How would you go about moving an 80 feet tall, 1,800 tonne concrete water tower more than 800 feet?
As engineering challenges go the story of Milton Ernest Water Tower is an incredible one. The Bedfordshire tower was built in 1936 but in 1952 it was to be demolished to make way for a wind tunnel to serve the nearby aeronautical research establishment. That was until engineering firm J.L. Kier & Co (later to become engineering giant Kier) decided they could physically move it out of the way instead.
A team of 12 men built two narrow concrete roadways from the base of the tower to its new home 810 feet away. They then separated the concrete structure from its foundations using small blasting charges of gelignite and lowered the tower onto hundreds of ball bearings in the channels.
On September 19th they started to move the tower slowly along the ground using a steam traction engine (which soon broke down and had to be replaced) at a speed of 50 feet per day. During the move the tower had to remain vertical to within an 1/8th of an inch.
It finally reached its new position on October 17th 1952 where it has stood ever since serving the local area with drinking water.
The amazing story caused a sensation at the time and attracted the interest of national newspapers. To commemorate the feat a plaque was attached to the building and it remains there today – a lasting testament to human ingenuity, teamwork and the stubborn will of engineers.
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Thank you to David Newman, author of local history book The Importance of Milton Ernest (available from the village’s garden centre), the Bedfordshire Times and Mollie Foster of the Clapham Historical Society for their research and images.