The Historical Background & Industrial Context of Butterley Spillway

Butterley Spillway is located on the edge of the southern Pennine village of Marsden. The village is surrounded by 2,429 ha of unenclosed common high moorland, known as Marsden Moor Estate, which is managed by the National Trust. The catchment area for Butterley reservoir is 15 sq km.

Humans have altered the local landscape for thousands of years, commencing in the Neolithic era when early farmers settled in the area. They cleared away the forests to make way for grazing land for their animals and to grow crops. Over time the exploitation of the soils, combined with a drop in temperature and increase in rainfall resulted in waterlogged, acidic and infertile moorland. With inadequate soil for arable farming, people increasingly left the hillsides for the lower, more fertile valleys where arable farming could continue.

The moorland became only suitable for grazing hardy sheep. Given the poor quality land, the Pennine farmers could not sustain themselves from grazing sheep alone and so they turned to producing cloth from the sheep wool to supplement their income. They also discovered that the soft water from the millstone grit hillsides gave excellent results for the washing of raw wool. They spun and wove the wool in individual cottages in the hillside farms and small hamlets. The finished cloth was then carried by packhorse to nearby towns.

Given the immense physical barrier that the Pennine hills created due to the terrain and inhospitable landscape and climate, particularly during the long winters, the few packhorse roads and turnpikes across the Pennines were very important lines of communication and travel. Marsden, located on the eastern side of the narrow Standedge cutting route, became an important village along such trade routes and began to develop further as a consequence. The introduction of the trans-Pennine canal (1811), and later the rail lines (1848), through the village enhanced this role further.

The first mills to be developed in the village were powered by water and took advantage of the fast-flowing moorland streams. With the introduction of the canals and railways, these early mills were replaced by steam powered mills, fuelled by coal transported by barge or train from further afield in Lancashire and Yorkshire. And so the industrial revolution emerged; centred on Marsden and the Colne Valley in respect of woollen cloth manufacturing. With the prolific development of mills and their efficient manufacturing of high-quality cloths, the cottage weavers could not compete and had little option other than to take their skills into the mills. Thus the cottage weavers left their farmsteads to provide the mills with their high levels of expertise. The nearby town of Huddersfield, at the confluence on the Colne and Holme Rivers, grew and grew and became synonymous with fine woollen and later, fine worsted cloth manufacture, worldwide.

The growth of Huddersfield was dependent on a secure supply of fresh water both for industry and the general population so the demand for further reservoirs increased. By this time the Huddersfield Waterworks Corporation had completed Deer Hill (1875) and Blackmoorfoot (1876) reservoirs to serve the growth of Huddersfield but they were not enough. It is against this context that Butterley reservoir was commissioned.

Marsden village is located at the confluence of the Wessenden Brook with the River Colne. Butterley reservoir is the lowest of four reservoirs located on Wessenden Brook in the Wessenden valley. The three higher reservoirs are known as Blakeley, Wessenden (or Wessenden Old Reservoir) and Wessenden Head.

The earliest reservoir to be built in the Wessenden Valley, was Wessenden Old Reservoir. This was developed by the Wessenden Commissioners who were incorporated and empowered to make and maintain a reservoir under the Wessenden Act of 1836. The purpose of the reservoir was to supply water to the millowners lower down the valley[1].

As Huddersfield grew and developed its demand for a stable supply of water increased. The Huddersfield Waterworks Act of 1871 allowed the Huddersfield Corporation to increase the capacity of Wessenden Old Reservoir and to construct a new reservoir, Blakely, below it. The Huddersfield Corporation, in consideration of appropriating the Wessenden Springs, were authorised to pay the Wessenden Commissioners the outstanding mortgage of £10,000.
The plans to increase the capacity of Wessenden Old were abandoned however in favour of a new reservoir. The Huddersfield Waterworks and Improvement Act of 1876 allowed the Huddersfield Corporation to construct a new reservoir above Wessenden Old, to be known as Wessenden Head. Work commenced on 27th March 1877 and was completed on 18th August 1881.

A subsequent act, the Huddersfield Waterworks Act 1890, empowered the Corporation to purchase from the Wessenden Commissioners the Wessenden Old Reservoir. The agreement, dated 29th March 1890, stated a sum of £50,000 to be paid after the completion of Butterley Reservoir which was authorised by the same Act.

The construction of Blakeley Reservoir commenced on 26th November 1896 but due to engineering difficulties, it was not filled to overflowing until 16th August 1903.

