As Britain’s canal network grew in the 18th and 19th centuries, reservoirs were needed to replenish water lost through leakage and locks. Soon after the opening of the Paddington arm of the Grand Union Canal in 1801, plans were laid for a reservoir in the Brent valley, but they were abandoned because of cost. Instead, a three-mile narrow feeder channel was built in 1810–11 to carry water from the river at Kingsbury to join the Paddington arm of the canal. However, this did not provide a reliable source of water and so an Act of Parliament in 1819 allowed the creation of a reservoir by damming the Brent at Kingsbury, downstream of the river’s confluence with its main tributary, the Silk Stream (which feeds the reservoir’s northern arm).
The reservoir was eventually constructed by the Regent’s Canal Company between 1834 and 1835. The tender for the work was awarded to the civil engineer William Hoof of Hammersmith (c.1788–1855), who received the sum of £2,740 and six shillings.
Construction of the reservoir flooded much of the land of Cockman’s Farm. The new lake was given the name Kingsbury Reservoir. Its 28 hectares (69 acres) spread between Old Kingsbury Church and the Edgware Road at West Hendon. Additional building was completed in December 1837 to extend the reservoir.
In January 1841, after seven days of continuous rain, the dam head collapsed and the resultant flood killed several people downstream at Brentford and caused considerable damage to property. When the dam was rebuilt in 1843, a supervisor was employed for the first time, housed in a cottage near the dam. This cottage still exists.
An increase in canal traffic meant that by 1850 more water was needed to replace the loss from canal locks. An Act of Parliament in 1851 allowed the Regent’s Canal Company to acquire more land and raise the height of the dam. This also necessitated raising embankments to protect buildings on the Edgware Road. This work expanded the reservoir’s area to 160 hectares (400 acres) by 1854, the largest it has been in its history. The reservoir then covered much of the area now taken up by the Brent Cross Shopping Centre east of the Edgware Road and the retail outlets on the reservoir’s northern arm at The Hyde (Halfords, Wickes, Pets at Home and Sainsbury’s).
However, in the 1890s the size of the reservoir was reduced to 79 hectares (195 acres) and early in the 20th century it was reduced again to 44.5 hectares (110 acres).
The reservoir is now the responsibility of the Canal and River Trust, which in 2012 took over the care of the canal network in England and Wales from British Waterways.
Sport and recreation
From its earliest days, the reservoir and the surrounding open land have attracted recreational activities. Evidence that the newly constructed reservoir was used for swimming can be found in Old St Andrew’s Church (which is now leased by the Church of England to the Romanian Orthodox Church). A memorial inside the church records that in August 1835 three teenage sons of Alexander Sidebottom of Sloane Street accidentally drowned while bathing in the reservoir and an older brother drowned while trying to save them.
During the second half of the 19th century the area became a popular destination for recreation and evening entertainment, almost entirely due to one man, William Perkins Warner (1832–99), a veteran of the Crimean War who had grown up nearby at Blackbird Farm, which was situated at the junction of Kingsbury Lane (now Blackbird Hill) and Old Church Lane. (The site is now occupied by a parade of 1930s mock-Tudor shops.)
In 1858 Warner bought a former coaching inn on the Edgware Road where it crossed the Brent River. The inn had once been called the Harp & Horn but by 1803 had been renamed the Welsh Harp. By the time Warner acquired the inn, the reservoir had also become generally known as the Welsh Harp Reservoir, although this has never been an official name, since it was initially called the Kingsbury Reservoir before later being renamed the Brent Reservoir.
Warner rebuilt the inn, enlarging it, and renamed it the Old Welsh Harp Tavern to distinguish it from the newly built Upper Harp Inn at the junction of Edgware Road and Cool Oak Lane. He also set about creating a large pleasure garden behind the pub and obtained the rights to use the reservoir for recreational purposes.
Warner offered a range of amusements at the inn and in the reservoir’s surroundings. For 40 years the Welsh Harp was one of London’s most popular leisure destinations.
Warner used the reservoir’s potential to the full, with fishing and boat hire, and competitions for swimmers. On June 1st 1868 (Whit Monday), a meadow by the reservoir was used for Britain’s first formal cycle race — just one day after the world’s first formal cycle competition at St-Cloud near Paris. The London race was won by Arthur Markham (1845–1914). He received a silver cup from Warner, who had sponsored the race. Four years later, Markham opened a bicycle shop on the Edgware Road, which he ran for many years.
(Incidentally, the French cycle competition also has a connection with Brent Reservoir. The main race was won by another Englishman, the 19-year-old James Moore, who lived in Paris and went on to dominate cycle racing in France for many years. He eventually returned to the UK to live in Wildwood Road, Hampstead. He died in 1935, aged 86. Although the location of his grave is not known, his grandson, John, believes the site is near the reservoir.)
