London’s water supply monopolies in the early 19th century

In the Middle Ages Londoners relied on communal conduits and wells to obtain their water. It took centuries before private companies gradually connected most individual premises. Over time water supply went from a utility provided free by the city to one that had to be paid for, if you could afford it.

A watercolour by George Scharf

A watercolour by George Scharf shows men laying a waterpipe in Tottenham Court Road in 1834. In many places the streets were regularly dug up by competing companies laying new pipes and repairing old ones.

One of several reasons the Romans chose where to establish their town of Londinium was its abundance of fresh water, which flowed down to the Thames in small streams from the surrounding hills. In some places a well could be dug into gravel beds, perhaps connected to a communal pump.

During the Middle Ages the springs and streams gradually became insufficient to provide all the water the town needed, so conduits, or water pipes, were constructed to bring supplies from sources outside the city walls. You didn’t necessarily have to go to a conduit yourself to fetch your water. For the convenience of busy and more affluent Londoners water was sold by tankard-bearers who walked the streets delivering it in large flasks.

In 1581 a Dutch or German-born engineer by the name of Peter Moritz gave a demonstration of a waterwheel to the Mayor and aldermen, which was turned by the flow of the tide and could pump Thames water to a great height. Having raised the water up into a tower, it could then flow down into surrounding premises. The City granted Moritz a 500-year lease on the northern arch of London Bridge, under which he installed his waterwheel. From there Thames water was pumped up into a tower and down through wooden pipes into the City. For a price, householders and businesses could tap into Moritz’s pipes for their supplies. The waterwheels only worked for a relatively short period each day either side of high tide, and his waterworks was only capable of supplying those in the streets in the immediate vicinity of the bridge.

Over 30 years later the goldsmith and entrepreneur Hugh Myddelton completed the New River, an aqueduct that brought fresh water 42 miles from springs in Hertfordshire to New River Head near Clerkenwell. His reservoir there was on ground at a high level and therefore water simply flowed down through pipes to premises in the parts of the City not reached by the London Bridge waterworks. The New River Company gradually became London’s dominant water supplier. It continued in that role when the western suburbs such as Covent Garden and Soho came into existence during the 17th and 18th centuries.

The New River Company was extremely profitable supplying water but, like the London Bridge Waterworks, there was a limit to how far their head of water could reach from its reservoir at New River Head. Its wooden pipes had been laid under the City streets from the early 17th century and gradually became antiquated and inefficient. They required frequent replacement, water could only flow intermittently three days each week, and only into basement level of premises. Localised water providers were established from the late 17th century to supply newer and more distant suburbs that the New River and London Bridge companies could not easily reach, yet these new companies still used wooden pipes with all the same disadvantages.

The York Buildings Company operated from 1691, taking water from the Thames at Charing Cross using a horse-powered pump to supply Westminster. In around 1713 it began experimenting unsuccessfully with steam engines to pump their water. They tried again in 1726 with a steam-driven beam engine that had been invented by Thomas Newcomen for Cornish mines. The cost of coal to power it made it financially unviable, however, and in 1731 they reverted to horse-power. The York Buildings Company were ahead of their time: steam engine technology gradually evolved and by the second half of the century was being used by most of London’s water companies. Newcomen’s engine was improved upon by James Watt and Matthew Boulton and in the latter 18th century Boulton & Watt engines were the norm in London’s waterworks, belching out black smoke that polluted the air.

The Chelsea Waterworks also extracted out of the Thames at Pimlico, providing Westminster and surrounding districts from 1723, with reservoirs at Hyde Park. From 1692 the Hampstead Water Company supplied the villages of Hampstead and Highgate, as well as a small supply to London’s western suburbs, with water from ponds at Hampstead. Other companies were established at Shadwell and West Ham to the east of London; Bankside Waterworks in the 1730s; Borough in the 1770s; and Lambeth in 1785. During the course of the century water mains were laid by various companies, criss-crossing London and its suburbs, supplying water to homes and businesses, probably to a greater extent than any other city in any country. Relatively affluent households had a direct supply, and poorer tenements by way of a communal pump. Yet, what had once been provided free by the City of London and various philanthropists via conduits was then only available at a price. The various suppliers often colluded with each other to ensure prices stayed high, out of the reach of many of the poorest inhabitants.

