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 relied on the River Thames, its tributaries, or one of around a dozen natural springs for their water supplies. In 1247 work began on building 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 conduit pipe could obtain permission for a connection to their homes, but this did not prevent unauthorised tapping of conduits. Otherwise – particularly for households which could not take a gravity-feed – water from the conduits was provided to individual households by water carriers or "cobs".[2] Records of frequent drownings indicate that many poorer citizens collected water from the Thames or nearby streams running into the Thames. The Grand Conduit system was extended over the centuries and in the 15th century was supplemented by a conduit from springs at Paddington, and another 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 of London, 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 created extensive ponds in the area bordering Chelsea and 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 surrounding area, which spanned the distance between London and Southwark Bridges. The adjacent area 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 and supplied directly from the river. 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 service the increasing population in newly developed areas. Several new water supply companies were established leading to an arrangement of up to nine private water companies each with a geographic 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. The company extracted water from the Thames beside Vauxhall Bridge.

The West Middlesex Waterworks Company was founded in 1806 to supply water to the Marylebone and Paddington areas of London. 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, and also acquired existing waterworks at Shadwell, Lea Bridge and West Ham.

The Grand Junction Waterworks Company was created in 1811 to take advantage of a clause in the Grand Junction Canal Company's Act which allowed them to supply water brought by the canal from the River Colne and River Brent, and from a reservoir in the north-west Middlesex supplied by land drainage. It was thought that these waters would be better than those of the Thames, but in fact they were found to be of poor quality and insufficient to meet demand. After trying to resolve these problems the company resorted to taking their supply from the River Thames at a point near Chelsea Hospital[9]


Standpipe Tower at Brentford

Although the legislation that established the London water companies intended that they would compete for customers, in 1815 the East London company drew up a legal agreement with the New River Company defining a boundary between their areas of supply.

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 River Thames using steam engines to pump it to a cistern at the top of a 60-foot-high (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 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.[12] In 1830 the company gained a lease on the existing reservoir at Clapton.

In 1832 the Lambeth Waterworks Company built a reservoir at Streatham Hill, and in 1834 obtained an Act of Parliament to extend its area of supply. In the same year, the Company purchased 16 acres (65,000 m2) of land in Brixton and built a reservoir and works on Brixton Hill adjacent to Brixton Prison.[13]

In 1833 the South London Waterworks Company was supplying 12,046 houses with approximately 12,000 gallons of water.[14] 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 purchased 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) high water tower to provide gravity feed to the area. A six to seven mile (11 km) main took the water to a reservoir on Campden Hill near Notting Hill capable of containing 6 million gallons.

In 1841 the East London Waterworks Company was supplying 36,916 houses.[14]

On 10 January 1845 the Southwark Waterworks Company and the Vauxhall Waterworks Company submitted a memorandum to the Health of Towns Commissioners proposing amalgamation. A consequent bill successfully passed through 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, reaching east to Rotherhithe, south to Camberwell and in the 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 gallons.[15] In 1850 the company's treated water was described by the microbiologist Arthur Hassall as "the most disgusting which I have ever examined".[10]

In 1845 the limits of supply of the East London Waterworks Company were described as "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."[14] The water supplied by the company was taken from the Lea, with waterworks on 30 acres (0.12 km2) of land at Old Ford.

Metropolis Water Act[edit]

The waterworks buildings at Hampton

The companies often provided inadequate quantities of water which was often contaminated, as was famously discovered by John Snow during the 1854 cholera epidemic. Population growth in London had been very rapid (more than doubling between 1800 and 1850) without an increase in infrastructure investment. The Metropolis Water Act 1852 was enacted in order to "make provision for securing the supply to the Metropolis of pure and wholesome water." Under the Act, 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 31 December 1855 all such water was required to be "effectually filtered".[16] The Metropolitan Commission of Sewers was formed, water filtration was made compulsory, and new water intakes on the Thames were established above Teddington Lock.

