We asked Colchester Borough Council's Arts & Heritage Project Officer, Lois Garrod-Smith, to find out a bit more about Colchester's iconic water tower, Jumbo.
Jumbo Water Tower
Soaring high above our heads, much like Disney’s famous elephant Dumbo, there has not always been affection for this magnificent Victorian water tower.

Even before its creation it caused certain people unrest. In 1882 Reverend John Irvine wrote to the local paper “if they do not desire for all time to block the extension of our noble High Street to the West; if they would be spared the painful reverberations of St Peter’s bells against this ‘Jumbo’….“

The Reverend was Rector of St Mary’s-at-the-Walls Church (now Colchester Arts Centre) and it was proposed to place the water tower just 16 feet from his rectory (where the Mercury Theatre is now located). His letter to the press was one of the reasons why we now know the tower as ‘Jumbo’.

The other reason for its name is closer to our animated friend with the oversized ears. In 1882 London Zoo sold Jumbo the elephant to P.T. Barnum’s circus. Jumbo's sale caused a great uproar throughout England, with Queen Victoria and the Prince of Wales amongst those concerned.

In honour of this great elephant the local people gave the nickname to the water tower. It became so well-known that when the tower was finally complete, the local council placed a weathervane in the shape of an elephant on top.
A crowd poses for a photo at Jumbo's opening in 1883

Unfortunately for Jumbo, following his rocky start, it was not plain sailing. Jumbo was built to provide drinking water to Victorian Colchester. At the time the town had a very poor water supply and relied mostly on unsanitary wells. In 1849 an outbreak of cholera emphasized the point that a better solution was needed. Jumbo was designed to hold over 220,000 gallons of water to help address this drinking water issue. However, when it came to it the tank was not strong enough to be filled to capacity.

An earthquake in 1888 caused cracking to the structure so the tank was reinforced but it could still not be filled more than three-quarters of its capacity.

In the 1800’s fires broke out in central Colchester frequently, and the time it took water to arrive at the scene meant that many properties were badly damaged. Jumbo was constructed to help tackle this problem. In 1883, shortly after its completion, Jumbo’s services were required to help tackle a fire. It took just under an hour to get water from Jumbo to the fire - this was a lot longer than before Jumbo’s construction.

Jumbo remained in operation until 1984 and in 1987 Anglian Water sold the tower.

An Anglian Water sticker from 1983 celebrating 100 years of Jumbo

Since then the tower has remained virtually unused. It has changed owners several times and several ideas have been proposed to bring the building back to life but none have proved feasible.

More recently Historic England and the Architectural Heritage Fund have each given £20,000 to support an extensive survey of the Water Tower. They hope the survey will determine the true cost of protecting and restoring the fabric of the building - and bringing it back into use.

It appears there may be hope ahead for Jumbo and despite its rough beginnings it is very much loved by the residents of Colchester today – it even has a gin named after it.

Why not go and give this gentle giant a peek whilst having a break from your festive activities? Happy heritage hunting and make sure you tag us on any social media posts following your adventures!

Lois Garrod Smith is Colchester Borough Council's Arts & Heritage Project Officer and has previously worked with the British Museum and Museum of East Anglian Life to complete their traineeship programme, gaining a Level 3 Diploma in Cultural Heritage.


Jumbo Water Tower
Historic Site
Jumbo Water Tower


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