The Chelsea Waterworks engineer, Thomas Simpson, had devised a system of linking caste-iron pipes together, which was to revolutionise London’s water supply. Iron pipes leaked far less than those made from wood. They could also withstand higher pressure, which provided the possibility of supply to upper floors of buildings. Simpson and his son James served as engineers to the Chelsea and Lambeth Water Works for 85 years, which almost equalled father and son Robert and William Chadwell Mylne’s 96 years at the New River Company.

At the end of the century the 18th century the New River Company remained the most dominant provider, and more than twice the size of the next four providers combined. Early in the early 19th century more new companies were founded to supply certain areas. Unlike the older-established suppliers, the new companies were able to use iron pipes from their foundation. The West Middlesex Waterworks took water from Thames at Hammersmith and from 1807 supplied Hammersmith, Chiswick, Brentford and surrounding rural areas as far as Ealing and Hounslow, but excluding Chelsea and Westminster. They used iron mains pipes and spent a large sum on pumping equipment.

There were many customers in the affluent Marylebone area who were dissatisfied with the service from the Chelsea Waterworks that used elm pipes with low water pressure, which unlike the West Middlesex, could not supply upper floors of buildings. West Middlesex successfully fought for a change in their Act of Parliament and from 1810 were able to compete with Chelsea in that suburb, with a reservoir at Campden Hill near Notting Hill Gate.

The idea for the East London Waterworks came from serial engineer and entrepreneur Ralph Dodd. He initiated various schemes such as a tunnel under the Thames and Waterloo Bridge that either failed or went ahead without his continuing involvement, and this is another example. His idea was to supply the areas to the east and north-east of London by pumping water from Bow Creek. Instead, the new company acquired the Shadwell and West Ham companies and was thus able to supply all the districts to the east of the City of London from its intake at Old Ford on the River Lea. The East London Waterworks was soon expanding its network into areas previously the domain of the New River Company.

Another of Dodd’s schemes was the South London Waterworks, taking water from Vauxhall Creek from 1807. He was initially employed as engineer at both the East London and South London waterworks but quickly dismissed from both companies. It seems he was a visionary but without practical ability.

The Grand Junction Canal Company had created a waterway linking Birmingham with the Thames at Brentford. In 1801 they opened a branch from the main canal at Hayes to a basin at Paddington and from there they were also able to provide water to local premises. Their advantage over the other companies was that they had enough water and pressure to provide a continuous supply, and the ability to reach the upper floors of houses. However, they had opted to use stone pipes, which had a tendency to leak. A decade later the company reorganised itself to more effectively take on the business of water supply and began operating in its new form in 1812. The stone pipes were replaced with iron. The company’s first consultant engineer was John Rennie, the famous builder of canals and docks, who at the very end of his life would design the new London Bridge.

Since London’s foundation, there have always been trades of various kinds that require water, some more than others. For example, until the 19th century milk was normally sold from dairies that kept its cows within, or close to, the city. Those animals had to drink, and the premises washed. Likewise, there were many stables in London with a great number of horses that had to be watered and cleaned out. Most Londoners drank beer rather than water and brewers of beer used an exceptional amount of water. The water companies therefore each had an extensive price list for different types and size of business. Some industries were concentrated in particular districts, such as sugar refining around Whitechapel, and therefore each water supplier relied to a greater or lesser extent on each type of trade. It was established at an early time that water companies were obliged to provide water for fire-fighting without charge.

