A brief history of UK groundwater use

Carter's Well, Durham Road, Low Fell

Humans have used groundwater for as long as we have existed. The ways in which we have exploited groundwater, and the uses we have abstracted it for, have changed over time.

Pre-Industrial Revolution

Groundwater was collected from springs and shallow, hand-dug wells. Water could be drawn from the well via bucket and rope, hand pump (as at Carter's Well, Figure 1) or using animal power, such as the donkey wheel at Carisbrooke Castle, which is said to have been built in 1588.

Technological developments

Bratch Pumping Station

During the Industrial Revolution (late 18th century to 19th century) boreholes reached new depths as mechanised drilling was introduced, which in turn meant that artesian flows became more commonplace. Steam engines could be used to pump larger volumes of water, and from greater depth. Water itself was of course needed to supply the demands of industry and agriculture as well as public supply.

Pumping stations built during the Victorian era were often highly decorative, such as the Bratch Pumping Station (Figure 2), which was built in 1895 and housed two steam engines, each capable of raising water from some 50 metres depth from the Permo-Triassic Sandstone.

Huge volumes of groundwater were also pumped to dewater mines, enabling access to deeper seams.

Increasing urbanisation

People migrated from rural areas to work in towns and cities during the Industrial Revolution. "In England the proportion of the population living in cities jumped from 17% in 1801 to 72% in 1891" (Wikipedia: urbanisation). This led to overcrowding, poor sanitation and a great need for clean water.

By 1869, the Permo-Triassic sandstones were supplying Nottingham and parts of Liverpool and Birkenhead; the Magnesian Limestone provided water for Sunderland and South Shields, and groundwater from the Chalk was used in Croydon and parts of south-east London (British hydrogeology — a brief history).

Water quality problems

Groundwater quality has always been variable due to natural processes and human activities. The famous case of cholera in London being spread by groundwater contamination, demonstrated by John Snow in 1854, was possibly the first groundwater contamination study in the UK (M. Price in Mather, 2004). Groundwater source protection, such as siting cesspits and other potential sources of contamination at distance from a well, was given a legal basis as early as 1902 (British hydrogeology — a brief history).

In addition to source protection, drinking-water treatment measures were introduced over time, e.g. chlorination treatment to reduce microbiological risk was introduced by John Snow and gradually more widely. Nowadays all drinking water supplied in the UK is required to meet the standards of the EU Drinking Water Directive (98/83/EC).

Rebounding groundwater levels

Heavy industry (such as steelmaking, deep mining, oil refining, industrial machinery, artillery production, and the automotive industry) required large volumes of water. Groundwater levels fell considerably beneath major industrial cities such as London, Birmingham, Liverpool and Nottingham during the 19th and early 20th centuries. The groundwater level beneath central London was almost 90 m below sea level by the mid-1960s (Environment Agency, 2015).

The decline and relocation of more water-intensive industries led to a recovery of groundwater levels towards a more natural state. In central London, this rebound was as much as three metres per year. The rebound put the integrity of some sub-surface infrastructure, such as foundations and tunnels, at risk and thus additional abstraction has been put in place to control groundwater levels (Environment Agency, 2015; Groundwater development).

Read more about groundwater resource management in the UK.

Further reading

If you are interested in reading more about the history of groundwater use and the science of hydrogeology in the UK, we recommend the following:


Please contact Matthew Ascott for further information.