In 1870, at Warner’s request, the Midland Railway opened a Welsh Harp station on its new line from St Pancras to Bedford. Special bank holiday trains brought in thousands of day trippers from the crowded areas of the City and Camden.
The variety of sports and pastimes made available by Warner included bowls and cricket. He also operated a horse racing track, which was popular until banned by an Act of Parliament in 1879 because of its alleged promotion of vice. The first greyhound races with mechanical hares took place here in 1876.
When the reservoir froze over in winter it was used for skating. Both national and international ice-skating events were held here. In February 1893, a coach drawn by four horses was driven across the reservoir by Jack Selby.
The reservoir was also famous for Bank Holiday fairs. There was an incident during its Victorian heyday when a bear escaped from the menagerie.
Warner also built a music hall beside the pub as a year-round attraction. It was celebrated in a song by the music hall star Annie Adams as “The Jolliest Place That’s Out”.
In the 1890s the French balloonist Louis Capazza attempted to demonstrate ballooning at the Welsh Harp. One report says that in 1891 his balloon failed to leave the ground and there were “nasty incidents” among the 5,000 spectators. Another report says that in August 1892 his balloon slipped out of its net and launched without him, and the crowd “turned into an angry mob and tried to kill him”.
However, by the end of the century, following Warner’s death, the popularity of the tavern and its pleasure gardens declined. The Welsh Harp station closed in 1903. Although the inn persisted through two world war, it could not survive the motorway age and in 1971 it was demolished to make way for road improvements associated with the southerly extension of the M1 motorway to Staples Corner. But its legacy remains in the name by which the reservoir is still generally known today.
Without the inn’s sponsorship, the reservoir continued to be used for recreational activities. In the 1920s it was popular for motor boat racing, and a sailing club was also established.
In the 1920s the area also attracted naturists, who sunbathed on the north bank and swam in the lake in a state of nudity or semi-nudity. They marked out a sunbathing area and erected notices stating, “Sun-bathing ground. Please keep away”. The signs did not deter some curious locals, who would go to stare at the nudists and even taken photographs. But other local residents took offence at the nudity and in June 1930 a group of naked sunbathers were attacked by 200 local objectors. No-one seems to have been seriously injured, but the event is still referred to as “The Sun-Bathing Riots”.
A common local belief is that the reservoir was used for the 1948 summer Olympics. In fact, the rowing events at that Olympiad were held at Henley and the sailing took place in Torquay. However, in 1960, the reservoir hosted the Women’s European Rowing Championships, which were attended by some 200 competitors and 5,000 spectators and televised by the BBC and Eurovision. A scaffold pole left behind after the event still sticks out of the water just beyond the East Marsh rafts and is a popular perch for gulls and terns.
The water is still used for sailing and canoeing. Several sailing clubs are based at a sailing centre by the north end of the dam, and canoeists have a base on the north bank of the main reservoir. Swimming in the reservoir is now banned through local byelaws, as is fishing. However, some angling does take place openly, since the local authorities do not seem to take any action to enforce their byelaws (which also prohibit camping, campfires and barbecues — all of which have been witnessed in recent years).
Brent Reservoir at war
When the First World War broke out in 1914, Hendon and Kingsbury both became centres for the new aircraft industry. Brent Reservoir played its part in the war effort, being used in 1917 for the test flight of a Handley Page seaplane, which was built in Cricklewood.
From 1916, the fields between the reservoir and the top of Dollis Hill, to the south, became a testing ground for a new weapon — the tank. The best known tank was the Mark IX, developed locally, which has been described as the world’s first specialised armoured personnel carrier. It had a crew of four and could carry up to 30 men.
It is claimed that one Mark IX tank was rebuilt as the world’s first amphibious tank, but there are doubts about the veracity of this story, despite the existence of photographs of a floating tank on the reservoir on 11th November 1918 (the day of the Armistice).
In the inter-war years a Hendon plane manufacturer used aircraft left over from the war to offer pleasure flights over the reservoir at a price of one guinea (£1.05). Seaplanes also sometimes used the reservoir for pleasure flights.
During the Second World War a seaplane was kept on the reservoir, and local residents have recounted swimming out to it. It was rumoured that it was kept there to evacuate the Prime Minister (Winston Churchill) and other senior figures from a secret bunker in the event of a German invasion. There was indeed such a bunker, built deep under the Post Office Research Station in Dollis Hill in 1939. Codenamed “Paddock”, it was designed to hold 200 people and be a last refuge for the Cabinet to meet and operate. But it was used for only two Cabinet meetings and abandoned in 1944. (It is now owned by Network Housing, which acquired the research station site for residential development, and is open to the public two or three times a year, with free guided tours provided by volunteers.)
A small pond close to the north bank of the main reservoir is believed locally to have been created when an unexploded bomb was detonated there during the war, although there appears to be no documentary evidence to support this belief.