Workers’ home was famous Dawson City

'Dawson City' near Drapers Corner, Heptonstall, circa 1904
'Dawson City' near Drapers Corner, Heptonstall, circa 1904

At Todmorden Antiquarians last week Ann Kilbey, assisted by Frank Woolrych, recounted stories of the temporary shanty town known as Dawson City, set in fields north of Heptonstall, whilst building Walshaw Reservoirs from 1901.

Ann began by describing the inadequate water supplies in fast-expanding, industrialized, overcrowded Halifax in late Victorians years.

Public Health Acts required improved sewerage and sanitary facilities - all water-dependent. Despite building several large local reservoirs, more provision was needed.

Enoch Tempest from Marple tendered the lowest costings from five construction firms. He declined because of ill-health, besides miscalculations, but was persuaded to commence. There was an opening ceremony in 1900.

Tank engines were hauled up the steep road from Hebden Bridge on a truck pulled by ‘horsepower’ teams where a temporary railway was built to the reservoir site. The railway also transported workers.

Basic workers wooden huts were erected for families, some taking boarders.

There were communal washhouses, toilets, and storehouses. Other workers lodged in Hebden Bridge.

The navvies came to Walshaw from all around - Ann showed a 1901 census for one family where the 10 children had been born all over the country! Extra children put pressure on local Heptonstall school.

Dawson City encountered problems with hygiene facilities. The Medical Health Officer was concerned about diseases spreading, and Enoch Tempest was prosecuted, improvements to sanitation were enforced.

In 1901 two people developed typhoid fever. Ann explained that reservoirs were dangerous places to work with accidents through falls or damage incurred during rock-blasting explosions.

Financial problems bedevilled the project.

Enoch Tempest’s money problems increased, he had to use his property in Marple as security for loans to continue.

The eventual construction costs approached double Tempest’s initial contract! In 1907 Walshaw Reservoirs were officially opened by local worthies.

But all three reservoirs leaked.

Tempest undertook remedial work but suffered a stroke and died 1908.

A long-running dispute between the Corporation and Tempest’s executors over finances was eventually settled in 1909.

Thence a new company took over, fixed leaks, all finally completed July 1915.

Dawson City site was cleared. Enoch’s locomotives resold to contractors. Demolition of the spectacular trestle bridge began in 1912 after a local dressmaker fell to her death.

It was the end of a remarkable story battling the elements on remote Pennine moorlands.

The book ‘City in the Hills’ by Corinne McDonald & Ann Kilbey brings to life this remarkable story from Calderdale’s past.

The next meeting of Todmorden Antiquarians will be on Tuesday, November 25, in the Town Hall Court room at 7.30 pm when Roger Frost will present ‘Historic Cliviger’. Visitors are most welcome.