John Wignall Leather (1810-1887)
Civil Engineer

John Wignall LeatherSome of the great pioneering engineers of the nineteenth century like Brunel and Stephenson are household names today, while others remain in the shadows, among them the Leeds engineer John Wignall Leather whose work helped to transform life in Leeds. He partnered his father in the vast project to provide the town with a desperately-needed supply of pure water, and he planned and oversaw the vital drainage and sewerage of the town, essential to civilised life.

John Wignall Leather came from a family of distinguished engineers. His grandfather George Leather had been an early railway engineer, and his father, also George, was consulting engineer for the important Aire and Calder Navigation, and surveyor of coal mines for Bradford, where John Wignall was born in 1810. After school at Hipperholme and Durham, where he excelled in mathematics, he joined his father’s firm in Leeds, where the family had moved to live, and began his professional training in the practice – no academic qualifications available or needed then.

One of the first projects he was involved in was the planning of a new water supply for Leeds. Few houses had a piped supply of water, and what there was came from the river Aire and streams like Sheepscar Beck, stinking with human and industrial waste. Otherwise people relied on boreholes and wells, and water carriers who charged an extortionate 2 shillings a week. By the 1830s, as the population multiplied, it was clear that a new supply of clean water had to be found to meet people’s everyday needs and to fight the diseases and epidemics which were rampant.

Several engineers submitted plans, including George Leather, but the project got bogged down in rivalry, technical disputes and political conflict over issues of public or private control. After frustrating years of argument, the work was finally entrusted to the Leathers, whose scheme involved building a reservoir at Eccup, and bringing the water through a tunnel, an aqueduct (the Seven Arches in Adel woods, still there though long disused), and pipes to storage reservoirs at Weetwood and Woodhouse Moor and on to the town. This vast undertaking, one of the earliest of its kind, involved complex negotiations over compensation claims and land purchase, and major engineering challenges, particularly in building the tunnel, but it was completed successfully in 1843 – for the first time people had access to clean water at low cost. This scheme, though later greatly expanded by the building of further reservoirs, remains the basis for the city’s water supply today.

While the Leeds scheme was in progress John Wignall Leather was also busy with work on a new water supply for Bradford, while his father George took on the construction of reservoirs in the hills near Holmfirth – a project which was to end in tragedy in February 1852 when the Bilberry dam collapsed, killing 81 people. George Leather bore some of the blame, and retired three years later, leaving John Wignall to carry on the practice.

By then he had established himself as an outstanding engineer through his work on railways, docks, and bridges – notably the spectacular Stanley Ferry Aqueduct which still carries the Aire and Calder Navigation over the river Calder, and the elegant Crown Point Bridge in Leeds. He won medals for both at the 1851 Great Exhibition. But his other major work for his home town of Leeds was in designing and overseeing the construction of a comprehensive scheme for the drainage and sewerage of the town. Instead of the river serving as an open sewer, waste was to be piped away to the east, to Knostrop, where it could be treated and used as fertiliser. After a number of initial problems, work began in 1850: an ambitious, costly project, but of enormous lasting benefit to the town.

He continued to work on a wide range of engineering projects, later acting as consultant, including on the expansion of the Leeds water supply. He seems to have had a comfortable personal life: in 1834 he married Caroline Cadman, daughter of a wealthy liquor merchant, and they had four children. Their first home was a large house in Wellington Street, but by the 1860s they had moved out to Potternewton, and then to the grandeur of Potternewton Hall, and finally to de Grey Terrace (where the University Parkinson building stands now). He died there in 1887 aged 77 and is buried with his wife at Lawnswood. Leeds owes him much. Worth a thought when you turn on the tap?

Eveleigh Bradford
August 2013