Lendal Bridge YO1 7DP

Believed to have been constructed in the early 14th century, Lendal Tower was originally circular, similar to its twin, North Street Postern Tower, on the opposite bank of the River Ouse. A chain was stretched across the river between the towers to control the passage of boats; by means of a windlass or capstan, it could be raised during peacetime or lowered if the city was under attack. In 1569, during the Revolt of the Northern Earls, the two towers were strengthened with the addition of defensive walls or bulwarks. Led by the Earls of Northumberland and Westmorland, the revolt was a rebellion by Catholic nobles from the North of England who aimed to depose Queen Elizabeth I of England and replace her with Mary, Queen of Scots. In November 1569, the rebels occupied Durham and then marched south to Bramham Moor, but the uprising was shortlived. Another earl, the Earl of Sussex, came to the Queen’s defence, raising a large army and riding out of York in December to drive the rebellious forces northwards to exile in Scotland.

Municipal water supply

Early watercolour of Lendal Tower York Art Gallery

In the 16th century, discussions began about whether the tower could be used as part of the infrastructure required to supply the city with water from the River Ouse. Initial work was begun by Mr Maltby and, from 1616 to 1632, the construction of a piped water supply was underway – 300 elm trees were felled to make the timber water pipes – with the city authorities taking a fourth share in the enterprise in 1631. The city’s share was leased to Thomas Hewley for £5 per annum in the following year. However, the project appears to have faltered; although Hewley was still the tenant of the tower, by 1636 the ‘Old Waterhouse’ was described as ‘much ruinated’.

In 1674, the scheme was revived and, on 1 April 1677, Henry Whistler of London was granted a lease on the tower for 500 years at a peppercorn rent. The terms of the lease allowed for the laying of ‘Pipes, Wheeles and other Engines and things necessary’ into the river and for digging up the pavements and road surfaces for pipes provided that they were made good within 24 hours. To accommodate a lead water storage tank, the tower was enlarged and raised in height. At first, water was pumped up to the tank by a waterwheel in the Ouse but this proved so unreliable that, in 1684, it was replaced by a ‘wheel wrought with Horses, within the Tower’. Water was supplied through wooden pipes for two hours on alternate days, omitting Sundays. There is evidence that, before the end of the century, there may have been a wind pump either on the roof of the tower or on a nearby independent wooden tower as a replacement for the horse-powered wheel.

Steam-powered engine

The water supply company appears to have functioned well and, during the 18th century, it increased in value and was sold several times to a series of owners. On the death of Henry Whistler in 1719, it was sold to Col. William Thornton of Cattal, near York, for £4,000. In 1756, a mortgage of £1,400 was taken out with Samuel Crompton, a Derby banker, possibly to raise finance for the installation of a Newcomen ‘atmospheric’ steam engine, one of the first commercially successful steam engines capable of driving mechanical equipment. Invented by Thomas Newcomen in 1712, the engine was operated by condensing steam. The earliest applications were for pumping water out of mines and, by the end of the 18th century, there were more than 2,000 engines in operation at collieries in England. Supplying municipal water became another typical use and the first Newcomen engine in France was built at Passy in 1726 to pump water from the River Seine to Paris.

The original York steam engine had a 25ins diameter cylinder and 7ft diameter boiler which generated 4.7hp, sufficient power to raise the water 72 ft from the Ouse up to the storage tank. Additional facilities were provided for the citizens of York in the form of baths supplied with hot and cold water which were installed in a building adjoining the tower, the present Lendal Hill House. In 1769 more land was leased to Mary Thornton on condition that water was supplied to the Mansion House, Ouse Bridge Gaol, and St Anthony’s Hall. The waterworks were sold once more, in 1779, for £7,000 to Jerome Dring who formed a new company with a number of investors including engineer John Smeaton.

England’s first civil engineer

Although an improvement on earlier steam pumps, the Newcomen engine was notoriously energy inefficient and a number of engineers worked on improving the device, notably John Smeaton. Smeaton was born at Austhorpe Lodge, Whitkirk, near Leeds in 1724. After studying at Leeds Grammar School, John joined his father’s law firm but then became a mathematical instrument maker. In 1741, aged 17 years, he visited the York workshop of Henry Hindley, a well-established maker of clocks and scientific instruments; the two men were to remain firm friends. John’s great grandfather, also John, had been a watchmaker in York and Freeman of the City so the two families must have been acquainted. It seems likely that John was taught by Hindley as, in 1742, he built his own lathe at Austhorpe and cut a perpetual screw in brass, an invention of Hindley’s. In a further attempt to interest John in the law, however, that same year his father, William, sent his son to be educated at Gray’s Inn in London. The ploy did not work; two years later, John returned to Austhorpe determined to become an instrument maker. Again, it seems John came under the influence of Hindley as he began making telescopes and learned the skill of grinding and polishing lenses.

