Derry’s Water Famine

St Columba's Well. (3009PG10)
St Columba's Well. (3009PG10)

The Water Famine of 1911, was; “a disaster of the most serious kind” warned R.N. Anderson, the chairman of the Water Committee, on September 25, 1911. Water stocks had fallen dramatically due to the long, hot, dry summer.

The Derry Corporation first described the shortage as a “serious situation” but it quickly became a “dire emergency.”

An advertisement from the Derry JKournal of October 1911, informing people that even cutting the water supply off on alternate days was not helping the situation.'watersupply notice 1911.

An advertisement from the Derry JKournal of October 1911, informing people that even cutting the water supply off on alternate days was not helping the situation.'watersupply notice 1911.

The situation become so serious that the local corporation feared an outbreak of typhoid.

The Town Clerk ordered that anyone found misusing water, i.e. for gardening, washing windows, steps or vehicles, have their supply discontinued and be prosecuted as a result.

At first the Derry public proved slow to heed the warnings. The chairman of the Water Committee described the public as continuing; “To use water as if there is no danger ahead.”

By late September there was sufficient water stocks to last only four weeks.

Mr. Anderson said: “Some months ago a warning was sent out to every house in the city but it was disregarded”, adding it would take a week’s constant rain “to give us any benefit whatsoever.”

By early October the mains water supply was cut off every other day as “the existing water supply was almost exhausted.” This was reversed with the warning that “should the weather conditions continue, the water for all trade purposes would be cut off entirely.” The weather conditions did continue.

Such was the alarm caused by the water famine that, “all householders were urged to attend a ‘Mass Meeting of Citizens’ at St. Columb’s Hall on October 13, so that “resolutions will be put forward urging the Corporation to proceed with some scheme to place the City beyond danger.”

The Derry Journal report of that meeting (October 16, 1911) noted that: “The easement of the problems would come not with public meetings, at which language flowed more than water, but with rain.”

The Fire Brigade and public health committee added their concerns to the growing debate.

All leave of absence was cancelled by the Fire Service as it prepared for the emergency ahead.

A financial reward was offered to the first person to raise an alarm upon the outbreak of fire. A delay of only five minutes in tackling a blaze would result in double the amount of water required to extinguish it. Later during the crisis the Superintendent of the Brigade asked the Corporation what he should do in the event of a fire, as the ‘well was dry.’

In a typical politicians’ response, the matter was left to the Superintendent to decide “according to the situation in hand.”

Water supply options were explored as a matter of urgency by the Derry Corporation.

One representative, Councillor Bible, queried how long it would take for the Sheriffs Mountain supply to come ‘on line.’

He was informed that a Corporation report was “adverse to that idea” and they instead preferred to run a pipe from the Waterside. However the motion to pipe a supply from Sheriffs Mountain to Creggan was carried, with the added proviso that The Mayor, The Chairman of the Water Committee and the City Surveyor “be permitted to bring in any professional assistance they may require,” in order to combat the problem.

Initially a resolution was hindered by politicing on the City Corporation. Though he had opposed the scheme to pipe water from the Waterside across the bridge to Fountain Street, Councillor Bible was forced to eat his words when it was pointed out that the pipe in question was actually laid during his chairmanship of the Water Board!

In 1911, indoor plumbing was fast becoming the norm. Privies (outhouses) were being replaced by water closets, apparently at a local rate of 1,200 p/a and a growing number of baths were being installed in local homes.

The contribution of indoor plumbing to the crisis was the subject of much debate, not least in letters to ‘The Journal’ Editor.

“There was far less danger from the old system, than the new, when there is no water for flushing,” said Colr. Bible.

Hospital updates on the prevalence of typhoid and Scarlet Fever were given to the Coporation from early October onwards. The City was visited by Vice-President of the Local Government board to discuss the dangers of an outbreak of disease.

Though no noticible rise in typhoid was recorded, preparations to treat cases were undertaken as an outbreak seemed almost certain.

As the City fretted, water levels continued to fall until they reached the “lowest ever recorded” by late October.

A number of Derry businesses closed as the water supply was discontinued.

In a time before ‘the dole’ this meant workers simply lost their income and the dreaded workhouse beckoned.

In a bid to lower the city population and thereby the demand on its natural resources, soliders of the Royal Scots Fusiliers were transferred out of Ebrington barracks.

Citizens were forced to dig wells in the hope of finding a water source.

As the crisis deepened employers and business owners turned their attentions to finding their own source of water. A newly dug well in Bishop Street was pumped dry in two minutes. Close by in The Diamond, a well was dug but it could only be pumped for 20 minutes at a time, though its water was not suitable for drinking. The only clean drinking water was secured from a freshly dug Strand Road well. It was some eight foot wide.

Another private well dug by the Messers. Jones and Lowthers’ factory measured 37 foot deep; upon striking water their 140 staff who “would otherwise have been thrown out of work” were retained.

One plumber, a Mr. Hugh McMahon, discovered a well at Lecky Road, while Doherty’s Bakery, Bishop Street also dug a private well.

In addition there were existing wells in The Fountain, Pump Street and Brandywell, thereby explaining the names.

The Corporation also put in place arrangements to bring in water from outside the city which was divided into districts to allow for the emergency distribution of two kinds of water. One for cleaning another for drinking.

By late October the water stocks in local resevoirs were totally depleted. At least no water could be pumped from them, though some gallons could be skimmed off.

The Corporation purchased twenty water tanks, with a total capacity of 4, 000 gallons, in order to provide the city with drinking water. These were sent through city streets to ensure drinking water was available and were also used in order to flush the drains thereby combating the spread of disease.

The flushing of toilets in the city’s 8,000 homes was an ever increasing concern.

The corporation even discussed the introduction of a “special flushing scheme,” to ensure the sanitation of the city. One councillor proposed hiring 143 horses, each with a pump and two men. They were to take water from the river and visit homes five times daily, in order to ensure sanitation.

The cost to the local authority for the special flushing scheme was estimated to run to excess of £4, 500.

The fact that they had costed the project and commented that “any cost should be met to safeguard the health of those who live in the city,” shows just how serious the matter had become.

The ‘Water Famine’ lasted until November 6 when the uncharacteristic dry weather was brought to an end by a 24 hour storm. That storm was described in the Journal as “memorable in the history of the district.”

Roofs were torn from buildings, farming livestock and produce was scattered across neighbouring farms, boats were sunk across Donegal ports from Gweedore to Malin Head but the rivers swelled, recently installed rain spouts and barrels were inundated and the city breathed, or should that be bathed, easy once again.