Hymns for Navvies
A Bill had been promoted in parliament in 1898 for a new water scheme in Geltsdale, which would collect water from the river Gelt and its springs and bring it to a new reservoir in the adjacent valley at Castle Carrock. Here the rock was suitable and the reservoir could be watertight. The water would be stored and filtered and provide a reliable and safe supply for a growing Carlisle, which had previously relied on springs.
The site of the new reservoir was on Tottergill land. Six fields were lost and new land a short distance away was purchased to make up the farm’s acreage. The whole area was transformed as an army of navvies* (many were Irish), moved into a temporary camp around the site while the construction work continued. A huge shed was built to house cement and a gunpowder store where the powder for blasting was kept separately. A railway was built and a pulley system with a donkey engine* ran up to the quarry on the hillside. It is still possible to see the cut in the quarry where the pulley was housed.
For those looking down from the farm the view was transformed, as a swathe of green fields became a vast excavation filled with construction work.
Village life also underwent an upheaval as the local population increased fivefold and twelve pubs catered for them. John Edward Shipman, who was headmaster of the school and organist at the church, took a piano up to the navvies’ huts so that they could have a Sunday service. He also helped those who were illiterate with letters that came from home. Once the reservoir was completed, the navvies all moved on to build another one somewhere else.
When the reservoir opened in 1906 it was a masterpiece of engineering - ornate yet functional. It was operated by a staff of seven men, today it is fully automatic with just one visiting manager. Its value now is not only as a water supply but also as a protected environment for wildlife and plants and an important scenic resource for local leisure and tourism.
Many trees have now grown up around the waterside and changed the view from Tottergill again. They are a valuable habitat for the red squirrel which is still found locally.
* navvy – labourer employed to excavate railways, canals and roads
* donkey engine – stationary engine that operated the pulley system