London water supply infrastructure

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London's water supply infrastructure has developed over the centuries in line with the expansion of London. For much of London's history, private companies supplied fresh water to various parts of London from wells, the River Thames and in the three centuries after the construction in 1613 of the New River, the River Lea, which has springs that divert alongside Hertford at an elevation of 40 metres AOD. Further demand prompted new conduits and sources, particularly in the 150 years to 1900 as the Agricultural and Industrial Revolution caused a boom in London's population and housing.

A crisis point was reached in the mid 19th century with biology proving outbreaks of cholera and other disease arose from commercial extraction of water from the Tideway, where the city once had its main filter beds and purification buildings. The Metropolis Water Act 1852 allowed all water extractors three years to find wells or non-tidal sources. London's water businesses (known also as undertakings) nationalised as the Metropolitan Water Board and then re-privatised. The population of Greater London is currently supplied by four private companies: Thames Water, Affinity Water, Essex and Suffolk Water and Sutton and East Surrey Water.

Most of the four companies' non-tidal Thames and Lea sites have current works and reservoirs for supplying domestic drinking water, drawing on rainwater across the Thames Basin. They have been supplemented in the 21st century by a slightly costlier extraction process operated most in drier seasons from the Tideway at Beckton. Pipes of a total length of greater than 13,000 miles (20,920 km) are under the city's streets. These are supported by pumping, testing and access stations and together provide for a relatively consistent and uniform supply of water which is highly regulated by water regulations.

Early London water supply[edit]

Through to the late 16th century, London citizens turned to the tidal Thames for much of their non-drinking water. For drinking, due to the brackish and perceptibly poor, organic-rich taste of that estuarine source they tended to rely on wells and tributaries rising in around a dozen natural springs on the north side of the Thames. This explains why the city spread scarcely in this, the medieval era, onto the other bank.

In 1247 work began the Great Conduit from the spring at Tyburn. This was a lead pipe which led via Charing Cross, Strand, Fleet Street and Ludgate to a large cistern or tank in Cheapside.[1][2] The city authorities appointed keepers of the conduits who controlled access so that users such as brewers, cooks and fishmongers would pay for the water they used. Wealthy Londoners living near the conduits could obtain permission for a connection to their homes, but this did not prevent their unauthorised tapping. Otherwise – particularly for homes which could not take a gravity feed – water from the conduits was taken to homes by water carriers, often called cobs, a term seen as dated by the 18th century.[2] Records of frequent drownings prove many poorer citizens needed or desired water from the Thames and the larger tributaries; quite large quantities were needed for iron-smithery, cooking and brewing for instance. Bathing places were also used at certain times, among certain people. The Grand Conduit system was extended over time. In the 15th century sources were increased, firstly by a conduit from Westbourne springs at Paddington, secondly by another from the upper Fleet at Highgate which supplied Cripplegate.[3]

Sixteenth century[edit]

In 1582, Dutchman Peter Morice (died 1588) developed one of the first pumped water supply systems for the city, powered by undershot waterwheels housed in the northernmost arches of London Bridge spanning the River Thames. The machinery was largely destroyed in the Great Fire of London in 1666 but replacements engineered by his grandson remained under the bridge until the early 19th century, before the New London Bridge was erected in the 1830s.[citation needed]

Seventeenth century[edit]

Richard Blome's map of London (1673). The development of the West End had recently begun to accelerate.

Hugh Myddleton was the driving force behind the construction of the New River, the engineering project that brought fresh water from Hertford, Hertfordshire to 17th century London. After the initial project encountered financial difficulties, Myddleton helped fund the project through to completion. The New River was constructed between 1609 and 1613 (being officially opened on 29 September that year), 38 miles (60 km) long. It starts at an elevation of 40 metres.[4] It was not initially a financial success, and cost Myddleton substantial sums, although in 1612 he was successful in securing monetary assistance from King James I.[citation needed] The New River Company became one of the largest private water companies, supplying the City of London and other central areas.[2]

The construction of London's current water distribution infrastructure dates back to the Great Fire of London in 1666, which destroyed most of the city's previous water infrastructure, most of which was made of wood and lead.[2] One waterworks not affected by the fire was at Shadwell by the Thames which dated from 1660. The city's water supply and distribution infrastructure has been continuously updated and upgraded since then.

