Appleton Water Tower

Appleton Water Tower

In 1871, the then Prince of Wales (the future King Edward VII) fell ill with typhoid while at Sandringham. Three years later, so too did his eldest son. Both royal illnesses must have vividly brought to mind the death of the Prince’s father, Prince Albert, from the same disease while at Windsor Castle. Following that tragedy the engineer Robert Rawlinson was asked to report on the drainage of the Castle (it proved to be underlain by numerous foul cesspools, almost certainly the source of the Prince Consort’s infection).

The Sandringham water supply must have at once come under suspicion, and indeed tests showed it to be unsatisfactory. As a matter of urgency, the house and indeed the whole estate had to be provided with a reliable and clean water supply.

The engineer responsible for the design of the new waterworks was James Mansergh (he is said to have been assisted by an amateur architect named Martin Ffolkes, but there is little evidence for this). Rawlinson was appointed to supervise the construction of the new waterworks; he and Mansergh had previously worked together successfully on the Birmingham water supply.

It was decided to take the new supply from a chalk spring a mile or so from Sandringham House. The level of the spring was more than 20 feet below that of the house so a pumping station was needed. Moreover, the highest point of the Sandringham estate was still only about five feet above the roof of the house, and in order to ensure that there would be sufficient pressure for fire-extinguishing purposes a service reservoir would be needed: this is the 32,000-gallon cast-iron tank that tops the Appleton Water Tower, and it is this tank that is the 60-foot Tower’s raison d’être. Incidentally, the height and the elevated position of the Tower ensure that it is a conspicuous feature visible from many miles around.

Mansergh’s polychromic design, described as neo-Byzantine and carried out in differently coloured red bricks and local stone, exploited this position in more ways than one. Realising that the upper levels of the Tower would command a dazzling view of much of Norfolk, he reserved the second-floor room for the use of the royal family and their guests when shooting parties or picnickers required a base during the day. A floor above the viewing room accommodated the valve gear, and the two lower floors made a dwelling for either the engineer in charge of the pumping station or perhaps a caretaker. A separate entrance and stair were made within the smaller tower to give independent access to the viewing room.

Work began in the summer of 1877 – the Princess of Wales, her brother and two of the young princes all laid foundation stones – and finished about a year later. Water flowed from the spring under gravity through stoneware pipes for some 750 yards to the pumping station, where it was softened and pumped via a further 400 yards of pipes and a four-inch rising main into the tank. In winter the water in the tank was kept from freezing by the heat from the fireplaces below, the flues of which passed through the middle of the tank. From here it ran under pressure for more than a mile to the house and the surrounding cottages, via branch mains that carried a dozen hydrants encircling the house. When all was complete the hydrants were tested, with three or four jets being played simultaneously over the roof of the house, by the famously energetic and strikingly handsome Captain Shaw of the Metropolitan Fire Brigade (immortalised by Gilbert in one of the songs in Iolanthe) and found to be ‘to his entire satisfaction’. Not only, therefore, had the Prince of Wales now supplied his household with a pure and wholesome water supply, but he had placed it in ‘a condition of security from fire possessed by few of the great country houses of England.