The Balkerne water tower, known affectionately as ‘Jumbo’, is the best of its type in England.  Built in 1884 Jumbo was both ambitious and dramatic.  It is probably Colchester’s best-loved landmark.

Jumbo provided water to Colchester for a century but fell out of use in 1984 and several attempts to find a new use for the structure over the past 30 years have failed. It is currently vacant and designated ‘At Risk’.


The Colchester & North East Essex Building Preservation Trust wants to help give Jumbo a sustainable future – one which preserves its special character. With the cooperation of the current owner and Colchester Borough Council we have conducted a study and produced a report offering different ways forward.


The local history of the incremental improvement of water supply in Colchester is a convoluted and interesting one which is inextricably linked to the expansion of the town, the concern for public health and the leadership of key figures. These factors come together around 1880 when the Council, who had recently purchased the former, waterworks company, resolved…….”in the opinion of the meeting, the requirements of the town in the matter of water supply can only be met by a Water Tower and Tank of sufficient capacity to ensure, by means of the existing wells and pumps, a constant supply to consumers and provision of adequate storage for extinction of fire.

The name Jumbo was coined by the Reverend J. Irvine, Rector of St Mary’s-at-the-Walls who protested in the press that…

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’….

In practice, this resolution would prove to be impossible to fulfil as the existing artesian well and steam pump that was used to raise water from the bottom of Balkerne Hill to the small reservoir close to the site of where the Mercury Theatre stands today were of inadequate design and capacity to service the rest of the infrastructure.  It was not until a new pump house was built in 1894 and the artesian well extended, that Jumbo was more or less able to operate as intended.  Jumbo remained in operation until 1984.

The water tower rises to a height of 40m and consists of a cast iron water tank of 230,000 gallon capacity measuring 16m by 16m by 4m high which is supported by a brick superstructure comprising four legs and a central brick shaft containing a spiral staircase.  The water tank is covered by a copper clad pyramidal roof which is topped by a cupola.

There have been various alterations to the structure since it was first built but none so substantial as to undermine or diminish its significance.  The alterations are all historic, rather than recent and occurred in relation to the original cornice above the water tank, the change of roof material, the addition of the external walkways, the insertion of tie bars to the water tank and the relocation of the cast iron railings from the nearby reservoir to between the legs of Jumbo.

The Options Appraisal

The purpose of the study was to:

  • better understand the value of Jumbo and its potential
  • draw up options for its restoration and re-use
  • select a preferred option that is likely to be economically viable and sustainable

Two development options have been identified that were thought worthy of further examination. The first is for a restaurant within the upper levels of the tower. The other is to develop a cafe / bistro at ground level with the upper levels used for cultural and community use.

The Trust held a public exhibition of the findings of the report in May 2016 to gather feedback from the public about the various options. 222 people attended over 2 days and 78 people completed feedback forms after viewing the exhibition and talking to trustees.

The exhibition was held at the Mercury Theatre, Colchester
The exhibition was held at the Mercury Theatre, Colchester
Jumbo Options Appraisal exhibition 3

More information on this project will be posted as matters progress.

Agreement to lease

The Trust has secured an agreement (as of 1 October 2017) with the owner of Jumbo, Paul Flatman Esq, to lease or sell Jumbo to the Trust if we are successful in obtaining sufficient funds to complete a scheme of restoration and conversion.

We are now working on our Round 1 application for grant assistance from the Heritage Lottery Fund (HLF). This has to be submitted in March 2018. If the HLF approve this first stage application we will be invited to the second round of the process. A final decision to proceed with the project may take up to 24 months.Save