The Purchas’d Wave

Bernard Rudden

  • London's New River by Robert Ward
    Historical Publications, 248 pp, £17.95, October 2003, ISBN 0 948667 84 2

Londoners have been drinking the New River for almost four hundred years. The aqueduct begins at Chadwell Spring, near Ware in Hertfordshire, and is soon joined by a cut from the River Lea. It winds south for some twenty miles and, for most of its history, ended in Islington, a few hundred yards south of the Angel. Both Hollar and Canaletto left elegant depictions of its Round Pond, from where elm pipes and the force of gravity took water to much of Central London. Nowadays, the New River flows into the great Ring Main, a kind of H2O M25.

The supply began with individual enterprise when, around 1600, Edmund Colthurst, an Elizabethan man of parts, sought royal approval of his plans. By 1605, it was seen rather as a matter of public service, and an Act of Parliament authorised the City to do the necessary work. Four years later it returned to private enterprise, when the City handed over its public powers to a goldsmith called Hugh Myddelton, whose name still adorns the streets of Islington. Three years after that it became a public-private initiative, with James I underwriting half the costs in return for half the profits. In 1631, Charles I was persuaded to swap equity for debt, a deal that proved most unfortunate for the Crown. Thereafter, the enterprise contrived to stay private for most of its long life, mounting an agile and determined defence against the 19th-century pressures of four royal commissions, dozens of select committees, scores of unsuccessful Bills, and over a hundred Acts of Parliament. In 1904, however, along with the other water companies, it was municipalised under the Metropolitan Water Board. Eighty-five years later it was privatised once more, becoming Thames Water plc, and has since been globalised into the Rheinisch-Westfälisches Elektrizitätswerk AG.

The developing technology, false starts and ingenious solutions which enabled the water to be brought to Islington and then distributed through pipes which ran ‘like threads on a garment’ form the main interest of this erudite, entertaining and well-illustrated book. Robert Ward has made painstaking and profitable use of the vast mass of archival material in the Public Record Office (because of the Stuart kings’ involvement), the London Metropolitan Archives (which hold a vast amount of material from all the old water companies), the Science Museum Library and that of the Royal Institute of British Architects, and in the Bodleian and other collections. The research might well have overwhelmed a less skilful scholar; Ward has not merely read, but has thought hard about the information available in the manuscript sources, and uses it deftly to pursue, not a doggedly chronological course, but a set of particular topics.

The first chapters describe the cutting of the gently sloping aqueduct, and give a detailed account of the various trades and materials involved, the expenditure on a mysterious and apparently unsuccessful innovation known as ‘the Ingen’, and the enlargement of an old duck-pond near the top of Islington Hill to serve as a reservoir. It was there that the official opening took place on Michaelmas Day 1613, celebrated by marches, music and a roll-call of the various craftsmen involved, written in bad verse by the poet Thomas Middleton. The reservoir was soon enlarged, and others built nearby. These served three purposes: by providing a large area of still water they allowed many impurities to settle to the bottom; they helped smooth out fluctuation in supply and demand; and they provided a head of water at a level high enough to allow gravity to take it to the customers.

Men were sent into neighbouring counties to mark and acquire elms, which were brought by water to Pipe Borers Wharf, just downstream from London Bridge. There, the trees were cut into lengths, drilled and fitted together to form a web of fat and leaky conduits, which were buried at night under the city streets. Where they could not be buried they were carried on trestles, under which watercress soon flourished. The inevitably porous nature of the network explains why most of the time it was kept empty. On ‘water day’ the turncock of a particular neighbourhood would open the stopcock and for an hour or two the water would run along the main and through each customer’s lead quill into a cistern at ground level or below. This tradition endured: even after elm was replaced by iron, the New River Company never attempted to provide a continuous flow, and until the 20th century most households’ supplies were intermittent. The company was also reluctant to deal with the problem of what their customers were to do with the water after they had drunk it. The frequent questions of parliamentary committees on this distasteful topic were met with the explanation that ‘the New River Company never regarded the want of drains as a reason for not laying on water.’

The people involved in the project ranged from the handful of initial shareholders through the governor, clerk, treasurer, engineer and beadle, to the collectors, walksmen, turncocks and the labourers who, around 1800, entreated the board ‘to take into consideration the present Extravagant price of every necessary of life and the almost Impossibility for us at our present wages to procure them’. The position of collector must have been both desirable and demanding, the first because they kept some five per cent of the revenue, the second because the post required them to combine the talents of salesman, customer relations officer, debt collector and enforcer.

In later years two questions greatly puzzled the powers that be: how much did the New River cost, and why did the company not know? Parliament in the 1840s wanted to be able to estimate the capital involved, because of a general policy which held that the annual dividend of public utilities should be capped at ten per cent, with any surplus revenue being used to lower their charges. When questioned, it was company practice to plead the loss of its founding documents. Until Christmas Eve 1769 they blamed the Great Fire of London; after that date they could truthfully point to a fire at their own head office. The company seems to have forgotten the set of books covering 1609-30 held at the Public Record Office, and to have overlooked the four parchment membranes, wrapped in red leather, which I myself read at its head office some twenty years ago. That document gives figures for the capital invested and provides a summary of Myddelton’s account with the Crown, audited in 1630 by James Weston, baron of the exchequer. The New River Board also persistently declined to supply any technical historical information to the Institute of Engineers.

