This treadwheel and its small house have been moved from a farm in the village of Catherington, north of Portsmouth. The small timber building stood between the farmhouse and a complex of barns, and was in a very derelict condition. The wheel was built over a well reputed to be nearly 300 feet deep, and was in use until about eighty years ago. It has been reconstructed in working order and there is a well twelve feet deep for demonstration.
The main shaft was hewn from a single piece of timber, and is mounted on iron trunnions. Each rim of the wheel is supported on a set of four main spokes, consisting of two timbers halved together within the main shaft; each main spoke has a secondary spoke attached to it, so that the rim is supported at eight points. The edge of the wheel rim nearer the well is worn, possibly indicating the former existence of a pole brake.
The bucket would have descended under its own weight. To raise it required at least fifty turns of the wheel, and to achieve this the person in the wheel would have had to walk more than a third of a mile. There is a story told that, in another similar wheel, a boy once slipped when the full bucket neared the top; the weight of the bucket reversed the wheel and whirled him round and round at increasing speed until it reached the water again!
The wheel is housed in an attractive timber-framed building with a thatched roof. The infill is of split hazel, which has not been daubed as we found no sign of daubing on the original timbers. It was not uncommon to leave farm buildings undaubed.
The bucket of the Catherington wheel is a reconstruction based on the bucket still surviving at Saddlescombe Manor, near Brighton. Also on display is a galvanised well bucket of the 19th century that was in use at Catherington until about 1910, when the wheel fell into disuse.
Donkey wheels are to be found in many parts of the British Isles, but most of the examples occur in areas where deep wells had to be dug in the chalk hills. The large buckets held many gallons of water, and the great weight made this simple machinery necessary. There are important wheels open to the public at Carisbrook Castle in the Isle of Wight, and at Grey’s Court, near Henley in Oxfordshire. In Sussex there are existing donkey wheels at Saddlescombe Manor and at Friston Place. All these examples are larger than the Catherington wheel.