Robert Somervell did not know it at the time but he was not going to be allowed to take a break for long after leading the campaign to prevent a rumoured Bill for railway extension in the Lake District going before Parliament. Unknown to nearly everyone in the Lake District, discussions were taking place in Manchester concerning future water supplies for the city and in their sight was the lake known as Thirlmere.

The industrial might of Manchester had grown enormously over the previous decades and its need for water, to support both industrial and population growth, was a critical factor in maintaining future growth and prosperity. As early as 1851 Manchester had started pumping water from reservoirs in the Longdendale valley of Derbyshire to meet their needs. The work of designing and building these reservoirs was carried out by the engineer John Frederick Bateman. Since the mid-1860s, Bateman had been warning Manchester Waterworks Committee that additional supplies other than Longdendale were needed to support the city’s growth and demand for water. After looking at a number of alternative sources Bateman recommended that turning Thirlmere in the Lake District into a reservoir and piping the water to Manchester was the best long-term option. This recommendation was accepted. In August 1876 Manchester Corporation approved the purchase of land and water rights in the area. Their hope was to keep the scheme secret so that prices would not be inflated. This surreptitious behaviour could not last and it soon became apparent what was being planned. Reports in the press began to circulate about Manchester’s intention to apply for permission to dam Thirlmere and build a reservoir that would supply the city with fifty million gallons of water.

By early February 1877 a number of local residents were so concerned that they were jolted into action. About 60 people attended a meeting at the Prince of Wales Hotel in Grasmere, Robert Somervell being one of them. The meeting led to the formation of the Thirlmere Defence Association (TDA), the first such organised and coordinated campaign group in the Lake District. Somervell, as secretary of the TDA, used the three thousand names that Ruskin had given him for their earlier railway protest as a starting point to elicit support. The TDA soon had a fund of £3000 and a list of subscribers that included many notable names from the world of politics, academia, the church, and the arts. Local subscribers included Herbert and Walter Fletcher, and Hardwicke’s cousin, Edward Preston Rawnsley. There is no evidence that Hardwicke himself was a subscriber, at least in the early days. Somervell turned the library of his home into a TDA campaign office. Crucial to the TDA’s success was their engagement with the national press. Newspapers began highlighting the proposal, often with little support for Manchester’s case. As a result, the Corporation soon found itself facing protests from across the country, something which they had not expected or planned for.

Somervell and his supporters did not attempt to deny that Manchester needed more water. What they objected to was the proposal to take it from Thirlmere, arguing that other sources should be considered, and that even if Thirlmere had to be used, Manchester’s plan could be improved in many ways. Despite their success in generating wide-spread publicity and support the TDA had a major weakness. It was not a unified group speaking with one voice. There were different shareholders who had different motives in objecting to Manchester’s proposal. Some of the local landowners, knowing that they would lose land and homes, were primarily interested in maximising the amount of compensation they might receive. Others had no such land connections, their priority being to retain the beauty, tranquillity and nature of the Lake District as it was. Many TDA supporters were not from the Lake District and, as the law stood, had no legal grounds to contest the proposals.

The Parliamentary Bill to enable Manchester to proceed with its scheme was laid before Parliament in December 1877. In anticipation of this the TDA directed much of its publicity towards arguing that such an important Bill could not be discussed via normal Parliamentary procedure:

Thus, if the case is left to be argued out in the routine manner as between the promoters on the one side and the owners of certain mountain pastures on the other, the most important facts making against the scheme will be entirely overlooked.1

Fortunately for the TDA they were supported in this view by W.E. Forster, a member of Gladstone’s government. Normally, during the Committee stage of a Bill, only those parties who were directly impacted economically were allowed to give evidence. Forster proposed that as the Bill had generated widespread interest and the arguments against it were not only economic, it should be considered by a Special Committee which could hear evidence from all interested parties. This was agreed and the Committee were told to conclude their findings by 8 April. This presented the TDA with the opportunity to go before the Select Committee and present their evidence directly.

