Dash for water in 19th century East End of London

Over the last two weeks we looked at the dash to power the growing East End of the 19th century. But even more than heat and light, the one thing the new homes, factories, warehouses and docks needed was a regular supply of water — ideally clean, but failing that simply wet would do. Things began in civilised fashion, but a battle developed worthy of Jack Nicholson’s Chinatown. The water, and the war, got very murky indeed.

Abbey Mills Pumping station

Abbey Mills pumping station

In early modern London people were drawing their water from street pumps, as they had for centuries, and it created huge problems. You had to go to the pump and frequently the pump was broken. Joining a queue of several hundred others was time-consuming (and didn’t work at all if you needed water for your tannery or brewery. So the early companies developed a system of drawing water from the Thames by waterwheel, perhaps driven by real horse power, and then dribbled down via gravity and wooden pipes. Getting a sufficient angle of drop to supply every house that wanted water was impossible — and the system of wooden pipes, crudely lashed together, meant a huge amount of the water was wasted. The answer would be iron pipes (early experiments with stone proving unwieldy, expensive and leaky) and steam power to create a greater head of water.

The water companies, while boasting that their products would be ‘clear, sparkling and brilliant’, took a remarkably relaxed attitude when it wasn’t — presumably realistic about what could be achieved with water drawn direct from the Thames and delivered by simple gravity, without filtration to the thirsty people of London. Ralph Dodd, engineer and serial former of London water companies (he would launch and be ousted from no fewer than three, including the East London Water Works), wrote in 1805 that ‘Thames water being kept in wooden vessels, after a few months, often becomes apparently putrid and produces a disagreeable smell. But even when drunk in this state it never produces sickness; therefore it is evident no harm or ill occurs to persons whose resolution, notwithstanding its offensive smell, induces them to drink it.’

Engineer James Pitt of Coventry Street similarly testified in 1810 that the Chelsea Company’s water was ‘thicker’ and ‘considerably inferior’ to its rivals but that complaints were few and health problems were non-existent. This of course was more than 40 years before his observations of cholera outbreaks around the Broad Street pump in Soho led John Snow to put the facts together and surmise that dirty water posed serious threats to human health — but even the scientifically naive might have twigged that drinking water that was ‘thick’, ‘putrid’ and with a ‘disagreeable smell’ might be a problem. But no matter — there were pipes to be driven and houses to be served and nothing would stop the increasingly aggressive actions of the water companies.

By the turn of the 19th century London’s population was growing rapidly. In 1776 there were 700,000 of us, by 1801 957,000. And the biggest growth was in the new residential suburbs and the poorer areas around the booming Pool of London. Shadwell and Wapping got new docks in the decade after 1799, and as well as water for the factories and warehouses, the new inhabitants needed something reasonably safe to drink (the fact that for centuries people had hydrated themselves with beer and weakened ‘near beer’ suggested they knew only too well the dangers and unpleasantness of drinking untreated water). Stepney, Shoreditch, Spitalfields and Bethnal Green all required more piped water.

And Londoners had changed their habits. The early 19th cockney might appear somewhat malodorous to our 21st century noses, habituated to toothpaste, daily showers and the great smell of Lynx, but compared to their grandparents they were pristine. The Wapping docks were increasingly unloading new, cheap and easily washable cottons from the East — they needed to be washed and kept reasonably white. The WC, invented in the 16th century, was now becoming a feature of the posher East End homes, inhabited by the merchants, dockmasters and warehouse owners; some of them even had fixed baths. By 1809, such fripperies were sufficiently numerous for the East London Waterworks Co to set a system of fixed charges.

But in the meantime a land grab was underway. Geordie engineer Ralph Dodd had already founded and been ejected from the first two water companies he founded (the West Middlesex and the South London) when his partners found his enthusiasm and vision weren’t matched by expertise (or indeed any training). Undeterred Dodd pushed forward with his big project, the East London Waterworks Company. The original plan saw a reservoir at Old Ford on the Lea, sited to fill up with the action of the tide, and with water ‘after sufficiently settling and filter’d to be forced through iron pipes to a summit reservoir’.

The ace salesman Ralph quickly signed up Brick Lane brewers Truman, Hanbury and Co as a customer (he also pointed to the 15,000 unserved houses in Bethnal Green, Hackney, Bow, Stepney and Mile End). Until now, the water companies had stayed off each other’s patches, but the London Dock Company had waterworks at West Ham and Shadwell, and would be dwarfed by the new operation. Despite their opposition, the Bill to allow the new company became law, and it quickly bought out the LDC, paying £130,000 for the two works. To those was added a grand new works at Old Ford. By June 1809 12.5 miles of iron pipes had been laid, snaking out through Bishopsgate, Aldgate and Spitalfields and, crucially, encroaching on the turf of the existing New River Company (NRC).

Things began to get nasty. Water companies would find their mains unaccountably blocked, smashed or simply dug up as rival pipe was laid. There would be battles between workmen for the rival companies, each trying to get their mains in place. But customers weren’t even safe from their own suppliers. It was the ‘turncocks’ job to turn on the water to supply customers (usually at fixed times in the week). Many could be cheaply bribed to deliver more or less, or to cut off a competitor.

We’re frequently told today that competition delivers a good price to the customer and it worked — after a fashion. In February 1812, a Mr Leary was paying £10 a year for supply to his 20 houses in Curtain Road, Shoreditch, but informed the New River Company that the East London had offered a better deal. The NRC duly slashed its price to £8. But in 1813, the East London refused to supply houses unless their owners agreed to deal with them exclusively. And in 1815, it imperiously cut off four houses in Bethnal Green because the owner had changed to the New River for 14 tenements he owned in Whitechapel.

And shady practice went to the very top of the companies. Despite a ban on trading in the company’s shares (the trustees had prudently wished to avoid speculation and the creation of ‘bubbles’) the directors of the East London were indulging in it anyway by 1810, as well as paying themselves handsome dividends from their not-yet-profitable enterprise — these were men who could have made a fine career in banking a couple of hundred years later.

Water needed cleaning up. By the second half of the 19th century, new waterworks were being built above the tideway of the Thames and the Lea — it was apparent that drawing water from a site hard by the tanneries, breweries and effluent outpipes of Wapping and Blackwall was a health risk. Now water would be filtered effectively. And the Metropolis Water Act of 1902 set up municipal water boards, slashing prices (down to £5 a household in 1945) and making a reliable supply something East Enders simply took for granted. Hosepipe bans permitting, London had clean water on tap.

Further Reading: London’s Water Ways by John Graham-Leigh, published by Francis Boutle, ISBN 1903427029, £8.99

 

 

About John Rennie

Writing about East London history. Sub at Daily Express. Teaching journalism at City University London. One presented a TV show called the Unsellables and the BT Walletwatcher blog. West Ham fan. Native of Basildon
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