THERE’S a subterranean rhythmic rumble which is accompanied by a trebly hiss of escaping steam on the off-beat, but the machinery itself moves noiselessly from floor to ceiling, from way overhead to deep down below. The governor twirls like a ballerina performing an endless pirouette, while the 17-ton beam hypnotically nods backwards and forward, backwards and forwards, as it did in the days when it pumped clean water to the people of Darlington and the Tees Valley.

This weekend, the Tees Cottage Pumping Station, featuring its fabulous 1904 beam engine, is open to the public for the first time this year, and on sale for the first time will be a new guidebook, explaining the mechanical marvels that are in front of visitors’ eyes and the historical stories that lie behind them.

The site at Broken Scar is a Scheduled Ancient Monument, and as well as including the largest, fully operational historic gas engine in Europe, it contains a flood of stories of alleged corruption, of “profound sewage contamination” and, on the plus side, of extremely tasty beer.

The Northern Echo: Hundreds of people attended an open day at Tees Cottage Pumping Station in Darlington at the weekend

There was great concern about water quality 170 years ago as science was beginning to explain water-borne diseases like cholera. In Darlington, 1,470 houses got their water from 19 public wells. Lifestock milled incontinently around the wellheads, particularly on market day, adding their unwanted contributions from above while, down below, the rough-lined wells allowed water to leech in from the surrounding soil – the Skinnergate well, for example, was distressingly close to the Friends Burial Ground.

Some houses got their water from butts, which were no more hygienic – in 1851, a doctor supervised the emptying of a waterbutt in a yard in Bondgate and found at the bottom the decomposing body of a baby. He reckoned the inhabitants of the yard had been drinking the water for at least six months.

So in 1849, the three sons of Edward “the father of the railways” Pease formed the Darlington Gas and Water Company: John chaired it, Joseph (above) was the principal shareholder and Henry was the managing director. Quakers across the country were investing in providing water because it was a social good and it offered a lucrative return.

The Northern Echo:

The idea was to pump water out of the River Tees, clean it, and then let it flow into the homes of subscribers. The Peases called in Thomas Hawksley from Nottingham (above), the greatest water engineer of his day, to design a system. He estimated it would cost them £13,000 to build but would return a healthy profit of £843-a-year.

The Middlesbrough Quaker firm of Gilkes, Wilson & Co installed a small beam engine, which could pump 500 gallons a minute from the Tees, run it through a “slow sand filter” and then pump it through two miles of pipes to the town centre.

On Wednesday, April 24, 1850, Edward Pease wrote in his diary: "There was considerable stir in Darlington today, this being the first day water was brought into the town from the New Water Works."

The water and had “the colour of India Pale Ale and a slight taste of pond”, and its arrival created a sceptical stir. Old farmers knew that cows that grazed beside the Tees suffered from diseased lungs and became "belloned" – or short-winded – and old anglers knew that the fish in the Tees were poisoned by lead from the mines up the dale.

It was feared that humans who drank the peaty-coloured Tees water would be poisoned. "The gush of melody would be no more heard from the sweet voices of men, and they would, like the fish, turn upon their backs and perish with uplifted and distorted eyes," said one doom-monger.

In the first year, there were only 230 paying customers. The charge was based on the rental value of their property: houses worth less than £3-a-year were charged 1d-per-week for water; those worth £100 or more paid 15s-per-quarter, and extra for “each water closet or immersion bath”.

But the first water drinkers did not die in droves. Instead they reported that “the beer was better and the tea stronger”. Subscribers began signing up, and the mains were extended into Stockton, Middlesbrough and Yarm, which were supplied by a second beam engine from September 1853.

The Northern Echo: The Tees Cottage Pumping Station in Darlington captured by John Mannick with a drone

A drone picture of the Tees Cottage Pumping Station, by John Mannick of The Northern Echo Camera Club, with the modern Broken Scar waterworks behind

In 1854, the Darlington Board of Health – the first vaguely democratic council – agreed to take the water company into public ownership. The Board, which was chaired by Joseph Pease and included his two brothers, agreed to buy the water company for £54,000 – about twice what the Peases had invested in it just five years earlier.

