When you look at this tranquil scene of Ponden Reservoir near Keighley, it's hard to imagine what life was like nearly one hundred and fifty years ago in this area, when Ponden, and the nearby reservoir of Watersheddles, were being constructed in the 1870's. At the height of their construction up to 300 men were involved in work on the two sites, living either alone or with their families in a 'Shanty-town' of makeshift huts and caravans on site.
This army of navvy workers, together with their wives, women and children, poured into the district from all over the country and caused no end of a commotion in the sleepy hamlets of Scar Top and nearby Stanbury. The area must have resembled a scene from the Wild West, because for eight years they dug, drank, fought, pilfered, were injured and died in various trench mishaps.
The local newspaper, The Keighley News, reported on one such incident on 17th February 1873 as follows:
" On Monday morning an accident, unfortunately caused the death of a man, occurred at the waterworks at Keighley Local Board now in course of construction at Ponden. It appears that an excavator named Greenwood Hird, residing at Stanbury, was engaged at his work on Monday, digging out for the puddle trench of the reservoir. A very heavy bed of stone had been met within this operation, and the stone and rubbish excavated in hoisted to the level, a distance of over thirty feet, by means of a pulley and a horse. The truck or boxes containing the material are hooked on, and the operation being of a rather dangerous character considerable precaution is necessary. While one of these trucks was being thus hoisted, a stone weighing over eleven pounds fell from near the top to the bottom, alighting upon the head of the deceased, who was going on with his work immediately below. His skull was driven in from behind, and the unfortunate man was killed instantaneously. It is stated that the deceased, who had a sub-contract for part of the work, had been frequently cautioned as to the practice of filling the trucks too full and also working underneath while the trucks were being hoisted; but that no notice was taken of these warnings. The deceased was twenty-four years of age, and leaves a wife and two children"
The situation in the area became so bad, with the influx of so many rowdy workers, looking for recreation after a hard days work, that the people of the nearby sleepy village of Stanbury, had to petitioned the authorities for an extra constable " to keep the navvies in order".
One of the construction workers was a local man, Joseph Bancroft, who was born on 8th April 1840 at Denholme, the son of John Bancroft and Mary Ann Holmes. Joseph, together with several of his brothers, had worked at various quarries in the area learning his trade as a stonemason and he eventually went to work on the Ponden Reservoir site doing 'top-facing' work, which was dressing stone for walls etc. Whilst working on site Joseph had to live on site in some sort of a caravan, only going home at weekends to see the family due to the distance involved. He apparently also did work on the side to complement his wages by doing jobs for local farmers and also mill employers who needed a bit of work doing on the fabric of their buildings. As well as a skilled stonemason, Joseph was an accomplished artist, who would do sketches of people he met in his everyday life, for the price of a pint of ale. He eventually moved on to work at the nearby Watersheddles Reservoir site, which was under construction at the same time as Ponden, and whilst there he heard about all the work available just over the border in Lancashire where stonemasons were required for all the new cotton mills which were being built around this time, so he moved to Colne and worked in Southfield and Marsden quarries in the nearby town of Nelson. He stayed there for most of his working life, ,moving back to Yorkshire in the 1920 and saw his days out in Yeadon near Leeds, passing away in March 1937 and was buried at the small Municipal Cemetery there.
The history of Ponden and Watersheddles reservoirs goes back to 1869, when the town of Keighley was in a desperate need of a fresh water supply. The Keighley newspaper at the time reported on parts of the town where the piped water supply had been dried up for thirteen weeks.... factory machines stood idle as water supplies had to be diverted for domestic use....new wells were being sunk in the town but were running dry almost immediately..... natural springs up to a mile out of town were being besieged night and day by men, women and children with buckets and cans..... the town drains clogged up due to lack of water and gave off poisonous gases, which were blamed in part for the scarlet fever epidemic which had killed a number of children. The local newspaper correspondent voiced the universal view of the desperate people of Keighley when he stated "Nothing....neither expense, covert opposition, nor open hostility will be deemed by the inhabitants an excuse for delay or even dilatoriness on the part of the Board.....they must let us have water, and they must let us have it soon!"
The upshot of all this was the Keighley Waterworks Extension and Improvement Act of 1869, which authorised the construction of the new reservoirs. Both Ponden and Watersheddles Reservoirs were of a similar size, about 50 feet deep, covering about 30 acres and with a capacity of about 200 million gallons of water each. Both took nearly eight years to build and work commenced in about 1870.
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