During his previous stay in London, John had met several leading members of the Royal Society and, in 1748, he decided to return to the capital to set up his own instrument-making business. In addition to funds provided by John’s father, Henry Hindley sold one of his equatorial telescopes to finance the young man’s new venture. Smeaton was to become one of the most famous engineers of the 18th century; he built a total of 12 bridges and designed more than 60 mills; he designed windmills and improved the design of waterwheels; he was responsible for three major fen drainage schemes and five canals including the Forth & Clyde canal which crosses Scotland from east to west; he advised on the design of 30 harbours and was involved in the construction of nine.

Eddystone Lighthouse

His most celebrated achievement, which came early in his career, was the Eddystone Lighthouse. Two previous lighthouses had been constructed of timber; the first was destroyed by a storm, the second by fire. Smeaton built his circular masonry structure with huge interlocking blocks, experimenting with various types of stone and mixes of mortar to achieve maximum strength. Despite the challenging conditions, construction was rapid; the first stone was laid on 12 June 1757 and the lamp was lit on 16 October with no loss of life. The lighthouse operated for more than a century until a new structure was built on a more stable rock nearby. The upper part of Smeaton’s lighthouse was dismantled and re-erected on Plymouth Hoe; the lower part remains on the rock.

On the death of his father, William, in 1749, John inherited property in York in addition to Austhorpe Lodge, but the lodge was closed up and he remained in London. In 1760, however, John decided to return to Austhorpe. He had married in 1756 and had a growing household which required a larger home. Also, his increasing fame, due to the success of the Eddystone Lighthouse, had led to a flood of work. There was space at Austhorpe for a new engineering workshop and he designed and built a square, four-storey tower for the purpose adjacent to the main house. It was here that John Smeaton turned his attention to improving the Newcomen steam engine. Drawing on performance data from equipment in use in the Newcastle area and in Cornwall, Smeaton built an improved steam engine at Austhorpe in 1770. Over the next decade, versions of this engine with ever-increasing efficiency were installed in mines throughout England.

When Smeaton took a share in the York Waterworks Company in 1779, the Newcomen engine in Lendal Tower had been in use for more than 20 years. In 1781-4, the engine was rebuilt to increase its efficiently. The diameter of the new, 8¼ft-long cylinder was 27ins; the 24ft beam operated two pumps of 7½ins and 9ins bore. Producing 18hp, the steam engine raised 16 gallons a stroke, 10,500 gallons an hour. Details of Smeaton’s test runs in August 1785, his instructions for operating the engine and several working drawings are still in existence but, of the original engine, only one pivot plate for the beam axle survives.

Although, in 1765, James Watt had invented a revolutionary new steam engine, the improved Newcomen engines remained popular into the 19th century. Smeaton’s York engine worked in the tower until 1836 when it was relocated to an engine house nearby. Watt joined forces with Matthew Boulton in 1774 and the first engines were produced in Birmingham in 1776. Henry Hindley had previously supplied Boulton with equipment but he died in 1771 before Watts’ steam engines were manufactured. Smeaton never forgot the contribution that Hindley made to his education. In an attempt to bring recognition to this man of ‘fertile genius’, Smeaton paid tribute to the legacy of his friend in a 47-page address which was read to the Royal Society by Henry Cavendish on 17 November 1785. John Smeaton died at Austhorpe on 28 October 1792

New Waterworks Company

In 1846 the York New Waterworks Company was incorporated and bought the old shares for £20,000. The waterworks were moved to Acomb Landing and the network of pipes was extended to serve the entire city. It was not until the 1930s that the water would be chemically treated. Once the water storage tank had been removed, the tower was lowered by 10ft and remodelled by architect G.T. Andrews who added the crenellations to enhance its Gothic appearance. It was restored as offices for the company in 1932 when, continuing the Gothic theme, the upper two floors were panelled in Jacobean style, one room serving as the boardroom. In recent years, the tower has been extensively restored and converted into one of York’s more unusual holiday properties.


‘The Central Area’, An Inventory of the Historical Monuments in City of York, Volume 2, the Defences (London, 1972), pp108-138. British History Online, www.british-history.ac.uk/rchme/york/vol2/pp108-138 [accessed 8 August 2018]

Robert William Rennison, Civil Engineering Heritage, Northern England (London, 1996)

Established by one of today’s leading engineers, Mark Whitby, Engineering Timelines is a website which aims to explore the engineering heritage of ‘the British Isles and beyond’. With the support of professional institutions, engineering practices and individuals, it is being developed as a research tool for academics and enthusiasts. Timelines can be created, linking elements of engineering history across time and place. The site includes profiles of engineers such as John Smeaton

For further information about the self-catering accommodation at Lendal Tower, visit www.lendaltower.com


© Richard Wilcock