From the Great Stink to your kitchen sink…



by Nick Higham (Title £20, 480 pp)

In November 1478, a Londoner named William Campion was paraded through the city carrying a vessel on his head which was “kept filled with water”.

This “flowed over his person from small holes made for this purpose”. He was then sent to prison. Campion’s crime was to steal water. In medieval times, water was a precious thing and anyone who deprived their neighbors of it deserved public humiliation.

Author Nick Higham explores the history of London’s relationship with H2O. The debate over London’s water supply in the Victorian era centered on its ownership

As Nick Higham points out in this excellent story of London’s relationship with H2O, “We’ve forgotten what it’s like to have to work for our water.” There was no danger of doing so in those previous centuries.

There was no tap water, so people had to fetch it themselves from the wells and sewer houses or buy it from the water carriers who peddled it around the city.

The Porters were tough characters. In 1541, the Lord Mayor forbade them from wearing clubs because they were so keen on fighting to be first in line to drive home.

The New River Company began supplying water in 1613, the brainchild of an entrepreneur named Hugh Myddelton. His statue now stands on Islington Green, near the terminus of the man-made waterway he built to bring fresh water from Hertfordshire into the town. The New River, neither new nor river, still provides between 8 and 12% of London’s drinking water today.

Other companies quickly developed to supply it and a network of pipes brings it to individual homes.

“There is never a city in the world so well served with water,” boasted a Londoner in 1720.

Not all pipes were hidden. Higham cites a 1773 chronicler who describes some on the floor “at the rear of the British Museum” which “were propped in several parts to a height of 7 and 8 feet, so that people walked under them to gather watercress “. Perhaps unsurprisingly, “mischievous boys” drilled holes in it to create fountains.

The water carriers still roamed the streets shouting, “Sweet water, sweet water! None of your pipe sludge!’

They highlighted one of the main problems that water companies and their customers will face in the next century. Their product was often disgusting. The Thames, the “Mercenary River” of Higham’s title, was the source of the water supplied by most companies. And the Thames was polluted with sewage.

THE MERCENARY RIVER by Nick Higham (£20 title, 480pp)

THE MERCENARY RIVER by Nick Higham (£20 title, 480pp)

In the 1820s, water supplied by the Grand Junction Waterworks Company was supposed to be “charged with the contents of the great common sewers” and “manure drainage”.

Although Victorian theories of disease were often wrong (“bad air” rather than “bad water” was long believed to be responsible for cholera outbreaks), common sense dictated that human excrement in the food supply water weren’t a good thing.

“I can only say that when you have once put sewage in the water, I should hesitate to drink it,” remarked Sir Benjamin Brodie, professor of chemistry at Oxford and master of understatement, during a survey of London’s water supply.

Things came to a head with the so-called Great Stink in the summer of 1858. The stench rising from the Thames was so bad that no Londoner could fail to notice it.

“This noble river”, noted Conservative politician Benjamin Disraeli in a parliamentary debate, “has…become a Stygian pool, reeking of ineffable and intolerable horrors”. Money was found over the next few years to fund Sir Joseph Bazalgette’s grand plans for the London sewers.

The other major debate over London’s water supply in the Victorian era concerned its ownership. Should it be in the hands of private companies? Or under municipal control, run for the public good rather than profit?

It was not until 1904 that what Higham calls “the clamor…for public control of London’s water” led the surviving companies to hand over their customers, pipe networks and pumping stations to Metropolitan Water. Board.

Public ownership lasted just over 80 years. Margaret Thatcher’s shareholder democracy in the 1980s included water. “You too can own an H2,” the marketing campaign told us.

It is fair to say that privatization has not always been a huge success. Londoners are once again dependent on businesses which, in Higham’s words, have often proven to be “more interested in cash flow than water flow”.

However, most of us “never think about how the water from our taps gets there”. Higham certainly did, and his book still proves fascinating reading for anyone curious about London’s history.

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