The Construction of Butterley Reservoir

The first sod marking commencement of the construction of Butterley Reservoir was cut by Alderman James Crosland, on Thursday 27th August 1891. James Crosland was the Deputy Chairman of the Waterworks Committee and was also a Wessenden Commissioner. The chairman, Alderman Wright Mellor, was ill and was unable to attend himself. For the ceremony, a silver spade with an ebony handle was provided, very elaborately engraved, and bearing the following inscription: ‘Huddersfield Corporation Waterworks: Presented by the Corporation of Huddersfield to: Mr. Alderman James Crosland: His cutting the first sod: of Butterley Reservoir.’ The ceremony took place in the afternoon and was followed by a dinner at the Town Hall in HUddersfield at 6pm[2].

Butterley Reservoir was formed by creating an embankment across the Wessenden Brook about a mile below Blakeley reservoir. The embankment is 34m high and 229m in length[3]. The embankment is one of the tallest Victorian embankments in the country. The embankment is constructed of a puddle clay core with a cut-off trench which is typical of Victorian reservoirs in the Pennines. Such designs were established by Thomas Telford (1761-1821) and John Rennie (1757-1854) and developed further by Thomas Hawksley (1807-93) and John Bateman (1810-89)[4].

Boulder clay for use during construction was brought from nearby Micklehurst, near Greenfield, about 15km away. Following the Waterworks Tramroad at Marsden Act (31st July 1894) a tramway was constructed from the edge of the reservoir through adjacent fields to the other side of Marsden, connecting with the main rail line near the Tunnel End at Standedge to bring the material in. The tramroad was completed in October of the same year after just three month of construction[5]. This covered a distance of around 2.4km and required the construction of three level crossings (Manchester Road, Old Mount Road and Mount Road) and two viaducts; one due to the terrain and one over the River Colne.

The locomotive on the line, an olive-green six wheeled coupled saddle tank, was called ‘Butterley’ and ran for the first time on 31st October 1894. It was not until 24th June 1895 that the first consignment of clay was brought in[6]. When construction had finished a lot of the boulder clay remained unused and it can still be seen in piles near to the reservoir.

Unfortunately little evidence of this tramway remains today although it is possible to make out the line of the tramway in some places from satellite images. Stone abutments for the viaduct over the River Colne are still present. The 1906 map shows the full course of the tramway from the Tunnel End to Butterley. Photographs also show the two viaducts which were constructed along its route.

In addition to the standard gauge tramway, 3ft gauge tracks were laid around both sides of the reservoir, up to the quarries further up the valley on the western side above Blakeley embankment and to the construction site at Blakeley reservoir. The route primarily used went up the western side of the valley and this required a trestle bridge to be constructed over the first inlet (Carrs Clough / Butterley Clough). The abutments of this bridge are still visible when the reservoir water levels are low. Evidence of the terraces that would have supported the lines is visible winding up the hillside next to Blakeley embankment. A retaining wall constructed to support a track across the top of the Butterley embankment is still visible at the opposite side of the embankment to the spillway.

Two locomotives ran on the 3ft gauge line; ‘Blakeley’, which cost £660 when purchased from new in 1897 and ‘Brooke’ purchased in 1898. Blakely was unusual as its frames were on the outside. Brooke was named after the chairman of the Waterworks Committee and was named during a ceremony on 23rd June 1898 at Holme Farm near Blakeley Reservoir[7].

It is believed that the initial excavation at Butterely was carried out without the use of steam railways. Rails, sleepers and wagon materials ordered in 1892 are likely to have been used for haulage by the sixteen horses known to have been employed at Butterley[8]. The horses were well looked after and were given names, including Hesketh, Dyson, Rodger, Colonel, Fligg and Denham.

The reservoir was constructed predominantly by itinerant navvies. As the workforce was employed directly by the Corporation, the Corporation established a temporary community in the vicinity of the construction site. Upper Bank Bottom Mill, a water powered mill, was acquired together with an associated house. Lower Bank Bottom Mill was also acquired and one wing was demolished. Both mills and the house were converted to dwellings for the workforce. Outbuildings at Lower Bank Bottom Mill were also used as workshops and coal stores. Eventually, Upper Bank Bottom Mill was lost under the embankment. Lower Bank Bottom remained until after the reservoir was complete. It no longer exists. The community also housed grain stores and stables for the horses[9].