Critics accused the Peases of “unbridled profiteering”, and the Northern Daily Express said with incredulity: “The gentlemen who were acting for the ratepayers were precisely the same gentlemen who were bargaining for themselves.”

Demand for water rapidly grew as population exploded. In 1860, the Darlington side of the operation took over the whole of the pumping station while the Teesside arm was moved across Coniscliffe Road.

Yet in the early 1890s, the initial doubters must have felt themselves vindicated because there were two typhoid outbreaks among the water board’s customers. In the 39,566 houses connected to Tees water, 1,463 people fell ill, and 24 died in Darlington alone.

The Northern Echo:

Old pictures of the pumping station are very rare. Here Darlington's first fire engine, Southend, is giving a run out with the Jubilee Cottages, built for waterworkers in 1887, in the background on Coniscliffe Road

Barnard Castle was to blame. Inspectors found the river to be full of “black stinking…excremental filth”, and described how the “washings of highly manured lands, drainage of graveyards and farmhouses, of privies, urinals, waterclosets along the foreshore, of loads of stinking refuse, ashes, midden refuse, gasworks refuse and other accumulations of filth” all ended up in the river. They even noted how the infections broke out immediately after a summer flood had washed through Barney, clearing out all the faeces which had been baking for months on the riverbank beneath the houses.

The town was ordered to clean up its act with a sewage works, and the Teesside water board began to build reservoirs in the Pennines to bypass Barney.

The river clean-up worked for Darlington, and with confidence in the water restored, in 1902-04, Tees Cottage embarked on a £21,490 investment programme, overseen by Hawksley’s but carried out by Teasdale Brothers.

The Northern Echo: The Tees Cottage Pumping Station is a model of early Edwardian engineering excellence

The 1904 beam engine house, with the settling tanks in front

Brothers John and Robert Teasdale had formed their company in Burneston, near Bedale, in the 1820s, to make agricultural equipment like root cutters and turnip toppers. They moved to Bank Top in Darlington in the 1870s, and from their agricultural base made forays into big projects: in 1895, they built the Stone Bridge beneath St Cuthbert’s Church which still bears their name, and in 1902 they built the two huge boilers at Tees Cottage.

Then in 1904, they installed the magnificent beam engine – designed in Kilmarnock but perhaps built in Leeds or Manchester – which is driven by the boilers. This was one of the last steam-driven pumping engines installed anywhere in the country, before electricity took over, and it represents this old technology at its most efficient and impressive. It is housed in a cathedral-like building that is full of municipal pride and craftsmanship (although there were so many construction problems that contractors and came and went, and no one really knows how the 25-ton beam was hoisted to the top of the cathedral).

The Northern Echo: OPENING: Tees Cottage Pumping Station Picture: MIKE GRIERSON

The beam engine. Picture: Mike Grierson

The engine pumped 1,900 gallons of water-a-minute out of the Tees and into the filtration tanks. It then pumped 1,800 gallons to customers, so it moved a total of 2.4m gallons a day.

It had a voracious appetite: its boilers required 30 tons of coal a week, or six wagonloads a day, delivered from the railway siding at Merrybent, which meant the unfortunate boilerman shovelled four tons of coal a day.

The rest of the site shows how the demand for water continued to grow. In 1914, the historic gas pumps were installed, powered by gas made in the plant next door.

In 1926, electric pumps were installed to take on the bulk of the work, and the old “slow sand filters”, which relied on natural bacterial work to clean the water, were replaced by a quicker, chemical treatment works over the road in what is now the Northumbrian Water site.

The beam engine was kept for back-up, with its gas plant and electricity generator regarded as strategically important in a century bedevilled by war. It came under the control of Northumbrian Water in 1974 and stopped pumping in 1980, when the new Broken Scar works became operational.

The Northern Echo: PUMP: Volunteer Richard Doran oils the pistons during the open day at the Tees Cottage Pumping Station in Darlington. Picture: STUART BOULTON..

Volunteer Richard Doran oils the pistons during the open day at the Tees Cottage Pumping Station in Darlington. Picture: STUART BOULTON

Since then, it has undergone many restorations and, staffed by volunteers, is open on five time a year. The first openings this year are on Sunday and Monday, from 11am to 4pm, admission £5, when the new, bite-sized guidebook will be on sale for £2.50.