Jumbo Water Tower
Jumbo Water Tower

Reverend John Irvine was not a happy man. The year was 1882 and Irvine, rector of St Mary's at the Walls church, woke to the realisation that a new water tower was about to be erected a mere 16 feet from his rectory (where the Mercury Theatre is located today).

The tower, intended to supply safe drinking water to Colchester and counter the threat of fire, was to hold over 220,000 gallons of water, at a height of 85 feet above his home. Irvine wrote a scathing letter to the Essex Standard newspaper, decrying the plans for a water tower, and calling it a 'Jumbo'.

The reference was apt, and likely to strike a chord with the Standard's readers. Jumbo was an elephant at the London Zoo, and it had been recently sold, over great public outcry, to American showman and circus entrepreneur PT Barnum (of Barnum and Bailey's Circus).

The nickname stuck, and when the tower was finally complete, the local council stuck a gilded weathervane in the shape of an elephant on top.

Why was the tower being built?

The parapets and walkways
The parapets and walkways

Victorian Colchester had a very poor water supply, relying for the most part on unsanitary wells and a few large cisterns. One such cistern was located inside the old Roman Balkerne Gate, near St Mary's church. A private company, The Waterworks Company, supplied water to wealthy customers for just a few hours a day, and eventually took over the Balkerne Gate cisterns and built a large reservoir.

Throughout the first half of the 19th century several damaging fires broke out in central Colchester, and the time it took water to arrive at the fire scene meant that many business and private houses were badly damaged. In 1849 an outbreak of cholera drove home the point; a better solution was needed.

In 1875 the Public Health Act made local Councils responsible for ensuring public health; it was the jolt that Colchester's Council needed to take action. In 1880 the Council purchased the Waterworks Company and proposed a new water tower to supply water to all of Colchester, 24 hours a day.

The tower was the brainchild of the Borough Surveyor, Charles Clegg, who, rumour has it, took over his post in 1880 at the age of just 19. The prime mover, however, was Councillor James Wicks, and his opponents called the plan 'Wicks' Folly'.

Plans were approved in 1881, with a budget of £6,700. Over Reverend Irvine's objections, contracts were awarded in 1882 (though the tower was moved to a site 60 feet from his rectory). And it seems he might have had valid objections, for, rather than supplying all of Colchester's water 24 hours a day, the finished tower could only supply water 6 hours a day.

The tower base
The tower base

The tower was officially opened on 27 September 1883, 20 months after construction began. Either by design or through a curious coincidence, 20 months is the gestation period of an elephant.

Political wrangling within the Council meant that a second 'official' ceremony was conducted in October 1883, with 15 inscribed 'corporation bricks' added to the structure. These 15 bricks are on the south-west corner, about 30 feet above ground level.

It was not long before Jumbo's water supply was put to the test, for a serious fire broke out late in 1883. It took 54 minutes for water to arrive at the fire, much longer than before the tower was built.

Worse was to come. The tank was not strong enough to be filled to capacity. Charles Clegg, perhaps sensing which way the wind was blowing, accepted a 200 guinea bonus and left for a new job in America.

An earthquake the following year caused cracking to the structure, so in 1888 the chairman of the Water Committee, James Paxman, reinforced the tank with tie bars. It could still not be filled more than three-quarters of its capacity. But Paxman was not finished, and in 1895 he oversaw construction of new pumps and pipes that finally provided running water to all of Colchester, all day.

Looking up inside the tower
Looking up inside the tower

Jumbo remained in operation until 1984. Since that time it has been the subject of several attempts at development. Private companies tried unsuccessfully to get permission to convert the tower to luxury flats, but so far these plans have come to nothing. In 2006 a charity known as the Balkerne Tower Trust tried and failed to purchase Jumbo in order to preserve it.

Undaunted, the Trust has developed plans to make the tower a public attraction and exhibition space, and offer guided tours. At the time of this writing the long-term future of the tower is in doubt, but visitors can still enjoy the tower from the base, and marvel at this Victorian feat of engineering that has become an icon of historic Colchester.

Summing up
We visited Colchester on a hot summer day, and after a long afternoon of walking the heritage trail in our handy tourist booklet, we fetched up at a small cafe by the base of Jumbo. Sitting at a shady table, sipping a cold drink, I sat and examined the tower in detail. The more I looked, the more I was struck by how beautiful it.

Yes, I know some people might not consider a Victorian water tower beautiful. But there's something so wonderfully Victorian in the structure; it is, in its own way, as awe-inspiring as a church tower or a bridge spanning a wide river. It is, in the end, a wonderful reminder of Victorian civic architecture, and deserves to be enjoyed and preserved.

Facts and Figures

  • The tank has a capacity of 221,000 gallons
  • The peak is 131.5 feet above ground level
  • A central cast iron spiral stair rises 157 steps to the tower room
  • 1.2 million bricks were used in the construction
  • 450 tons of cement and 369 tons of stone were used
  • The total weight of the tower is over 5,000 tons
  • Total cost was £11,000 (an overrun of £4300)
  • A lower parapet was added in 1894
  • An upper parapet was fitted in 1908
  • The roof was tiled, replaced by rolled copper in 1948


Walkways and parapet closeup
Walkways and parapet closeup
The south west corner
The south west corner
View from the west
View from the west

About Jumbo Water Tower
Address: Balkerne Gate, Colchester, Essex, England, CO1 1PT
Attraction Type: Historic Building
Location: In Balkerne Gardens, off High Street or Balkerne Hill. Nearest postcode is CO1 1PT. Easily visible from most of central Colchester. Exterior only.
Website: Jumbo Water Tower
Location map
OS: TL993251
Photo Credit: David Ross and Britain Express


Heritage Rated from 1- 5 (low to exceptional) on historic interest

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