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    Avis Part Four - Water, Water Everywhere.
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(Illustrated version available from the Ascension Island Heritage Society)

There is nothing like a water and electricity bill to set me wondering about using less water. After all, the simple action of flushing a toilet today costs 10p! (Makes the new super-loos iThere is nothing like a water and electricity bill to set me wondering about using less water. After all, the simple action of flushing a toilet today costs 10p - It makes the super-loos in London seem quite reasonable! Back in the old days there wasn't a problem, water was free; mind you, there wasn't much water to be free with. Even in living memory, before the arrival of the English Bay Power Station, water was strictly rationed. Two gallons per person per day was the quota, with an additional 20 gallons per family per day. When it had gone, that was it!

But where did the water come from? In 1828 before Captain Bates, the island springs or drips produced between 400 and 700 gallons per day. This had to support the population of 200, their animals, and any ships in need of water, there could have been little left for washing clothes or people. As for drinking, no wonder the average sailor drank so much wine and beer. Indeed, it is nice to see that subsequent maritime visitors to the island have still kept up this tradition!

The water before 1830 was transported to town in barrels; Bate decided that this was not efficient. Together with the visiting engineer Captain Brandreth, the idea of transferring water from the mountain using iron pipes, down through Dampiers Drip to Georgetown was developed. This basic concept was to survive for 130 years.

Bate was anxious to start, and the first stage was to build an additional tank at Dampiers Drip. Eventually three tanks would comprise the Dampiers complex, they are still there today. Lower Valley Tank was used to collect water from the clinker through small gutters, and into a tank capable of holding about 1000 gallons. The water was taken from here by donkey, or by a small path that led to the Dampiers caves. Perhaps this was their domestic water supply. Except in dry weather the drip was still going in1995. The other two tanks were very much more substantial. The upper "Dampiers Tank" was also filled from gutters let into the clinker walls. This was, I believe, the main collection tank, and water from the mountain also went into this. The output from "Dampiers Tank" fed into "Bate's Tank". This tank also had a secondary purpose, which was to collect the run-off from the nearby cliff. The channels that fed water into the tank are still easily traced. These tanks were both eventually bypassed (by 1920) as the drips dried up, and the run-off into Bates Tank became too dirty.

It was the mountain though that was to provide the bulk of the island's water for the next 130 years. In Breakneck Valley, small drips provided a source of water. Besides the larger of these, an octagonal iron tank was built. Brandreth discovered a spring, over 30 feet below ground level, where a small layer of clay intercepted the ground water. A well was dug to allow the water to be collected. The well, however, was so close to the end of the valley, that a novel solution was necessary to collect the water from the finished depth of 60 feet. Rather than pump the water straight from the well as is done today - it is still there producing a thousand gallons per week), a horizontal tunnel was dug from further down the valley, to reach the bottom of the well. Water from the well ran down pipes laid in the tunnel, and into a stone tank built near the octagonal iron tank. This stone tank was called "Brandreth Tank".

In 1837 a second well was added close to the first, and the system modified so that both the wells and the tunnel between them collected water into a gutter, and then piped from the second well to "Brandreth Tank". Regularly people would enter the tunnel and clear any debris from the bottom of the wells. This was last done in the 1920s when it was recorded that the tunnel was by then very dangerous. It has now collapsed, as has the second well.

There is of course, only one problem with all this water - it was on the wrong side of the mountain. Brandreth's solution was neat and effective; a tunnel was dug from the garden area through the mountain into Breakneck Valley. The tunnel was dug from both ends, and somehow they met in the middle. Mind you, they were all of one inch out in their levels. Not bad for hand digging with only basic surveyors tools! Donkeys were initially used to drive a pump to get the water from the tanks through the mountain. Eventually a wind pump replaced them.

Much of the system can still be seen today. A walk through the tunnel will show the iron pipe let into the floor of the tunnel. You will also see traces of the clay seam that intercepts the water. The well is about ten yards outside the tunnel, just before the tunnel header tank. Water from either the octagonal or Brandreth Tank was pumped into the tunnel header tank, and from thereon everything happened by gravity. The water flowed through the tunnel, round by the Red Lion, and into a stone tank, 20 yards above today's farm car park. This was known as Mountain Main. All water recovered from the farm area flowed into this tank - well water and roof guttering; the catchments were only added at the end of the 19th century. As you stand by Mountain Main today, you can still hear the well water flowing into it.

Water from Mountain Main flowed down the hill towards Dampiers Tank. From there into Bates Tank, and then off down the mountain again towards Georgetown. Every so often a break tank was built to take the pressure off the pipes, otherwise the joints would be forced apart. Many break tanks still exist; Thistle Hill Tank, God Be Thanked Tank and Lady Hill Tank are all clearly visible. Eventually the water reached Georgetown, and flowed into the main storage tank built by Bate, St George's Tank, at the edge of the Cricket Pitch, or as it was in 1838, the Parade Ground. (Needles Tank and King Ted were later constructions from 1890).

The other main water collection system was the Georgetown roofs. All roofs were connected into the system. Water flowed from each roof into collection tanks near the houses. There were several scattered around the town, and good examples can be seen outside the Islander Hostel, the Post Office and the Church. As these tanks filled, water flowed into St George's Tank. Water could be passed from St George's Tank to the pier so that boats could easily fill their casks. Alternatively a header tank filled by a windmill ensured easy distribution of water to the town.

Much of this system can still be seen today, though it is now disused since the introduction of the seawater desalination plant from the English Bay Power Station.

All this is a far cry from the three carts, three drivers and six oxen he inherited, Bate's efficient water system kept Ascension going for well over 100 years. Will what we build today still be in use in a hundred years time? Somehow I doubt it!


Copyright © 2000, Graham Avis
Created by Stephen C Fowler
Last revised on the 8th of February 2002