Eighteenth century[edit]

Chelsea Waterworks, 1752. Two Newcomen beam engines pumped Thames water from a canal to reservoirs at Green Park and Hyde Park.

The Chelsea Waterworks Company was established in 1723 "for the better supplying the City and Liberties of Westminster and parts adjacent with water".[5] The company received a royal charter on 8 March 1723.[6] The company dug large water beds in borderlands of Chelsea with south-west Westminster (Pimlico) using water from the tidal Thames.

Waterworks were established in East London, at West Ham in 1743 and at Lea Bridge before 1767.

The Borough Waterworks Company was formed in 1770, originally supplying water to a brewery and the surrounds: between London and Southwark Bridges. An adjacent zone was supplied by the London Bridge Waterworks Company.

The Lambeth Waterworks Company was founded in 1785 to supply water to south and west London. It was established on the south bank of the River Thames close to the present site of Hungerford Bridge where the Royal Festival Hall now stands. The first water intake of the company was on the south side of the river drawing on it around high tide. After complaints that the water was foul, the intake was moved to the middle of the river.[7]

Nineteenth century[edit]

New companies[edit]

London as engraved by J. & C. Walker in 1845 from a map by R Creighton

As London spread in the 19th century, new facilities were needed to serve the increasing population in newly developed areas. Several new water supply companies were established leading to a maximal time of nine private water companies, each with a local monopoly.

The Lambeth Waterworks company expanded in 1802 to supply Kennington and about this time replaced its wooden pipes with iron ones.[7]

The South London Waterworks Company was established by private act of parliament in 1805. Similarly the company extracted water from the Thames beside Vauxhall Bridge.

The West Middlesex Waterworks Company was founded in 1806 to supply water for Marylebone and Paddington (eventually these became the north half of the City of Westminster. In 1808 the company installed cast iron pipes to supply water from its intakes at Hammersmith.[8]

The East London Waterworks Company was founded by Act of Parliament in 1806, acquiring existing waterworks at Shadwell on the Thames, Lea Bridge and West Ham on the Lea.

The Grand Junction Waterworks Company formed in 1811 to exploit a clause in the Grand Junction Canal Company's Act which allowed them to supply water via the canal from the Colne and/or the River Brent namely the Brent Reservoir. It was thought these sources would be better than those of the Tideway, but they proved of poor quality and insufficient to meet demand. After trying to resolve the problems the company resorted to taking from the Tideway south of Chelsea Hospital.[9]


Standpipe Tower at Brentford

Statutes that established the London water companies weakly intended they would compete for customers. In 1815 the East London company drew up the first defiant legal agreement. This was with the New River Company defining their respective areas supplied.

The London Bridge Waterworks Company was dissolved in 1822, and its water supply licence was purchased by the New River Company. Later that same year, the Borough Waterworks Company purchased the London Bridge licence from the New River Company, and it was renamed the Southwark Water Company. The company extracted water from the Tideway using steam engines to pump it to a cistern at the top of a 60-foot (18 m) tower.[10]

The West Middlesex Waterworks Company established a 3.5 million gallon reservoir at Campden Hill near Notting Hill. In 1825 the company built a new reservoir at Barrow Hill next to Primrose Hill in North London.

In 1825, the ponds of the Chelsea Waterwork Company were used as the basis of the Grosvenor Canal which was opened to traffic that year. By this time there were complaints about the quality of the water that the company was drawing from the River Thames, and in 1829, under engineer James Simpson the Chelsea Waterworks Company became the first in the country to install a slow sand filtration system to purify the water.[11]

In 1832 the Lambeth Waterworks Company built a reservoir at Streatham Hill, and in 1834 obtained an Act of Parliament to extend its supplied zone. In the same year, the Company brought 16 acres (65,000 m2) of land in Brixton where it built a reservoir and works on Brixton Hill, by Brixton Prison.[12]

In 1833 the South London Waterworks Company was supplying 12,046 houses with approximately 12,000 gallons of water per day.[13] In 1834, the company was renamed the Vauxhall Water Company.[10]

The Grand Junction Waterworks Company built a pumping station near Kew Bridge at Brentford in 1838 to house its new steam pump and two similar pumps bought from Boulton, Watt and Company in 1820. The water was taken from the middle of the river and pumped into filtering reservoirs and to a 200 ft (61 m) tower to provide gravity-fed water. A six to seven mile (11 km) main took the water to a reservoir on Campden Hill near Notting Hill with capacity: 6 million gallons.

