from six or seven a.m. to nine p.m. and on Sundays from six or seven a.m. to nine a.m. Annual tickets are issued at moderate rates.

But the bath house is not all we have to describe. Behind it is the washhouse and laundry, in which is carried on a no less important part of the company's operations, viz., "the washing and getting up of all kinds of garments used as wearing apparel, and all articles required for domestic purposes." The prospectus informs us "that the machinery used is such that the various laundry processes can be gone through with unusual facilities, while the thorough cleansing and preservation of the linen is ensured, without the usual wear and tear and friction resulting from the hand rubbing system." Under the guidance of Mr. G. Wood, the intelligent manager of the works, we enter the washing and drying department. Here we find strange-looking machines, and wheels whirling round with great velocity - enough we should think to drive ancient washerwomen out of their senses. We were indeed informed by our guide that laundresses generally have an intense dread of this "new-fangled machinery" for washing clothes, by which they consider their craft in danger. No wiser they than the weavers who rebelled against the introduction of the spinning jenny, or the artisans who rose up against the use of steam power in other manufacturers. In this place there are two large steam washing machines, patent wringing machines, rinsing, starching, and steaming tanks, hot air closets and stoves. The manager informed us that when the clothes arrive over night they are put into a solution of soap and soda. They are afterwards places in one of the steam washing machines (manufactured by the Canadian Washing Machine and Agricultural Implement Company Limited), where they remain twelve minutes and a half, they are then placed in the second machine where they remain a similar length of time, taking altogether twenty-five minutes; they are afterwards put into wringing and rinsing machines and are then taken to the drying closet. A large room adjoining is provided with ironing apparatus, a steam mangling machine, an air closet. We are told that by means of all these arrangements a man and two women can get through as much work in one day as ten women could get through in a week by the old hand process. A prejudice it seems exists (which we were assured is unfounded) against the drying closets in comparison with an open-air drying ground. A strong current of air continually passes upwards through the closets, which is heated as it ascends, and we are told things dried there have quite as good a colour as though they were hung out in the open air. The company have, however, a spacious open-air drying ground, with an American (revolving) drying horse, so that those who prefer to have their clothes dried out of doors can have their wishes complied with.

Nature wastes nothing, and this great natural principle of economy is here carried out to a wonderful extent. By one steam engine the town is supplied with water, and all the machinery in the establishment is impelled. The superfluous steam from the boiler passing by pipes through a tank of water is condensed into water again, and by this process the water in the tank is heated, the boiler is replenished, and the baths and laundry are supplied with hot water.

We have now to turn to what is perhaps the most important sphere of the company's operations - the furnishing of a copious and continuous supply of water for public and private purposes. The company obtain their supply of water from an artesian well 212 feet deep, in a chalk and flint formation. The boring was executed by Mr Newman, of London. From this well the water is pumped by steam power, into a covered reservoir, in Chapel-street. A continuous high pressure supply is given from the reservoir to the consumers' houses, and by this means hand pumps and storage tanks are rendered unnecessary. The company state that their pumping apparatus enables them to deliver water to the highest elevation in the district. Mains are laid on in all the principal thoroughfares; and fire plugs and stand pipes are placed at different parts for watering the streets, extinguishing fires, and for other purposes. The charge for a supply of water for domestic use is five percent on the rental, or (by meter) 1/6 a thousand gallons. Water required for special trade purposes is supplied either by meter or by special agreement with the company.

We now accompany our guide to the room containing the motive power by which all we have described is accomplished. Here is the elegant but powerful engine which pumps up pure water from the deep well into the reservoir on the top of the neighbouring hill, whence it flows again through the streets of the town, affording the inhabitants an abundant supply; and which also moves the machinery that performs the whole process of washing, wringing, mangling, and drying, so quickly and well. This engine and the pumps were designed by Mr Atkins, and made by Messrs Tidcombe and Son, of Watford. The boiler is a Cornish one, six feet in length and 21 feet in diameter. It was manufactured by Mr William Wilson, of Glasgow.

The works have been on the whole admirably designed and carried out, and much credit is due to Mr. Atkins, the contractor, who was the prime mover in the formation of the company, and to the sub-contractor, Mr. Dover. Mr A. F. Painter also deserves an acknowledgement for the skill and industry shown by him in his capacity as clerk of the works.

An abundant supply of water is so necessary to the comfort and health of a community, that the great utility of this establishment cannot for one moment be questioned; and who shall say what happy results may not flow from it? If it is asked "What are the financial prospects of the company?" we can only reply that a large outlay has of course been incurred; but there can be no doubt of its ultimate success, even, even from a pecuniary point of view. Until that is assured, the promoters of the company have the satisfaction of knowing that by this public-spirited enterprise they have conferred a great and lasting benefit on the community to which they belong.

In 1901 the waterworks were taken over by the Borough Council, at a time when my grandfather, Walter Richard Locke, was the town surveyor. The public baths fell into disuse, but were re-opened in 1914 to provided washing facilities for the large number of troops that were billeted in the town.

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