Although agreeing with Manchester, the Select Committee acknowledged that: ‘the public at large has also an inheritance in the beautiful scenery of these mountains and lakes’. This was a fundamental turning point for future conservation projects and a major victory for the TDA. It meant that the wider interests of the public, and not purely economic considerations, had to be taken into account when viewing such proposals in the future.

The TDA, of course, were not the only organisation giving evidence before the Select Committee. Other northern towns, for example, wanted to ensure that they could have access to the water from Thirlmere. The Select Committee’s report supported this view. As the Bill progressed in the House of Lords the TDA objected that so many changes had now been made to it that it was no longer the same Bill as originally proposed. The Lord’s Examiner on Standing Orders agreed and the Bill was rejected on technical grounds. The TDA knew, however, that this was a hollow victory and that Manchester Corporation would return with a revised Bill.

Manchester Corporation never expected the strength or nature of the opposition that the TDA were able to muster. The rejection of the Bill gave the TDA an opportunity to engage in further discussions with the Corporation to ensure that meaningful safeguards to their interests were included in the new Bill being prepared for Parliament. During 1878 Manchester Corporation engaged extensively with all the interested parties.

The TDA were undoubtedly helped throughout their campaign by the involvement of the CPS, especially members such as Octavia Hill and George John Shaw-Lefevre. The CPS brought much needed campaign and legal experience, as well as extensive political networking, to the resources available to the TDA.

A new ‘Manchester Corporation Waterworks Act’ returned to the House of Commons in early 1879 and received Royal Assent on 23 May. Proposals for new reservoirs, railways, roads, etc. were never to be viewed in the same light after Thirlmere. The opposition campaign had a profound impact in the long term on related projects. No longer was it sufficient for a public or private body to buy off the major stakeholders:

The mere fact of the controversy . . . does not constitute the major significance of this case. What made the Thirlmere Scheme especially noteworthy in its own time . . . was the conspicuous involvement of individuals and interests unconnected with property in its narrowest sense. . . . In tandem with organised attempts to protect physical access to private property, via rights of way or public footpaths, came assertions of a new kind of spectatorial right or lien on the land. It was asserted that the citizenry as a whole – the nation, that is to say – had a vested interest in preserving the traditional importance of certain rural landscapes.2

And what of Hardwicke’s involvement in this phase of the Thirlmere Scheme? A number of commentators have stated that he was heavily involved with Somervell in the campaign. There is, however, little evidence to support this view. During 1877, when the TDA was being formed and mobilised, Hardwicke was living in Bristol and trying to sort out his own future. During the early months of 1878 he was married and settling in at Wray. In January 1879 he left to travel to the Middle East for six months. Knowing all the key players involved Hardwicke would undoubtedly have given his support and time to help when he could, but this was probably very limited compared with his future campaigns.

Thirlmere was undoubtedly a watershed for the conservation movement and it is only right that the last word should be left to Robert Somervell who led the early pioneering work to preserve the Lake District. Looking back in old age on their efforts he concluded, with much under-statement:

It was under the influence of Ruskin that I now broke out in a new line altogether, and one in which I honestly think I was a humble pioneer. There is now a widespread public opinion, avowed and unquestionable, in favour of regarding beautiful places as worth preserving just because they are beautiful, and without regard to purely economic consideration. And I honestly think our agitation against Railways in the Lake District, and our fight to preserve the beautiful Wythburn Valley and Thirlmere from the Manchester Corporation were amongst the earliest efforts of this movement.3

Although the Thirlmere Scheme was finally approved in 1879 it did not end there. Building and engineering works did not commence for a number of years. By the time that they did, Hardwicke was firmly established in his role as defender of the Lakes.


  1. Harwood, John James. History and Description of the Thirlmere Water Scheme. Manchester, Henry Blacklock & Co., 1895, p. 79.
  2. Ritvo, Harriet. The Dawn of Green: Manchester, Thirlmere, and Modern Environmentalism. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2009, pp. 3-4.
  3. Somervell, Robert. Robert Somervell, for Thirty-Three Years Assistant Master and Bursar at Harrow School. Chapters of an Autobiography. Edited with additional material by his sons. London: Faber and Faber, 1935, p. 50.

 Next: Braithwaite and Buttermere Railway, 1883