In 1829, the East London Waterworks Company moved their source of water further up river to Lea Bridge as a result of pollution caused by population growth. Clean water was now abstracted from the natural channel which had been by-passed by the Hackney Cut, to a new reservoir at Old Ford.[14] In 1830 the company gained a lease on the existing reservoir at Clapton. In 1841 the East London Waterworks Company was supplying 36,916 houses.[13] In 1845 the limits of supply of the company were "all those portions of the Metropolis, and its suburbs, which lie to the east of the city, Shoreditch, the Kingsland Road, and Dalston; extending their mains even across the river Lea into Essex, as far as West Ham."[13] The water supplied by the company was taken from the Lea, with waterworks on 30 acres (0.12 km2) of land at Old Ford.

On 10 January 1845 the Southwark and Vauxhall Waterworks Companies submitted a memorandum to the Health of Towns Commissioners proposing amalgamation. A consequent bill was passed by parliament, and the Southwark and Vauxhall Waterworks Company was formed later that year.[10] The area supplied by the SVWC was centred on the Borough of Southwark. Thus it spread east to Rotherhithe, south to Camberwell. It also spread west including Battersea and parts of Clapham and Lambeth.[15] The amalgamated company established waterworks at Battersea Fields with two depositing reservoirs with a capacity of 32 million gallons; and two filtering reservoirs holding 11 million.[15] In 1850 the company's "treated" water was described by microbiologist Arthur Hassall as "the most disgusting which I have ever examined".[10] His tests and those of others precipitated the law of two years later.

Metropolis Water Act[edit]

The waterworks buildings at Hampton

The companies often supplied too little water. It was often contaminated. The extent of contamination was confirmed by John Snow during the 1854 cholera epidemic. Population growth in London had been very rapid (more than doubling between 1800 and 1850), with little increase in infrastructure. The Metropolis Water Act 1852 was passed to "make provision for securing the supply to the Metropolis of pure and wholesome water." Under it, it became unlawful for any water company to extract water for domestic use from the tidal reaches of the Thames after 31 August 1855, and from the end of that year all such water was required to be "effectually filtered".[16] The Metropolitan Commission of Sewers was formed. New water intakes, plants and pumps would have to be west of where the river became tidal (Teddington Lock) and along the Lea.

The Chelsea Waterworks and the Lambeth Waterworks companies, who shared the services of James Simpson, established the reservoirs and filtration plants at Seething Wells on the riverside, spanning Long Ditton and Surbiton. The Chelsea's former central site was taken over by railway companies for Victoria Station and its goods sidings and yards. The Grand Junction, West Middlesex and Southwark and Vauxhall Waterworks Companies built the works above Molesey Lock at Hampton designed by Joseph Quick. Though small, the Grand Junction and Sunnyside Reservoirs there were supplemented by filter beds – all by the SVWC in 1855. These served a 36-inch (910 mm) diameter main ending at Battersea. A third reservoir was opened later that year between Nunhead Cemetery and Peckham Rye.[10]

The Coppermill, Walthamstow

In the mid 19th century the East London Waterworks Company purchased the Coppermill at Walthamstow and modified it to drive a water pump to assist in the building of reservoirs on nearby marshland in the Lea Valley .[17] The company built a series of reservoirs which were High Maynard Reservoir, Low Maynard Reservoir, five linked numbered reservoirs making the Walthamstow Reservoirs, the East Warwick Reservoir and the West Warwick Reservoir.

In 1872 the Lambeth Waterworks Company moved upstream on the Thames to Molesey, followed by the Chelsea Waterworks Company. They built the Molesey Reservoirs there in 1872.