By the second decade of the 19th century there were therefore various water providers covering individual districts. Many streets had multiple mains pipes running beneath them from different companies. It caused a great nuisance and congestion each time the road was dug up to lay new pipes or, frequently, to replace leaking wooden pipes. Where their borders overlapped, such as between the New River and East London on the eastern side of the City of London, there was intense competition. Customers took advantage and often changed supplier to obtain a better price. Rivalry for market share sometimes led to underhand tactics such as workmen damaging the pipes of the opposition, or changing the supply away from a competitor without the customer’s consent. There were reports of fighting between rival gangs of pipe-layers.

The New River Company found itself at a disadvantage in one respect. From its earliest times its ownership was divided between just 72 shares, held by wealthy and elite individuals. The shares of the new companies on the other hand were held by thousands of shareholders. Naturally, they had a loyalty to the company in which they had a share and would try to persuade others to sign up to that provider.

Yet in most other ways, the ancient New River Company remained stronger than most of the other providers who were each struggling to make profits and pay dividends to shareholders. In 1815 the East London came to an agreement with the New River on a demarcation line between their areas of operation. The New River retained the whole of the City, Islington and northwards as far as Stamford Hill and East London agreed to provide only east of Spitalfields.

York Buildings had over-invested in infrastructure for a relatively small number of customers, which ruined the company financially. In 1816 it was acquired by the New River Company, which thus gained a stronger hold on Soho and Covent Garden.

The directors of the New River Company reached agreement to acquire the West Middlesex Waterworks but opposition from their competitors prevented agreement by Parliament. Despite this setback, the discussions led to secret negotiations between the New River, Chelsea, West Middlesex, Grand Junction, and Hampstead companies to divide the London area into monopoly districts. It was a cynical arrangement, illegal according to the various Acts of Parliament that governed each of the companies. It would lower their costs and allow them to charge higher prices to customers who thereafter had no choice of supplier. At Christmas 1817 each of the companies cut off supply to customers outside of their agreed area, writing to inform them to make a new arrangement for their water, sometimes waiting weeks to be reconnected by their new provider.

The London Bridge Waterworks was not included in the negotiations. By then it was having serious problems with outdated pumping equipment and determined competition from the New River. In 1821 the City of London decided to replace the old London Bridge with  Rennie’s new design, without a waterworks, and the following year the London Bridge Waterworks agreed a takeover by the New River Company.

Following the agreements between the various companies, the increase in prices brought protests from the residents of the middle-class suburb of Marylebone. The West Middlesex Waterworks simply disconnected any customer who refused to pay the increase and, of course, the customers had no other source of supply. Nevertheless, the protests resulted in a parliamentary enquiry in 1821, perhaps the earliest example of a public enquiry into utility providers. Aggrieved witnesses were able to air their complaints about sudden and excessive increases in prices, of being disconnected by their former provider, and in some cases of dirty water. The enquiry failed to make any changes. The conclusion was that the water companies had large capital investments to fund, that a competitive market had failed, and that it was not Parliament’s business to interfere.

Until the second half of the 19th century few households received a constant and continuous flow of water. It remained the case that men known as turncocks walked the streets to control the times that water flowed through the pipes. In 1852 the government passed the first of a series of Acts of Parliament to regulate London’s water providers, primarily as a response to poor quality and as a result of several outbreaks of cholera. These Acts also introduced the requirement for the companies to provide a continuous supply where it was requested. In reality, few households had the necessary internal plumbing to receive a constant supply and it only gradually became widespread in the latter decades of the century.

The London area continued to be divided between eight major water suppliers throughout the remainder of the 19th century. The Thames and Lea became increasingly polluted, with a growing number of complaints that the companies were supplying dirty water. There was a gradual realisation that Londoners were literally drinking their own excrement and it was the cause of the occasional outbreak of cholera. Various financial scandals in the latter decades of the century also brought to attention that the companies were providing dividends to their shareholders at the expense of the service to the public. That led to London’s water services being taken into public ownership at the start of the 20th century.

Sources include:

  • Robert Ward ‘The New River’
  • Nick Higham ‘The Mercenary River’
  • Robert Ward ‘The Man Who Buried Nelson’

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