Thursday 11th December 2003
All content © New Journal Enterprises, 2003

Hugh Myddleton, and below a water carrier in the 17th century

Wooden water mains of the New River cross the Fleet River. The distant tile kilns were in what is now King’ Cross Road, near Bagnigge Wells
Water lot of history we have on tap
In 1613 people gathered to watch the birth of a new river designed to bring fresh water to a thirsty capital, writes Malcolm Holmes

London’s New River by Robert Ward
Historical Publications, £17.95

We do take so much for granted when we can turn on a tap and get clean water 24 hours a day. However, it was only from 1904 that a constant supply was guaranteed in London and even then in areas like Somers Town in the 1930s there were still houses that had no water supply but relied on a communal water tap in the yard. This well illustrated book on London’s New River by Robert Ward provides an excellent account of one company’s attempts to supply water to London, features of which are still an integral part of Thames Water’s supply nearly 400 years later.
London in the 17th century relied mainly upon water carriers who walked the streets selling water drawn from ponds, streams or the Thames. Where wells existed in the urban area they were increasingly likely to be contaminated by nearby cesspits. As London’s population expanded the lack of drinkable water became a serious concern which was only partly solved in the City by the late 16th-century London Bridge Waterworks which used waterwheels in some of the arches of London Bridge to pump water to nearby properties until the bridge was rebuilt in 1822.
Hugh Myddleton is usually given the credit for creating the cutting to bring clean water from Hertfordshire to Islington.
However, Robert Ward has identified more evidence of the contribution of Edmund Colthurst who was first proposing the idea of a New River in 1602 and obtained a charter from James I in 1604 to carry it out, surveying a route and digging the first two miles. Financial difficulties arose and it was Hugh Myddleton who undertook to complete the work, giving some of the shares in the enterprise to Colthurst.
The New River was an enormous project. It was a trench ten feet wide with water up to four feet deep, drawing supplies from springs at Chadwell and Ampthill and from the River Lea near Ware in Hertfordshire.
The gently sloping 42-mile route to the Round Pond at the New River Head in Clerkenwell was carefully planned to allow no more that a five-inch fall every mile. Later improvements shortened the route. To stave off some of the landowners opposition to the New River, and get financial help, King James I agreed to pay half the cost for half the expected profits.
On September 29 1613 a procession circled the dry Round Pond and after the ceremonies were over the flood gates were opened and water flooded in to music and small cannon firing.
The author then describes the difficulties that the Company faced to provide the water supply to increasing numbers of customers, using hollowed out sections of elm trees which required constant repair and replacement over the next 200 years until they were gradually replaced by iron pipes.
Other problems could arise too. Before filtered water was used, fish could sometimes be found in the pipes, including a dozen eels nearly two feet long reported in Pall Mall and 300 barrow-loads of mussels removed from one of the reservoirs.
Insufficient mains, leaking pipes and theft of water all contributed to a very limited supply to users. In each street turncocks controlled the water, which ran for as little as one to two hours a day two or three times a week in the early days.
If a fire broke out in one of the streets on a waterless day someone had to find an official to turn the water back on to put the fire out. Even in the 19th century Charles Dickens wrote from his address in Tavistock House, Tavistock Square on 8 May 1853: “… my supply of water is often absurdly insufficient and although I pay the extra service rate for a Bath Cistern I am usually left on a Monday morning as dry as if there was no New River Company in existence – which I sometimes devoutly wish were the case.”
Competition from other water companies led to a form of guerrilla warfare with companies cutting each others pipes or stealing customers by reconnecting house pipes to their own mains. Gradually the New River Company took over many of its competitors, including the Hampstead Waterworks Company who drew water mainly from the ponds on Hampstead Heath. After 1852 all water in London had to be filtered and water from these ponds could only be used for locomotive boilers at King’s Cross and St Pancras Stations, cleaning the Metropolitan Cattle Market off Caledonian Road and by St Pancras Borough Council for its lavatories and gardens until the late 1930s.
The New River Company was taken over by the Metropolitan Water Board in 1904 and became part of Thames Water in 1973. The river is still an integral part of London’s water supply.
Explore the New River today by following the walking guide in the book from Islington all the way to Hertfordshire.

n Malcolm Holmes is Camden’s Borough Archivist based at the Local Studies Centre in Holborn Library.