The East London Waterworks Company replaced their reservoir at Clapton with one at Stamford Hill in 1891; places which adjoin in today's London Borough of Hackney.[18]

In 1897 the New River Company started developing the Kempton Park works (today all in Hanworth). This would supply more water than the plant at Cricklewood that drew on the River Brent.

In 1898 the SVWC started work on the Bessborough and Knight Reservoirs across the Thames from Hampton at Molesey. By 1903 the SVWC supplied a population of 860,173 in 128,871 houses of which 122,728 (95.3%) had a constant supply.[19] The Lambeth Waterworks company started work on Island Barn Reservoir at Molesey in 1900.

Twentieth century[edit]

River Ash and North Thames Reservoirs
Intake of aqueduct (with sluice)
Colne Brook
County or Shire Ditch
Wraysbury River
Colne (feeder of the three above)
Pumping Station to 3. & 4. & 5.
overflow sluice to the Ash
Gravity-drained aqueduct
 A308  road
(River Ash under aqueduct)
 A308  road
Pumping Station to 6.
Ashford Treatment Works for 6.
 A244  road
Kempton Treatment Works
(some water sent directly to below)
7.Grand Junction Reservoir
Hampton Treatment Works

The private water companies were nationalised, by compulsory purchase, from 1902–03. The Metropolis Water Act 1902 (2 Edw.7, c.41) created the Metropolitan Water Board ("MWB"). It was founded in 1903 and incepted in the Act with 67 members; 65 of these nominees of local authorities, who then appointed the paid Chairman and Vice-Chairman. The Staines Reservoirs Joint Committee and these companies were included:

Acquired at no cost were the water undertakings of Tottenham and Enfield Urban District Councils.

Supply pipes stretch a similar distance to sewerage – 13,000 miles in Greater London alone.[20]

Water extract plant buildings at Hythe End

The MWB opened the East London Waterworks reservoirs Banbury Reservoir in 1903, Lockwood Reservoir (1903), and the Bessborough Reservoir (1907), Knight Reservoir (1907) and Island Barn Reservoirs (1911) at Molesey. It opened the Kempton Park Reservoirs (including Stain Hill Reservoirs) in around 1907.

In 1902, the extraction pumphouse opened at Hythe End for the Staines Reservoirs and Staines Reservoir Aqueduct. These supply water to the East London Waterworks within the north-east limits of Sunbury (returned to a field), "Kempton Park" Waterworks (north-east) and Hampton Advanced Water Treatment Works (south).[21] The Thames Conservancy limited such taking (abstraction) especially in drought.[22] Thus the large reservoirs ensured a few weeks' supply or longer with water restrictions.

River water improves in quality in the reservoir as solids settle and organic contaminants are adsorbed and degraded through a combination of natural biological processes aided by sunlight and oxygenation.[23]

The Metropolitan Water Board Railway was opened in 1916 to carry coal from the river at Hampton to Kempton Park. An engine house with powerful steam engines was opened at Kempton Park in 1929, which has now become Kempton Park Steam Engines museum.

The MWB opened reservoirs: the King George V (Lea Valley) in 1912, Queen Mary (Littleton) in 1925, King George VI (Stanwell Moor) in 1947, William Girling Reservoir (replacing Chingford and Edmonton Marshes, Lea Valley) in 1951, Queen Elizabeth II (Molesey) 1962, Wraysbury Reservoir 1967, and Queen Mother (Datchet) 1976.

The MWB built tunnels for piping of water across London. By the 1950s the flow of the Lea was less than the demand from the eastern areas, as west Essex's population swelled. The Thames–Lea water main (tunnel) piped water from the non-tidal Thames to reservoirs in the Lea Valley.[24] It runs from Hampton water works to the Banbury and Lockwood reservoirs at Chingford.[25] It is 19 miles (30.6 km) long, 2.6 metres in diameter, and below ground by 68 feet (21 m) to 190 feet (58 m). It has twenty-two 12-foot-across access shafts.[26] It was constructed by the consulting engineers Sir William Halcrow & Partners, 1955–59 for about £5,515,000, equivalent to £145,800,000 in 2019).[26] It transports up to 120 million gallons per day (6.3 m3/s).[24]

The Metropolitan Water Board and other local Water Boards (the Thames Conservancy, the Lee Conservancy Catchment Board and parts of the Essex River Authority and parts of the Kent River Authority) were combined into the Thames Water Authority from 1 April 1974. This was under the provisions of the Water Act 1973 which was another step towards an integrated policy of water management.[27] The Thames Water Authority was later privatized in 1989 as Thames Water, under the provisions of the Water Act 1989,[28] as a state-regulated company that provides most of London's supply, as detailed below.

