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The History of the London Water Industry, 1580-1820


Leslie Tomory


Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Press, 2017

Hardback. 314 p. ISBN 978-1421422046. $54.95/£40.50


Reviewed by Hugh Clout

University College London





In order to succeed, every city needs a regular supply of fresh water. In this meticulously researched monograph, Leslie Tomory traces how that challenge was confronted in London from the late sixteenth century to the eve of the Victorian age. Medieval Londoners essentially those on the north bank of the Thames – relied on local wells, streams draining from the hills of the Northern Heights, and the Thames itself. A few man-made channels distributed supplies into the City but these were rare. In the 1550s most citizens still depended on fountains or supplies that were delivered at a price to their premises in jugs or tankards. By the late sixteenth century, a number of supply companies had been established, with the most famous being the London Bridge Waterworks that operated wooden wheels to scoop up water from the Thames under the first two arches on the north end of the old stone bridge. The company had been created by a German, perhaps Dutch, entrepreneur whose name became anglicised as ‘Peter Morris’. This pioneer introduced a system of pipes to distribute supplies and organised a commercial company to manage operations. At first, the distribution pipes were bored from tree trunks; in subsequent centuries they would be fashioned from lead or other metals.

As London’s population grew, the demand for water increased dramatically and was met in part by supplies provided by the New River Company that brought water through a special channel fed by gravity from springs near Hertford, well to the north of the City. Its status as a joint-stock company proved particularly suited to infrastructure developments. The idea of the New River Company originated in 1602 and was associated with Edmund Colthurst, however it was Hugh Myddleton who obtained the water rights in 1609 and actively promoted the scheme by rallying various political backers. The two initial springs soon proved inadequate and from 1620 the Company obtained additional supplies from the River Lea. Storing water at New River Head on the northern edge of London, the New River Company initially supplied fountains and cisterns but then developed an important network of distribution pipes serving individual properties. Despite important progress, water supplies were inadequate to cope with the Great Fire of 1666. One outcome was the creation of additional water companies in Chelsea, West Ham and elsewhere on the north bank of the Thames. Since urban development was slight on the south bank, both demand for and supply of water proved much less than across the Thames.

The evolution of the New River Company, and to a lesser extent the London Bridge Waterworks Company, forms the core of Tomory’s analysis that charts supply areas within the city, traces rising trends of water consumption, and rehearses the constant concern for pure drinking water. Even though operatives were employed to clear leaves from its channel and strenuous efforts were made to prevent the introduction of pollutants, the New River was far from being ‘pure’. Particular objection was raised on both moral and hygienic grounds at the practice of weekend bathing by youths along its course. By the early nineteenth century, London’s growth had far outstripped the capacity of existing water companies. The new industrial age was poised to introduce innovative systems of water supply and mains drainage for the metropolis – topics beyond the scope of the present volume.

Leslie Tomory contextualises his history of the water industry to excellent effect, by tracing the progress of London’s economy across the centuries and explaining the various financial instruments that were employed by water companies. In addition, he makes comparative reference to developments in water supply in German cities and in Paris at appropriate points in the text. He incorporates over fifty illustrations comprising very clear graphs and an important array of facsimiles of maps and pictures. Unfortunately, some of the latter do not reproduce well, being unsuited to the size of the printed page or requiring the use of colour to cope with their complexity. Hence, the potentially fascinating maps of income derived by the New River Company and the distribution of its customers [202-204] are too complicated to be deciphered from the various shades of grey employed. The map of the New River on page 56 is so greatly reduced that its course cannot be determined, and a similar problem means that London’s sewers (shown on page 243) cannot be distinguished from roads and other linear features. What is needed is a few simple, freshly drawn maps that convey their message without clutter. It is regrettable that there is no map of London’s topography since this was crucial for conditioning the development of water supplies and later distribution networks. It is a necessary truism to remark that water flows downhill but has to be pumped to higher levels.  

As a Londoner, born and resident in the northern suburbs for many years, the New River has long been part of my life. My father had an allotment garden not far from a curious linear feature that was in fact a stretch of the New River abandoned following the construction of tunnels to shorten its course. I used to walk along Middleton (sic) Road from my parents’ home to reach the station each morning, crossing the New River half way along that thoroughfare. Later on, my own house had the New River at the end of its garden. Then I moved south of the Thames, however the New River has remained a companion as I strolled through Clissold Path in Islington or drove further north to visit relatives in Enfield or to take country walks in Hertfordshire.

Leslie Tomory is to be congratulated for producing a meticulous, well contextualised and in places ingenious study of London’s water supply across three centuries of metropolitan history. His book forms a fascinating complement to his earlier work.* His recent book will prove invaluable not only to specialists on London or on the history of technology but also to those with a concern for British economic history.


* Progressive Enlightenment : The Origins of the Gaslight Industry, 1780-1820. Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press, 2012.


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