If there were someone from the distant past we had to thank profusely for our water supply system on the eve of Madras Week, it would be James Welby Madeley.
Heritage savants hail him as the father of Madras’ water supply and sewerage disposal system.
J.W. Madeley, whose name is famously carried by a subway in T. Nagar, was instrumental in converting the open canal system of water supply in Madras into a system of closed raw water conduits.
Up to 1778, water was drawn from wells, ponds and lakes to meet the requirements of Madras.
“This was done because Madras was not densely populated and many people managed with traditional water resources,” points out Padmapriya Baskaran, a heritage blogger.
Seven Wells Street in George Town gives a glimpse into the water management system of those days.
Ten wells were dug up in George Town. With three of them yielding little water, only seven could be used as part of the water supply system. As Madras was incredibly smaller then, these seven wells could supply meet the water needs of residents.
Now, as the British began annexing neighbouring villages, the population of Madras grew, and the demand for water grew proportionately.
As a result, water levels in the seven wells began to plummet. The beginning of the 19th century even witnessed a famine. Thus, In 1816, Francis Whyte Ellis, Madras Collector of that period, commissioned 27 wells to enhance water supply.
“In 1851, Sir Arthur Cotton and Colonel O'Connell came up with a strategy to resolve the drinking water crisis in Madras. In 1870, engineer Fraser modified O'Connell’s proposal. He ensured diversion of water from Kortillaiyar to Sholavaram and Red Hills lakes. From Red Hills, the water was supplied through the Kilpauk open water channels. Then, in 1872, it was planned that water would be supplied through pipes. Following this, inclined shafts were built.”
Later, in the early 20th century, Hormusji Nowroji, a civil engineer, who was an Indian, initiated a plan for supply of piped water. And when Nowroji was transferred, Madeley was placed in charge of the project, who later worked out an extensive water supply plan, which included collecting water from different channels and diverting it to the Red Hills reservoir and then into a huge sump in Kilpauk Water Works (KWW).
“From 1910 to 1932, Madeley converted open supply channel to closed supply channel at the Kilpauk Water Works, which was inaugurated on 17 December 1914, pumped water through steam engines, and experimented with sand filtration and chlorination too. Thanks to these initiatives, he came to be known as the Father of Madras’ Water Supply and Sewerage Disposal,” she explains.
As Hormusji Nowroji completed about 45% of the work, he can be called the Father of Madras’ Piped Water Supply.
“While steam engines were used in the earlier days to pump water, electricity is used now. Technology aside, the process remains the same. The basic plan for water supply and sewage disposal in Chennai, as we know it today, was started and promoted by Madeley,” she adds.