In the 1830s London was plagued by outbreaks of cholera but it took until the 1850s for John Snow, a doctor working in Soho, to realise the disease was being carried by the city’s dirty water supply. The Metropolis Water Act of 1852 then stipulated that all water supplies brought by open aqueducts must be cleansed by filtering, and supply channels within five miles of St. Paul’s Cathedral were to be covered. That affected the New River in two ways. First, the previously open canal had to be covered for its final section into London, and secondly the water must be cleansed. Mylne recommended the creation of cleansing filter beds close to the Stoke Newington reservoirs and an engine-house to pump the filtered water through an underground iron pipe to a new covered reservoir at Claremont Square at Pentonville.
The pumping-house at Stoke Newington was designed by Mylne, assisted by Robert Billings, and inspired by Sterling Castle in Scotland. Drawings of it were exhibited at the Society of British Artists in 1856. It may seem a fanciful work but almost everything other than the battlements had a practical purpose. The main tower was a chimney, with others containing an iron standpipe and spiral staircases that gave access to the enormous engines. The buttresses are not structural but are hollow and contained the huge flywheels of six Boulton & Watt beam engines, each twenty-five feet in diameter, weighing thirty-five tons, powered by eighteen boilers and producing two hundred horsepower. They were so large that the building was erected around them. The buttresses are adorned with the monograms ‘MYLNE 1855’.
After four hundred years the New River continues to supply a significant amount of London’s water supply. The New River Company existed until 1904 when it was taken over by the Metropolitan Water Board. New River Head at Sadler’s Wells continued in use (latterly as filter-beds) well into the 20th century until being filled-in so the land could be used as offices and a laboratory for the Metropolitan Water Board. However, the nearby reservoir at Claremont Square, bordered by the busy Pentonville Road along one side, remains part of Thames Water’s water storage facilities.
During the Second World War the pumping-house and reservoirs at Stoke Newington, which were still part of the water-supply system for London, were targets for German bombers. Luckily, they never scored a direct hit, but great damage was done to the surrounding areas, where council flats were built after the war. One reservoir is now used for sailing and canoeing and the other a protected nature reserve. After the war the pumping-house eventually fell into disuse. When the massive steam-engines were scrapped in 1952 they had to be cut into pieces to get them out of the building. The building itself was listed as Grade II in 1972, much to the annoyance of its then owners, the Metropolitan Water Board, who learnt about it in The Times newspaper. In 1995 the inside space was converted for use as a climbing centre and is now one of the most popular in London, known as ‘The Castle’.
The section south from the Stoke Newington reservoirs was taken underground in the mid-19th century but there are still intriguing traces of it at ground level. The long, straight Petherton Road is a duel carriageway, the two sides of the street now separated by a wide central, linear garden, which was previously the ground-level route of the New River. It is a similar situation at Colebrooke Row. Here, though, the terrace of houses on the opposite side of the canal was built later then Colebrooke Row and given the separate name of Duncan Terrace. The poet Charles Lamb had a cottage on Colebrooke Row and in 1823 wrote:
The New River (rather elderly by this time) runs (if a moderate walking pace can be so termed) close to the foot of the house”. It was close enough that one day his friend, the writer George Dyer, walked out of the cottage, straight into the water, and had to be rescued. An isolated section of the New River remains in Clissold Park, Stoke Newington as a pleasant water feature. The grand oak-panelled court room of the Water House, with hunting and fishing carvings in the style of Grinling Gibbons and a water-inspired plaster ceiling, still exists, preserved within the former Metropolitan Water Board’s 1920 building at Sadler’s Wells. Perhaps the most amazing survivor is the unsuccessful 1708 windmill, the base of which still stands in Amwell Street in Islington.
There are three statues of Hugh Myddleton in London. One is on the north façade of the Royal Exchange in the City, facing the Bank of England. There is also a statue on Islington Green at the junction of Upper Street and Essex Road, unveiled in July 1862 by William Gladstone, and another stands in the foyer of Islington Town Hall. A number of streets, schools and buildings along the canal’s route are named after him.
Sources include: Robert Ward ‘London’s New River’; Robert Ward ‘The Man Who Buried Nelson – The surprising Life of Robert Mylne’; Michael Essex-Lopresti ‘Exploring the New River’; Walter Thornbury ‘Old and New London’ (1897); John Richardson ‘The Annals of London’
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