Heritage Water Works

Heritage Water Works


An appreciation of Penang’s history is integral to understanding the importance of heritage. For example, one of the reasons why early mariners stopped at Penang was to replenish their supplies of fresh water. Batu Ferringhi (Foreigners’ Rock) with its waterfall once visible from the sea was one such source for sailing ships to obtain water before and after crossing the Indian Ocean. Near the current E&O Hotel on the north shore was a later site — known as Sweet Water Bay and depicted in early paintings — the terminus of an aqueduct from the Waterfall behind the present Botanic Gardens. That waterfall and the reservoir at its base are the site of the oldest water works in Malaysia and should be regarded as a heritage site.

Other early reservoirs and aqueducts also deserve designation as heritage sites. In particular, the picturesque Guillemard Reservoir at Mount Erskine built in 1929 under the supervision of Penang’s first municipal water engineer J.D. Fettes is not only a functioning example of early 20th century engineering but a site of outstanding beauty that was a popular venue for pre-war picnics before it was closed to the public. The Guillemard Reservoir is part of a public water supply system designed by Fettes that includes a four-mile-long aqueduct built in 1926-1929 winding through the hills above Batu Ferringhi. Fed by three intakes from hillside jungle streams, this historic aqueduct leads to a mile-long tunnel and a 24-inch cast-iron pipeline ending at the Guillemard Reservoir.

The Guillemard Reservoir and Batu Ferringhi aqueduct were opened on 16th July 1929 by Sir Hugh Clifford, Governor of the Straits Settlements, who named the reservoir after his predecessor Sir Lawrence Guillemard and Lady Guillemard. In commending Fettes for his design and work on the reservoir and aqueduct Governor Clifford noted he had worked for six years without taking leave.* Construction of the new water scheme had been approved during Guillemard’s term in office. Details of the reservoir and aqueduct were described in full in The Straits Times of 17th July 1929. Built at a cost of $3,700,000 with a capacity of  7 million gallons the reservoir was constructed in two halves so that one half may be in use when the other half is being cleaned. Following the contours of the hills the smallest section of the Batu Ferringhi aqueduct has a gradient of 1 in 500 at the intake end. The largest section beyond the intakes has a gradient of 1 in 1,800. From the reservoir a 27-inch cast-iron pipeline was laid to Pangkor Road and from there a 24-inch pipeline to Pitt Street.

Other examples of impressive public water works are the Ayer Itam Reservoir with its prominent art deco clock tower as well as the separate Ayer Itam Dam.

*Note: James Dollery Fettes died on home leave in England in 1931 after delaying his leave for several years. His widow was awarded a gratuity of $15,000 by the Penang Municipal Commissioners in recognition of his “highly meritorious services”. (Straits Times, 21 Feb. 1931; Singapore Free Press & Mercantile Advertiser, 3 Nov. 1931)

By Leslie A.K. James. Photographs from Penang Past and Present 1786-1963, George Town, City Council of George Town,1966