“I don’t believe any other commercial enterprise has been as profitable.” The company that brought London water

London wouldn’t be the metropolis it is without water. In his new book The Mercenary River, Nick Higham, details EC1’s aquatic past


The cover of 'The Mercenary River' by Nick Highams (an aerial map of london, with the rivers marked in yellow)

Clerkenwell is London’s aquatic gateway. Once dotted with spas, and with plenty of subterranean water, the area around Rosebery Avenue is full of reminders of its riparian nature in the New River Head – the former Metropolitan Water Board offices – the modernist curve of the Laboratory Building, and the group of historic buildings soon to be turned into the Quentin Blake Centre for Illustration. But the sheer scale of this watery hub has been understated, and for Nick Higham it’s time to redress this historic imbalance. “Water made London live- able,” says Nick. “Without it, London’s expansion would have been held back.” Hence the importance of the New River Company, which bought fresh water into Clerkenwell, then to be distributed elsewhere in London.

Nick, once a reporter with the BBC, lives in Stoke Newington not far from where the New River flows in Clissold Park, and was inspired by that sylvan reach as well as Petherton Road in Canonbury. “It’s bizarrely wide and I thought, why is that? As it turned out, it’s because of the New River.” Later on, Nick found himself chairing a conference in the Institution of Civil Engineers in Westminster and became enthused by the great engineers of the past including Hugh Myddelton, of Clerkenwell’s epon- ymous school and square. “I found that he was not an engineer but a goldsmith and entrepreneur – the man who made the New River happen,” says Nick. “There were books about the history of London’s water supply, but written for engineers, not for the general reader. As a journalist. I became interested and began writing.”

The New River was dug in 1604-13 to and the Company created in the 1690s. Its boardroom was on the same site in Rosebery Avenue until 1904, when the company was finally abolished, the building knocked down and replaced by the equally grand HQ of the Metropolitan Water Board. As Nick was to find out, the New River Company was an incredible success. “It is, I understand, the single-most profitable company in British history,” says Nick. “The New River Company was founded in 1690. If you’d been one of the original shareholders and by some miracle survived right through until 1904, one historian estimated that you would have enjoyed a return on your initial investment – both in terms of dividends and the money you got the final buyout – of 267 percent per year. I don’t believe any other commercial enterprise has been as profitable.”

Where’s there’s water, there’s brass – something that we know today as well, with Thames Water making a cool £488 million last year. Arguments about this have raged down the centuries – hence Nick’s subtitle for the book: “Private Greed, Public Good.”

Whatever one’s thoughts, the water was sorely needed. “The reason it was created in the 17th century was that London’s population quadrupled from 50,000 to 200,000. In the early part of the century water came out of wells or out of the river in buckets. The medieval water supply couldn’t keep up with demand. So the City of London authorities solved the problem by privatising their water supply and the New River Company simply became the biggest, most elaborate and important of the privatised water suppliers – and the one that lasted longest.”

It was so profitable because the infrastructure was not itself expensive. “If you’re in the business of supplying water, most water companies have to pump water, which was costly,” says Nick. “So they built an aqueduct, originally 41 miles long, but 23 miles as the crow flies, from Hertfordshire to Lon- don – a hugely impressive piece of engineering. The water fell by gravity five and a half inches each mile and involved no pumping. After being built the New River itself had next to no cost. It was a licence to make money, and they made the most of it.” Indeed, no pumping was required until the New River Company decided it wanted to serve the West End as well, which did involve pumping.

By the time the New River was created Clerken- well was already a watery place with springs and spas reflected in its place names: Spa Green, Sadler’s Wells and Bagnigge Wells – sum- mer home of Nell Gwynne. “These places were mostly taken over by entrepreneurs for recreation, drink and dancing as they were all in walking distance of the city,” says Nick.

Yet at the time, and throughout the 18th and 19th centuries, most water tasted disgusting – even if it didn’t come directly out of the Thames. “Most people didn’t drink water except the poor,” says Nick. “Anyone with money drank beer, wine or later tea and coffee, because it disguised the taste. A key attractions of these spas was to offer spring water straight out of the ground, which tasted beautifully refreshing and not of sewage.”

There was also an urgent public health need, and there were four cholera outbreaks in London, including the one in Soho identified by John Snow – one of the founding fathers of the science of epidemi ology. “Interestingly, Snow wasn’t believed at the time and couldn’t persuade the medical establishment that cholera was in the water,” says Nick. “They didn’t understand that disease was passed through sewage which infected the water.” So clean water was urgently needed: a fact unhelped by some of the new water companies, including the East London Waterworks. “Evidence demonstrated conclusively within that their water was killing thousands and the company did nothing about it,” says Nick. A public inquiry established that the company had broken the rules, and there were organised protests about the price of London water, including one of the first organised con sumer movements. “But the authorities did nothing. If you were a private company in Victorian times, you were pretty fireproof.”

As water provision became more professional, companies took an annual charge. “It was delivered to households in pipes made of hollowed-out wood which leaked terribly, often via a little lead pipe, and they charged customers every six months,” says Nick. Now we have water meters but otherwise, the  system isn’t so different.

The New River still exists, but it is now huge reservoirs around London that supply the city. “They are enormous water pans,” says Nick. “Around London, there is more surface water than at any time in the past.” And from these giant tanks we have clean water, meaning that millions of people can drink uncontaminated water everyday without a second thought. That’s the legacy of the New River.

Nick Higham’s ‘The Mercenary River’ is available to purchase now.

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