Sunday, 29 September 2013

London’s water supply and the “New River”

September 29th – Today marks the 400th anniversary of the opening of the “New River”.

London’s water supply
In the late twelfth century (the time of the chronicler FitzStephen), water drawn from the City’s rivers, or from springs or wells,  was pure and clean and sweet and wholesome.  Later, though,  “the tide from the sea prevailed to such a degree that the water of the Thames was salt; so much so that many folks complained of the ale tasting like salt” (and  obviously they couldn’t have that).  And, by the beginning of the thirteenth century, the supply had become so contaminated by waste as to be not only unpalatable but unsafe to drink, for fear of contracting a potentially lethal water-borne disease such as typhus.  So, a supply had to be brought in from outside.  A so-called Great Conduit was built, by public subscription, in 1236, to bring water from a spring at Tyburn, roughly opposite where Bond Street tube station now stands,  to Cheapside, about three miles away, by way of  a system of  lead (!) pipes.  Sections  have  recently been discovered 2m below Medieval street level in Paternoster Row and in  Poultry.   The Great Conduit   was extended at either end in the fifteenth century so as to run from Oxlese, near where Paddington station now stands,  to Cheapside and Cornhill, about six miles away (water was then either piped directly from the conduit to homes and businesses that could afford the expense of the installation of “quills”, or collected from stand-pipes, and carried there by property owners, or, in buckets suspended from shoulder-yokes, by “cobs”, of whom there were 4000 by 1600).  The so-called  Devil’s Conduit under Queen’s Square probably dated to around the same time, a photograph taken in 1910, shortly before its demolition in 1911-13,  showing it to contain graffiti from  1411.  By the sixteenth century, the system had become inadequate  to meet the demands of the rising population (it had also become subject to much abuse and over-use by individuals and by commercial and industrial concerns).   A short-term solution to this problem  was provided  by the construction by the Dutchman Pieter Maritz in 1580 of a – rather rickety – apparatus under one of the arches of London Bridge that  allowed water to be pumped from the Thames  into the heart of the City, or, in the case of the original demonstration to City officials, over the spire of the church of St Magnus the Martyr!  The apparatus was destroyed in the Great Fire of 1666, but thereafter replaced by Maritz’s grandson, and  continued in use, after a fashion, until the early nineteenth century.   

The “New River”
A longer-term solution was provided by the construction by the Welshman and wealthy merchant, goldsmith, banker and Member of Parliament Sir Hugh Myddelton in 1609-13 of a  10’ wide and 4’ deep canal, or “New River”, all the way from springs at Amwell and Chadwell in Hertfordshire into the City, an incredible 37 miles away, which is still in use to this day (parts of it can be seen along the “New River” walk in Islington, for example in Canonbury Grove).    Myddelton had to overcome any number of technological  obstacles, and much land-owner and political opposition, to see this major civil engineering project through to completion, doing  so with a mixture of drive and determination, the financial support of 29 investors or “adventurers”, and the tacit backing of the king.  His financial backers had to wait some time until they   profited from the enterprise (actually, until 1633, although by 1695 the New River Company ranked behind only the East India Company and Bank of England in terms of its capital value).  The public  health benefits of Myddelton’s project were immediate, though,  and immeasurable,  and indeed it has been described as “An immortal work – since men cannot more nearly imitate the Deity than in bestowing health”.

Myddelton statue, Holborn Viaduct

Myddelton statue, Islington

Section of New River, Canonbury

White Conduit

Notes.  Myddelton died in 1631, and was buried in the church of  St Matthew Friday Street, where he had served as a warden.  Concerted  attempts to locate his coffin and monument following the church’s demolition in 1886 were unfortunately ultimately  unsuccessful. 

Remarkably, some of the fittings from the New River Company’s offices, including Grinling Gibbons’s “oak room”, still survive, in the  London Metropolitan Water Board building in Islington.

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