Present day[edit]

Greater London is currently supplied by four companies: Thames Water (76% of population), Affinity Water (14%), Essex and Suffolk Water (6.6%) and Sutton and East Surrey Water (3.7%).[29]

Most of London's water comes from non-tidal parts of the Thames and Lea, with the remainder being abstracted from underground sources.[30] The following operational reservoirs (in 2020) supply water to London.

Reservoirs supplying water to London
Reservoir Coordinates Opened Volume, Gl Abstraction from
Banbury Reservoir 51.6047°N 0.0350°W 1903 2.95 Lea (and the Thames via tunnel)
Bessborough Reservoir 51°24′5.9″N 0°23′10.1″W 1907 5.45 Thames
East Warwick Reservoir 51.580457°N 0.056176°W 1869–93[31] 0.96 Lea
High Maynard Reservoir 51.5889°N 0.0466°W 1869–93[31] 0.68 Lea
Island Barns Reservoir 51°23′26″N 0°21′48″W 1911 4.5 Thames
King George’s or King George V Reservoir 51.6499°N 0.0161°W 1912 12.45 Lea
King George VI Reservoir 51.449075°N 0.502482°W 1947 15.88 Thames
Knight Reservoir 51°23′56.6″N 0°23′36.2″W 1907 5.46 Thames
Lockwood Reservoir 51.5950°N 0.0479°W 1903 2.5 Lea (and the Thames via tunnel)
Low Maynard Reservoir 51.58848°N 0.049782°W 1869–93[31] 0.15 Lea
Queen Elizabeth II Reservoir 51°23′27″N 0°23′32″W 1962 19.5 Thames
Queen Mary Reservoir 51°25′N 0°27′W 1925 30.6 Thames
Queen Mother Reservoir 51°28′55″N 0°32′56″W 1976 38.0 Thames
Staines Reservoirs 51°26′49″N 0°29′12″W 1902 15.2 Thames
Walthamstow Reservoirs No.1 to No.5 51°34'55.3"N 0°02'58.0"W 1869–93[31] Lea
William Girling Reservoir 51.6316°N 0.0244°W 1951 16.5 Lea
West Warwick Reservoir 51.576456°N 0.058494°W 1869–93[31] 0.8 Lea
Wraysbury Reservoir 51°27′39.7″N 0°31′25.2″W 1970 34.0 Thames

Water piping in London is mainly cast iron piping which dates back to the nineteenth century and suffers from rust and vibration; some was until the 2010s wood such as at Temple. This leads to criticism of the supplier for the volume of leaked water and associated street flooding by water mains.[32] As of 2007 the supplier is in a decades-long scheme to install modern plastic piping.[33]

In 21st-century infrastructure is the Thames Water Ring Main, the "backbone network" of London's water supply. This connects all the waterworks, and pumping stations. The century has seen a contingency treatment works built, mostly for droughts, at Beckton.[34][35]

Water Treatment Works[edit]

The Water treatment works on the Ring Main are:

Pumping stations[edit]

The pumping stations on the ring main are:



See also[edit]