A mission room was provided, which included copies of bibles, hymn books and also the Huddersfield Examiner and Yorkshire Post newspapers. As was common at the time, the navvies were treated with suspicion by locals who increased the price of provisions and alcohol for them. As a direct result, the reservoir navvies decided to build their own pub/club for socialising. The Puleside Working Men’s Club near to the reservoir on Old Mount Road is a lasting legacy of the navvies.

Construction of the reservoir was not without incident as on 12th January 1894 an explosion of gelignite killed a workman, Robert Baker, in the puddle trench. John Dyson, a stone mason, was injured by a travelling steam crane on 27th January 1899. He died two weeks later[10]. There was also a masons strike in 1901 which caused some delay to construction. On 30 January 1893 seven cases of smallpox were diagnosed at Bank Bottom dwellings and twelve ‘contacts’ were isolated. Hole Top, a cottage belonging to the Corporation on the western side of the Wessenden Valley, had been converted into an isolation hospital in August 1892. Hole Top was subsequently submerged by the reservoir water[11].

Construction of the reservoir was nominally complete in July 1901 and the reservoir began to fill. A severe drought in Autumn 1901 hampered the filling of the reservoir[12].

During the filling of the reservoir, problems with the clay core occurred and serious leaks were encountered which resulted in water gushing out from the sides and face of the embankment. The problem was caused by the local rock strata. An extension of powers was required to deal with the delay caused and the additional cost of remediation. These were covered by the Huddersfield Corporation Act of July 1902[13].

In October 1902 an independent opinion was sought regarding the problems encountered from G H Hill (a leading water engineer of his day) and Professor Boyd Dawkins. Both reports were critical of the original design of the embankment to the extent that the original engineers for the scheme, Thomas and Charles Hawksley (who had overall responsibility, including for the design) and George Crowther (engineering superintendent) were dismissed by the corporation. In October 1903, G H Hill and Sons were appointed to design remedial works which included the construction of wing trenches and cement grouting (when liquid cement is driven, under great pressure, into the joints and fissures of the rocks, whereby the beds are rendered watertight). The eastern arm resulted in significant cutting to the lower hillside along Wessenden Road resulting in the bare rock visible today. The remediation work was undertaken by Mr John Scott of Bank Top Chambers, Darlington. The total cost of the construction of Butterley Reservoir was £361,196, of which £71,767 were the remedial works[14]. This equates to over £40m in he reservoir was emptied between 21-23rd May 1904 so that the remediation work could take place. Complete construction finished on 16th June 1906 and the spillway first operated on 5th December of that year[15].

From the reservoir a twenty-four inch main is laid for domestic and trade purposes via Marsden, Lingards, Linthwaite and Golcar to Longwood Lower Reservoir to supplement the lower level supply.

A settling tank, to remove silt, sand and peat from the inflowing water, was developed above Butterley and construction commenced on February 15th 1904. This came into use on May 7th 1904 and it was completed in October 1904[16].

Architecture and Design

Butterley reservoir was designed by the well-known civil engineers Thomas and Charles Hawksley of 30 Great George Street in Westminster, London. Thomas Hawksley was one of the great Victorian civil engineers and he has a well-documented career. Although little known today, in his day Hawksley was well known and held in very high regard. The extract below is taken from a publication by Imperial College London regarding biographical notes of people whose names are commemorated on the façade of the Civil Engineering Building.

“THOMAS HAWKSLEY, F.R.S. (1807-1893)

Thomas Hawksley was a celebrated water engineer, much esteemed and highly regarded in his day. In a period when water and sanitary engineering was in its infancy, he was responsible for building waterworks in most of the major cities in England – over 150 works in all – and also for carrying out sewage and gas works for a large number of towns.

Hawksley originated in Nottingham and began his career at the age of 15 in 1822 by taking articles with an architect, subsequently forming with him, and another, the partnership of Stavely, Hawksley and Jalland, engineers and architects. He became ultimately the sole partner and continued the business until 1852, when he moved to London, establishing himself a year later at No. 30 Great George Street, Westminster, which remained his address until his death.

His contributions as an engineer were in three main areas: water supply, gas supply and main drainage. He constructed new waterworks for Nottingham, Liverpool, Sheffield, Leicester and many other cities, either by using gathering grounds or pumping systems. Such works were highly innovative in this period. His designs were based on meticulously obtained hydrological data and carefully prepared mathematical calculations, and his reputation for soundness as an engineer was very high. He attached great importance to purity and strove to supply a system of constant service, ingeniously overcoming the problems of keeping supply pipes always charged under pressure.

