Story Of London

London’s Utilities in 1853 – II: The Water Supply

The second instalment from the article in “The Leisure Hour – A Family Journal of Instruction and Recreation” which appeared in issue number 80 on Thursday July 7 1853 under the heading of “Subterranean London” deals with London’s supplies of drinking water. It begins with a compact history of the attempts to ensure a regular supply of clean drinking water before giving a detailed picture of the situation in the mid nineteenth century. It is not a pleasant picture to contemplate.

CHAPTER TWOThe Thames before the sewers began to disgorge into it.Let us now take a glance at the water supply of London, the next underground subject on our list. In the ‘good old times,’ as they are called, which were very unclean and unhealthy times. London was supplied with water from the Fleet-river (which has long been converted into a covered drain, discharging itself into the Thames at Blackfriars-bridge), from the river Lea, from Walbrook, and from various wells, such as Holywell and Clerks Well, and from Tyburn. From the latter place water was first brought to the city towards the close of the 13th century. It was not, however, until three centuries later that an attempt was made to carry the water pipes into men’s houses, by means of an engine erected at London Bridge by a Dutch mechanist: it is true that a certain wax-chandler in Fleet-street, so far back as 1479, craftily pierce an underground pipe, and let the water into his own cellar for his own convenience; but his innovation was resented by the corporation, who adjudged him to do penance by riding through the city with a conduit on his head.The business of the water carriers, who fetched water from the public fountains or wells and sold it by the tankard, must have thriven well for many generations, seeing that it was not superseded by the domestic pipe system until the commencement of the rule of the Georges. The great undertaking of Sir Hugh Middleton, that of forming a new river to serve as a channel for the waters of the springs in the neighbourhood of Amwell and Ware, was completed in 1613; but it only brought the water to the principal thoroughfares, and has never even to the present time been able to afford a continuous supply to the population dependent upon it – a fact much to be regretted as the New River water stands deservedly very high in public estimation.The Fleet river before it became a major sewerAt the present moment there are seven water companies, all of which have been for a long time in active operation, carrying the indispensable fluid to the homes of the Londoners. Of these, five are on the north bank of the river, and two on the south. It is an unwholesome fact, that the major part of them derive their water from the Thames, into which some fifty millions of sewerage are daily disgorged, and which is thus made at once the cesspool and the fountain of the metropolis. We have seen above that the city proper is far better provided with sewerage than any part of London; the same may be said in regard to its water supply, of which not a drop is derived from the Thames, but the whole from the New River, with the exception of about a thousand houses supplied from the river Lea.The quantity of water contributed for the use of the inhabitants of all London is estimated at about forty-five millions of gallons, giving about twenty-three gallons to each individual of the population – an amount which, though it would be accounted enormous in a continental city, is yet far from sufficient, considering the many purposes to which water may be applied, and the inequality of its distribution under the present system of management. It is found that, while nobody complains of having too much, there are thousands and tens of thousands of the habitations of the poorer classes in which it is not introduced at all – whole rows of them being supplied from one common water butt or cistern, and that frequently in a state not fit for use. The outcry on this subject has been of late years very loud and long-sustained, and costly inquiries have been instituted by government into the means of supplying the demand for pure water, and plenty of it, and freeing the public from the necessity of slaking their thirst, in the poisoned current of the Thames.Rival companies have broached gigantic plans; some for carrying conduits up the river beyond the tidal influence, others for draining extensive valleys into a single outfall leading to a monster reservoir sufficient to serve the whole metropolis. The rapid increase of London in every direction will, in all probability, will compel the adoption of some comprehensive plan which ere long will banish the tidal Thames water from our dwellings, and yield us a wholesome beverage in its stead.Of the water-works at present in existence, those of the New River Company are by far the most extensive. Their resources have been much increased of late years by the construction of noble reservoirs and it is probable that at this moment they furnish little short of one-third of the whole water supply of London. We have heard it sated, we know not on what authority, that the underground mains and pipes of this company, if laid down in a straight line, would extend for a length of four hundred miles.The East London Company, which is the next in magnitude, has its works on the river Lea, and traverses, with between two and three hundred miles of piping, the districts eastwards of St Paul’s. It is remarkable that these two companies, which may be said almost to enjoy a monopoly of their several districts, and which dispense the purest fluid, supply it at the lowest price. In Paris, where a penny would buy a pound of bread, we have often given a farthing for a gallon of water; but in London, where bread is nearly double the price, the New River Company sell us thirty-six gallons of water for three-quarters of a farthing, and he East London Company the same quantity for a farthing.The pipes of the water companies, which permeate every street, lane, court, and alley of the town, are laid down so as to avoid the track of the sewers as much as possible: they lie generally at the side of the street, within a yard of the pavement, and at a depth of hardly more than two feet, which renders them readily accessible. They have communication with every house they pass, and in some with every room. In some of the southern districts the pipes of rival companies lie peacefully side by side, while their proprietors are battling above ground for the patronage of the public.A Victorian water carrier.In most instances the main pipes are of cast-iron, and until lately we imagined that they were all of that material: walking not long ago, however, in a certain suburb, we were startled by the appearance of a little jet of clear water rising out of the gravel which did the duty of a pavement in front of a row of second-rate brick dwellings. While speculating on the phenomenon, a handy fellow stepped up, and with a spade turned up he gravel to the depth of a foot or two, and revealed the ends of a couple of elm-trees with their bark on, and fitting one into the other like a huge spigot and faucet.These were part of the main pipes of a water company, which had sprung a leak at their junction; the workman stopped it in a moment with a plug, of which he produced a handful from his pocket, driving it in with a few taps of a hammer; then filling in the earth again, he flattened it down with his spade; and in less than five minutes the mischief was repaired.Like the sewers, the pipes of the water companies are subject to invasion by a reace of penniless gentry who go routing among them for the sake of a living. These are the eels, who, in spite of all the precautions that are taken to prevent their getting into the pipes, manage yet to effect an entrance. Their adventurous spirit, however, meets but a sorry reward, as their investigations lead generally, so far as we can learn, to the frying-pan. An eel once in a branch pipe has nothing for it but to go forward; he is worse off than if in Procrustes’ bed; he cannot turn round, and he cannot swim backwards, and the further he goes the narrower his prison becomes: by-and-by he is buried alive in a leaden coffin, which fits him as tight as a glove; he cannot even wriggle; he knows himself a gone eel, nothing better than a live cork stopping off the water from some fishmonger’s kitchen; he feels his impending doom, and would tremble all over, but he hasn’t room to do it; the difficulties of his position are too great for fish to bear; how he is to be released we don’t exactly know; perhaps the turncock does, and to his mercy we must leave him.