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Tag: Cholera

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



Ripper Street Episode 3

Some rather good bits on Ripper Street episode 3. None of it looks like Victorian Whitechapel of course, and which bit of the City of London were our Metropolitan Police officers straying into in search of Joseph Lister. What’s interesting is the ragbag of genuinely Victorian tropes.



The constant visiting of ‘King Cholera’ to the East End of London, and the focusing on the pump delivering poisoned water (or not as it transpired) harkening back to the discoveries of John Snow at the pump in Broad (now Broadwick) Street in Soho, some years before. Cholera had previously been thought to have been transmitted by foul air of course, exactly as malaria (bad air) was believed to be transmitted.

We also had the Lady Bountiful, happy to give alms to the fallen women of Whitechapel, as long as the word of God was thrashed into them, and their sins were bled out. The flour mill heiress’s bitterness at her husband, who had infected her with syphilis picked up from the prostitutes of Whitechapel, thus rendering her sterile, was also a real touch … many ‘respectable’ Victorian women had to cover their shame at just such an event. And the infection via ergot and poisoned flour, common throughout Europe in the Middle Ages and beyond, with victims tortured by ‘St Anthony’s Fire’ and suffering LSD type trips before … well dying, was another nice historical touch. What does next week have in store?

Cholera – the mysterious killer

ONE thing we all take for granted today is clean, fresh water and – barring the next Thames Water hosepipe ban – plenty of it.
But until just a century ago, East Enders were more likely to be killed by their water than revived by it.
In the 1800s, as Tower Hamlets multiplied in size with the influx of immigrants from the countryside and abroad, cholera became a chronic threat to human health.
Look left out of the train window as you travel from Bromley-by-Bow to West Ham and you will see the distinctive rococco form of Abbey Mills pumping station.
It may look like something from a horror film but, in its day, it made the East End a safe place to live and work, as it carried sewage out to the Thames.
London had a problem getting rid of its rubbish for centuries, and for a long time the East End benefited. There was no mains drainage in the middle ages – instead excrement would be stored in cesspits under the houses.
This ‘nightsoil’ would then be carted away to ‘laystalls’, and then from there to the new market gardens around the Essex villages of Stepney, Bethnal Green and Bow.

If that sounds unsanitary, it was an improvement on the earlier system in the City, where a gulley down the middle of the street would be awash with rubbish and human excrement.
The lack of concern of Londoners was shown by Samuel Pepys observation in his famous Diary, recording how his wife “stooped down in the street to do her business”.
The Tower Hamlets market gardens may have flourished, but by the mid-1800s they had been buried under bricks and mortar, and cholera epidemics were sweeping the borough.
In desperation, the newly- formed Metropolitan Commis-sion of Sewers decreed in 1847 that cesspits were now banned.
The move was a disaster, as the main sewers and underground streams now discharged their filth straight into the Thames. A decade before, salmon had still been seen jumping in the river at Wapping. By the 1850s nothing could live in what had become a huge, stinking open sewer.
The matter came to a head in the long, hot summer of 1858. Wapping windows had to be draped with lime chloride soaked curtains, and tons of chalk and carbolic acid were tipped into the Thames.
But nothing could mask ‘The Great Stink’ as it became known. Prime minister Benjamin Disraeli himself described the river as “a Stygian Pool reeking with ineffable and unbearable horror”.
It was the last straw, and in that year a Bill for the purification of the Thames was passed – but the first step was to find an answer to the removal of the human waste of three million Londoners.
One plan was proposed by the painter John ‘Mad’ Martin. Rather unfairly named, his plan was to pipe the filth out to Essex to propagate land – pretty much what the East Enders had previously done for their farmland.
But the task eventually fell to the great engineer Joseph Bazalgette. He constructed a huge system of sewers running east from London Bridge for a distance of eleven miles, assisted by pumping stations such as Abbey Mills.
When Bazalgette was finished, London boasted 1,300 miles of sewers, along with the London Underground, one of the great engineering marvels of his age.
And as with the Under-ground, many of the same tunnels are still serving East Enders today. Others, like that beneath Stratford’s Greenway, have now gone out of service.
But all were part of the hidden network that saved the East End from the cholera-ridden hell it was a century ago.