The original grade II listed buildings at the Edgbaston Waterworks are intricately designed and beautiful parts of the city’s skyline. Merely minutes away from the glass and steel towers of Brindley Place the waterworks are an incredible snapshot of late nineteenth century architecture.
Supposedly the chimney tower at the Waterworks was the inspiration for Tolkien’s Minas Morgul in the Two Towers , with the nearby Perrott’s Folly serving as Minas Tirith. However, like many facts relating to Tolkien and the West Midlands the truth is lost to time, however the romantic in us hopes it’s true.
Designed by John Henry Chamberlain and William Martin, construction was completed in 1870. The waterworks buildings were the key to unlocking the industrial strength that was growing within Birmingham at the turn of the century - when it gained its famous ‘workshop of the world’ title.
When the Waterworks started in operations it saw 16 million litres pour into the Birmingham, providing the city with water for personal and industrial use. In 1902 the Elan Valley Aqueduct opened , removing the need for Birmingham to rely on its boreholes, and capacity increased again.
By the time the sixties swung around the city was using 120 million litres a day, with the Waterworks playing a vital role in the distribution channel. Of course, over the years the original systems have been replaced with modern, efficient technology, housed in new buildings at the Edgbaston site. Currently 320 million litres of water enter the system each day, a staggering increase from where things stood a little over a century ago.
The interior of the Waterworks are devoid of all their old machinery. Pipes and unused fixtures poke out of the walls and floor, providing an occasional perch for birds. Without any pumping equipment taking up space the building is a Escher-esque mix of different levels, passages and staircases.
Today the Victorian Waterworks still sits at the heart of Severn Trent’s Edgbaston site , unused but maintained by Severn Trent. As we found with the New Street Signalling Box, in our first edition of Birmingham’s Hidden Spaces, a building built with a specific function at its core can sometimes struggle to find its place in the modern world, where flexibility and future proofing reign supreme.
However, when we visited the Waterworks they were bathed in a bright winter morning and it was impossible not to feel hopeful for the future of a key part of our city’s industrial and social heritage.
By Jack Tasker and Steve Townsend