WE tend to take clean drinking water for granted these days. Not so our ancestors in the mid-1700s, when supplying drinking water to the growing population of York was a real problem.

Step forward John Smeaton, who was born 300 years ago on June 8.

Revered today as the ‘Father of Civil Engineering’ and the designer of the Eddystone Lighthouse, Yorkshire-born Smeaton has a close relationship with York.

He married a York woman, Ann Jenkinson, for a start.

And, in 1779, he and four colleagues bought Lendal Tower and the water company which operated from it for the princely sum (then) of £7,000.

The tower was built originally in the 1300s as a companion to Barker Tower on the opposite bank of the Ouse. Between them the two towers controlled river traffic entering the city: an iron chain was stretched across the river between them and boatmen had to pay a toll to cross it.

The tower’s use changed over the years, however – and, since the late1600s, it had been supplying the city with water from a tank on its top.

This tank seems originally to have been filled by a horse-driven pump and then, from the middle 1700s, by a Newcomen engine.

But this still provided only a rudimentary water supply says Graham Wilford, the former Chief Engineer of York Waterworks Company who has been researching Smeaton’s life.

Smeaton, a renowned engineer responsible for designing and building major civil engineering projects across the country - including hundreds of bridges, canals, docks and harbours - decided that improvements were needed.

“One of the earliest steps was to raise the height of the Tower and install larger capacity tanks on the top, to Smeaton’s design,” Graham said. “One can imagine that Smeaton was in his element with a working steam engine, almost on his doorstep which he could study and develop.”

Smeaton measured the engine’s efficiency in terms of the quantity of water pumped per ‘hundredweight’ of coal burnt, and then developed numerous improvements.

During his lifetime he produced hundreds of detailed drawings of his work. Seven survive in York in the York Waterworks Company’s archives, which are now in the Borthwick Institute. “The most impressive of these is Smeaton’s cross section of Lendal Tower, which shows in remarkable detail the steam driven beam engine and all its components,” said Graham.

Smeaton also designed an improved boiler, which provided the steam to drive the engine. The old boiler was replaced with the new, improved version in 1784. We know that, because it is recorded in the York Waterworks ‘minute book’ for 1779-94.

“The Common Cryer (town crier?) had given the Citizens of York notice that the water supply would be stopped on Monday 9th August 1784 for 10 to 12 days whilst the boiler was replaced,” the relevant entry in the minute book records.

Eleven days later, on August 20, it adds: “This morning all hands getting the Engine ready for work and at about ten o’clock, it sent water into the City and went to work without a single alteration or any thing amiss, which in an affair so complicated as this is, must rebound much to the credit of the very able Engineer who directed the work.”

That engineer was, of course, Smeaton.

No doubt the citizens of York were duly grateful to the ‘Father of Civil Engineering’.