Hawksley also built a large number of gas works and sewage works for many towns. He reported, with George Bidder and Joseph Basalgette (q.v.), to the Metropolitan Board of Works on the Main Drainage of London, and was involved in later Royal Commissions on Water Supply, and other Parliamentary Enquiries, where he was greatly valued as a lucid witness. An excellent mathematician, he established many useful formulae for professional purposes.
Elected F.R.S in 1878, Hawksley was also President of the Institution of Civil Engineers from 1871 to 1873 and President of the Institution Mechanical Engineers from 1876 to 1877. Many honours were bestowed upon him by foreign governments for his services to them. When in 1914 the City and Guilds College expanded its premises into the Goldsmiths Extension Hawksley’s son Charles donated over £5,000 towards the cost of equipping the new Hydraulics laboratory. This laboratory became known as the Hawksley Hydraulics Laboratory in memory of this distinguished civil engineer.”

Thomas Hawksley is perhaps best known for developing the first pressurised clean water supply system, which saved countless lives during the cholera epidemic of 1848-9 and is one of the reasons why the country’s health and prosperity accelerated during the Victorian era[17]. He received knighthoods ad other grateful countries for his international work. Hawksley also pioneered a high-pressure cement grouting process to eliminate leaks from earth embankments and this process was used at Butterley.

Thomas’ son, Charles Hawksley was born in Nottingham in 1839. He studied at University College London and after graduating entered into an apprenticeship with his father’s firm. Hawksley worked extensively in the water industry alongside his father. He became a member of the Smeatonian Society of Civil Engineers in 1897[18] and served as their president in 1911. Following in his father’s footsteps, he also served as the 38th president of the Institute of Civil Engineers from November 1901 to November 1902[19].

Cultural Interest

Marsden and the Wessenden Valley has been a popular place to visit since at least the mid 19th Century due to its natural beauty and tranquillity. As well as the moors being a popular hunting ground for centuries, the development of the railway into Marsden, together with increased wealth and leisure time during the 19th Century, brought in day trippers from the towns and cities of Yorkshire and Lancashire[20]. There are many Victorian photographs available which show ladies and gents in their finery enjoying days out in the Wessenden Valley.

A hand-drawn postcard dating from 1910 contains six images of Marsden. The postcard is intended to be comical and it includes two pictures of Butterley reservoir. One depicts the wall along Wessenden Road, which blocks picturesque views of the reservoir, and the other notes the number and steepness of the steps from the valley bottom up the hill sides. Despite the comedy in the postcard, it demonstrates that Butterley Reservoir has historically been an important element in Marsden’s tourist scene.

The website of Marsden’s History Group describes the appeal of Marsden and the Wessenden Valley during the Victorian era:-

“Lovely scenery refreshed the souls of those coming from cramped, polluted mills and streets, but bodily refreshment was also sought, in the form of meat teas or a glass of beer; Marsden inn-keepers and land-owners, some of whom were also farmers, made the most of this commercial opportunity.

One popular walk from the village centre was along Tunnel End reservoir to Eastergate and Blake Lee Guest-House near Hay Green; a more testing walk was up Pule Hill to The Moorcock or The Great Western; while the most strenuous route led up the Wessenden Valley, where refreshment could be found at Wessenden Lodge and the Isle of Skye Inn.

In the twentieth century motoring excursions, cycling and hostelling became popular, and Marsden adapted to these new forms of leisure.

In the 1886 Rates Survey the Halls, farmers of Binn Lodge, were recorded as having a ‘Refreshment Room’. Within living memory teas – ‘rich repasts’ – were served from Wessenden Lodge. George Marsden (a local historian and poet born in 1848) was probably referring to Wessenden Lodge when he wrote the following advertisement:

Hester’s Retreat Wessenden Valley Marsden Near Huddersfield

This magnificent beauty spot in Wessenden Valley is within 1½ miles from Marsden Station, and contains 2 reservoirs, constructed for the Huddersfield corporation waterworks, at a cost of nearly half a million of money, and at one glance can be seen scenery second to none in the north of England.

There are mountain and moorland, rivulet and lake,
Health giving breezes, Fernbank and Brake,
Bracken and heather, shrubbery and tree,
Good road to get there, these are all free
If age or youth, on wheel or foot
Their progress can but stay,
With fresh laid eggs and lemonade,
A trifling sum to pay,
Or; if by hunger being stormed,
And cash is in thy till,
A sandwich try, but pay the score
Then thou may eat thy fill
Recruit thy inward wasting frame,
From nature’s bounteous store,
But; when refreshed, trudge on again,
What mortal can ask more?