  1. ^ Great Conduit (The) in Westcheap from 'A Dictionary of London' (1918). Date accessed: 10 November 2006.
  2. ^ a b c d "Water-related Infrastructure in Medieval London". Retrieved 2007-03-24. CS1 maint: discouraged parameter (link)
  3. ^ Florilegium Urbanum - The Great Conduit
  4. ^ Historic England. "Details from listed building database (1221266)". National Heritage List for England. Retrieved 10 December 2014. Commemorative Stone at Chadwell Spring, Chadwell, Hertfordshire, Grade II heritage listing.
  5. ^ The London Encyclopaedia, Ben Weinreb & Christopher Hibbert, Macmillan, 1995, ISBN 0-333-57688-8
  6. ^ Royal Charters, Privy Council website Archived 2007-08-24 at the Wayback Machine
  7. ^ a b UCLA Department of Epidemiology Lambeth Waterwork history
  8. ^ UCLA Department of Epidemiology West Middlesex Waterworks history
  9. ^ Notting Hill and Bayswater, Old and New London: Volume 5 (1878), pp. 177-188. Date accessed: 22 September 2008
  10. ^ a b c d e Southwark & Vauxhall Water Company - Brief History during the Snow era, UCLA Department of Epidemiology
  11. ^ History of the Chelsea Waterworks
  12. ^ Stockwell: Brixton Hill area, Survey of London: volume 26: Lambeth: Southern area (1956), pp. 100-105. Date accessed: 22 September 2008
  13. ^ a b c Joseph Fletcher, Historical and Statistical Account of the present System of Supplying the Metropolis with Water in Journal of the Statistical Society of London, Vol. 8, No. 2. (June 1845), pp. 148-181.
  14. ^ East London Waterworks Company, Brief history during the Snow era, 1813 - 1858 (UCLA Epidemiology), accessed October 1, 2007
  15. ^ a b John Weale, The Pictorial Handbook of London, London, 1854
  16. ^ An Act to make better Provision respecting the Supply of Water to the Metropolis, (15 & 16 Vict. C.84)
  17. ^ The Coppermill Retrieved December 14, 2007
  18. ^ Hackney: Public services, A History of the County of Middlesex: Volume 10: Hackney (1995), pp. 108-15 (British History Online) accessed October 1, 2007
  19. ^ Percy Ashley, The Water, Gas, and Electric Light Supply of London, Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, Vol. 27, Municipal Ownership and Municipal Franchises (January 1906), pp. 20-36
  20. ^ Goodman, David C. and Chant, Colin (1999) European Cities and Technology (London: Routledge).
  21. ^ Wray, Anthony (December 2015). "Water Quality, Morbidity, and Mortality in London, 1906-1926" (PDF). Retrieved 16 June 2020.
  22. ^ London County Council (1922). London Statistics 1920-21 vol. XXVII. London: London County Council. pp. 249, 262.
  23. ^ News Release Thames Water Employs Reservoir Profiler to Reduce Costs (6 June 2007) Archived September 19, 2007, at the Wayback Machine
  24. ^ a b Cuthbert, Eric William, and Frank Wood (1962). "The Thames - Lee Tunnel Water Main (Discussion)". Retrieved 19 June 2020.
  25. ^ "Algae in raw water storage reservoirs: a case study into the effect on rapid gravity filtration" (PDF).
  26. ^ a b "19-mile water tunnel nears completion". The Times. 2 January 1960. p. 4.
  27. ^ Acts of the UK Parliament (1973). "Water Act 1973". Retrieved 15 June 2020.
  28. ^ Acts of the UK Parliament (1989). "Water Act 1989". Retrieved 15 June 2020.
  29. ^[permanent dead link]
  30. ^ "London's water supply 'to dry up'". BBC News. October 11, 2004. Retrieved 2007-03-24. CS1 maint: discouraged parameter (link)
  31. ^ a b c d e Reservoir not shown on map surveyed 1863-9 (Ordnance Survey, 6-inch, Middlesex XII) but is shown on map surveyed 1893-4 (OS, 25-inch, London XIV).
  32. ^ Milner, Mark (June 21, 2006). "Thames Water fails to plug leaks but profits rise 31%". London: The Guardian. Retrieved 2007-03-25. CS1 maint: discouraged parameter (link)
  33. ^ "Replacing London's Victorian water mains". Thames Water. Archived from the original on 2007-03-14. Retrieved 2007-03-24. CS1 maint: discouraged parameter (link)
  34. ^ Case Study: Thames Beckton Water Projects Online. A European Water Companies combined project. Retrieved 2014-12-10.
  35. ^ "Thames Water Ring Main Extensions". Thames Water. September 13, 2005. Archived from the original on September 28, 2007. Retrieved 2007-03-24. CS1 maint: discouraged parameter (link)

External links[edit]