Ward, however, has gone back to the original figures, from which he has worked out the size of the workforce, the speed of excavation of a trench ten feet wide and five deep and sloping five inches per mile, and deduced that the 40 miles of the original New River were dug in 30 months by an average workforce of 128 men working a six-day week. The aqueduct grew by 90 yards a day, which is not bad in an age with little in the way of machinery and no workable spirit level. We now know that the initial construction cost something over £28,000. The fact that by the 1880s the 72 holders of the original shares were dividing among themselves some £180,000 every year is perhaps one reason for this corporate amnesia.

The other chapters range widely. As to the problem of how to improve domestic supply to the higher parts of Soho, the author has made good use of the papers of Robert Harley, first Earl of Oxford and a substantial shareholder, and of the ‘Thoughts of Sir Christopher Wren concerning the distribution of the New River water’ (set out in full in an appendix). Wren gives a clear, detailed and critical account of errors in the early technology and his view as to the most cost-effective motive power. The choice was between a horse-driven pump, a windmill or a waterwheel. All were tried, but problems persisted until John Smeaton and then Boulton and Watt came up with their steam engines.

The company was well served by engineers, who made use of Grinling Gibbons’s Oak Room at the New River Head, and seem to have combined efficiency with longevity: Henry Mill (inventor of a typewriter) held the position of engineer and surveyor of the works from 1720 to 1762 and was succeeded by Robert Mylne, designer (to the great disgust of Samuel Johnson) of Blackfriars Bridge. Mylne seems to have started the tradition, which spread to the other London water companies, that the engineer was also the commercial manager. He died in 1811 aged 78, and was succeeded by his son William Chadwell Mylne (the middle name shows the family loyalty to the New River), who lived until 1863.

William Mylne was the technical mind behind the replacement of the old elm pipes with iron ones, improvements in the course of the aqueduct, and the construction of the Stoke Newington reservoirs, with their engine-room housed in a new and bizarre baronial castle adorned by his monogram – now an indoor climbing school. In addition, he found time to defend the river against the Fenians (as had his father against the Gordon rioters) and to win the contract and finance to supply water to the City of Paris; but for this last project, as he frequently complained, he couldn’t get a signature on the necessary official papers. His attitude to the company’s customers and competitors was robust. As to the first he introduced an enduring and irritating feature of English plumbing: the overflow pipe from a cistern used to lead into the sink, but he insisted that it be fixed so as to project over the door in such a way that the customer could hardly fail to notice the waste of water. As to the second, his part in the early 19th-century battles with the new water companies led to the truce of 1815 (described by a contemporary as being ‘as decisive as the Battle of Waterloo’), which ensured that the area north of the Thames was carved into districts in which each supplier enjoyed a monopoly. Even after that, Mylne lost no opportunity to fight the competition. For instance, provoked by Lord Palmerston to do something about the fact that Hertford’s sewage flowed into the Lea just above the New River outtake, he could have taken from further up the Lea. Mylne, however, preferred to move the sewage to a point downstream and procured a private Act of Parliament to make this possible. A select committee pointed out that this meant ‘the East London Waterworks will catch it all.’ ‘No doubt,’ he replied.

The whole enterprise gave rise to many legal oddities and much litigation, since the shares were taken to be real property and thus to give their holders the right to vote in each county through which the aqueduct ran. Ward deals with this only in an appendix, but he handles other legal issues with great clarity. Customers were required to sign and seal a ‘water lease’. It seems strange to take a lease of something which you are never required – indeed, are not allowed – to hand back, yet the relationship between customer and company was expected to endure, possibly for many years, and there had to be provision for enforcing the collection of charges and for ensuring the supply. In response to this and similar problems, the document adapted the time-honoured formulae of land law, which protected a landlord against a bad tenant and vice versa. The form was settled in the early 17th century and continued long after that. One of the vivid details that Ward has unearthed reveals that, while more recent leases were printed, the font they used was deliberately contrived to look like manuscript.

There are other strands to the story that he chooses not to investigate in any depth, particularly concerning the governance of, and shares in, the company, and the buy-out of the royal interest. As to the first, there seems from the names of the persons involved to have been a distinct Huguenot connection. And some of the heavyweights, such as Henry Hyde, second Earl of Clarendon, and Robert Harley, held their shares in right of their wives, Flower Backhouse in the first case and Sarah Myddelton in the second. Nor does he dwell much on the profitability of the shares and their suitability as security for a loan, or as a family endowment. For instance, the share that cost Sir Henry Neville some £289 around 1612 produced, over the 292 years of its first life, an average annual yield of 267 per cent. On its compulsory acquisition in 1904 the holder received compensation of over £67,000 plus 1365 fully paid £1 shares in the new New River Company Ltd, formed to exploit the landed investments into which the old company had diversified. The ‘new’ property company lives on within the London Merchant Securities group.

The royal investment offers a striking contrast. In 1631, Charles I transferred his half share of the business to Hugh Myddelton in return for £500 down and the promise of the same sum each year. The obligation became known as the ‘Crown Clog’, yielded about five per cent on the 1631 value of the asset, and was paid scrupulously for 325 years until redeemed by the Metropolitan Water Board. Had the Crown retained its holding, it would have done fifty times better, taking profits of well over £8 million.

One topic at which Ward only glances might be called the interpersonal relations of the customers, as their source of water was moved from the communal pump to a relatively remote and centralised supplier which, on the one hand, allocated to each household the role of individual consumer and, on the other, bound them all together in one large web of technology – the forerunner of gas, electricity and the wireless. In 1776 a similar insight came to the Quaker poet John Scott:

As, thro’ the human form, arterial tubes
Branch’d every way, minute and more
minute,
The circulating sanguine fluid extend;
So, pipes innumerable to peopled streets
Transmit the purchas’d wave.