There is also 6 acre of splendid woodland, where children can roam at their leisure, on payment of a small sum, and a garrantee [sic] not to interfere with the trees, nor do mischief of any kind (this will be strictly enforced). Parties can be catered for at the farm, but these must be arranged for at least 4 days prior and a deposit paid; particulars of which may be had at Hester’s Retreat Lengthened periods can be arranged for. Sweets, biscuits and confectionery of various kinds etc. etc. etc. Those braving the stiff climb out of the end of the Wessenden valley sought refreshment at the Isle of Skye Hotel.” [21]

Today the valley remains popular with visitors, particularly walkers, cyclists, horse-riders and photographers. Unfortunately however, many of the visitors who enjoy the valley are unaware of its vast history. The main reason for this is that it is a relatively untold story, particularly when compared to Marsden’s other attractions such as the ‘Standedge Tunnels’.

Despite its history not being as widely understood as it could be, the valley is much loved by proud local residents. Unlike many other reservoirs, Butterley lies within very close proximity to the built up areas of the village. Views of the embankment and spillway are possible from locations all around the surrounding moorland as well as various viewpoints from within the village itself; both public and private views. There are many footpaths and walking routes around the reservoir which are close enough to reach via short walks from the village, such that many people visit the reservoir on a daily basis. This gives local residents a strong sense of ownership.

Butterley Reservoir lies within the Peak District National Park; the crest of the dam marking the Park’s northern boundary. The surrounding moorland also benefits from many environmental designations such as SSSIs. It is not only the natural beauty which makes the area popular however; the architecture of Butterley and its overflow astounds people on viewing it for the first time. In fact, it continues to amaze people who have lived in the village for years. The embankment is exposed, its scale massive and the spillway so grand and elaborate. Added to this are the fantastic acoustics of water cascading down in times of overflowing.

In total there are twelve reservoirs around Marsden (Butterley, Blakeley, Wessenden Old, Wessenden Head, Deer Hill, Black Moss, Cupwith, Swellands, Redbrook, Tunnel End, Sparth, and March Haigh – the majority of which are associated with the canal). Together with the mills, the Church, Mechanics Institute, weavers cottages and trans-Pennine transport links they define Marsden as a place. Indeed, the micro-brewery real ale pub (the Riverhead Brewery Tap) in the centre of the village names its ales after several of the local reservoirs; the higher the reservoir, the higher the alcohol content. There is a bitter named ‘Butterley’.


Binnie, G. M. (1981) ‘Early Victorian Water Engineers’, Thomas Telford Limited, London

Bowtell, H. D. (1979) ‘Reservoir Railways of the Yorkshire Pennines’, Oakwood Press

Hughes, A. K. (2009) ‘Butterley Reservoir, Report on an Inspection under the Reservoirs Act 1975 Section 10(2) of the Act’, Atkins, Surrey

Pearson, I. E. (1984) ‘Marsden Through the Ages’, Pearson, Marsden

Watson, Garth (1989), ‘The Smeatonians: The Society of Civil Engineers’, Thomas Telford Ltd, London:

Whitehead, L. B. (1943) ‘Bygone Marsden’, Percey Brothers Ltd, Manchester

Woodhead, T. W. (1939) ‘History of the Huddersfield Water Supplies’, Wheatly, Dyson & Son, Huddersfield

‘Scenic refreshment ~ Walking and Youth Hostelling’, Marsden HIstory Group 1 July 2013

‘A Forgotten Hero Thomas Hawksley (1807–1893)’, Water World, 18 June 2013

‘Charles Hawksley’, Graces Guide British Industrial History 19 June 2013

‘Obiturary’, Minutes of the Proceedings of the Institution of Civil Engineers, vol. cxvii, 1894, pp 364-76

[1] Woodhead, 1939

[2] Bowtell, 1979

[3] Hughes, 2009

[4] Binnie, 1981

[5] Bowtell, 1979

[6] Bowtell, 1979

[7] Bowtell, 1979

[8] Bowtell, 1979

[9] Bowtell, 1979

[10] Bowtell, 1979

[11] Bowtell, 1979

[12] Woodhead, 1939

[13] Woodhead, 1939

[14] Hughes, 2009

[15] Bowtell, 1979

[16] Woodhead, 1939

[17] Water World, 2013

[18] Watson, 1989

[19] Grace’s Guide

[20] Marsden History Group, 2013

[21] Marsden History Group, 2013


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