The Chelsea Waterworks Company and the Lambeth Waterworks Company, who shared the services of James Simpson, established the reservoirs and filtration plants at Seething Wells along part of the riverside of Thames Ditton and Surbiton. The Chelsea's former central site was taken over by railway companies to make space for Victoria Station. The 'Grand Junction', 'West Middlesex' and 'Southwark and Vauxhall' Waterworks Companies built the works above Molesey Lock at Hampton designed by Joseph Quick. The Stain Hill Reservoirs and Sunnyside Reservoir were constructed in Hampton by the SVWC in 1855, with a 36-inch (910 mm) diameter main to Battersea. A third reservoir was opened later in the 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 by a reservoir at Stamford Hill in 1891.[18]

In 1897 the New River Company started developing the treatment works spanning Kempton Park and Hanworth to supply more water than their facilities at Cricklewood drawing on the River Brent.

In 1898 the SVWC started work on the Bessborough Reservoir and the Knight Reservoir 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]

The private water companies were nationalised at the beginning of the 20th century. The Metropolis Water Act 1902 (2 Edw.7, c.41) created the Metropolitan Water Board. It was founded in 1903 and as originally constituted in the Act had 67 members; 65 of these were nominated by local authorities, who appointed a paid chairman and vice-chairman. The board compulsorily acquired the following water companies:

Also acquired at no cost were the water undertakings of Tottenham and Enfield Urban District Councils. The supply pipes stretch a similar distance to sewerage pipes which extend 13,000 miles in Greater London.[20]

Water extract plant buildings at Hythe End

The MWB opened the East London Waterworks reservoirs Banbury Reservoir and Lockwood Reservoir, and the Bessborough Reservoir, Knight Reservoir and Island Barn Reservoirs at Molesey. It also opened the Kempton Park Reservoirs in around 1907.

In 1910, extraction facilities were opened at Hythe End and the Staines Reservoir Aqueduct was built to supply water to Hampton. 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 a succession of reservoirs - King George V Reservoir, (Lea Valley) in 1912, Queen Mary Reservoir (Ashford) in 1925, King George VI Reservoir (Stanwellmoor) in 1947 William Girling Reservoir (Lea Valley) in 1951, Queen Elizabeth II Reservoir (Molesey) 1962, Wraysbury Reservoir 1967, and Queen Mother Reservoir (Staines) 1976.

The Metropolitan Water Board and other local Water Boards were later combined into the Thames Water Authority, which was later privatized as Thames Water, a state-regulated private company which currently provides London's water supply.

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%).[21]

Most of London's water comes from non-tidal parts of the Thames and Lea, with the remainder being abstracted from underground sources.[22]

Much of the water piping in London is still cast iron piping which dates back to the nineteenth century and is slowly deteriorating. This has led to widespread criticism of Thames Water for the amount of water lost to leaks in its distribution network.[23] As of 2007, Thames Water is still in the process of a rolling programme of upgrading the water supply network to use modern plastic piping.[24]

A major Twenty-first Century infrastructure investment has been the creation of the Thames Water Ring Main, a "backbone network" for London's water supply. This period also saw contingency planning reserve facilities used mostly in times of drought built at Beckton.[25][26] This connects all the waterworks, and pumping stations.

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.
  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. ^ East London Waterworks Company, Brief history during the Snow era, 1813 - 1858 (UCLA Epidemiology), accessed October 1, 2007
  13. ^ Stockwell: Brixton Hill area, Survey of London: volume 26: Lambeth: Southern area (1956), pp. 100-105. Date accessed: 22 September 2008
  14. ^ 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.
  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. ^[permanent dead link]
  22. ^ "London's water supply 'to dry up'". BBC News. October 11, 2004. Retrieved 2007-03-24.
  23. ^ Milner, Mark (June 21, 2006). "Thames Water fails to plug leaks but profits rise 31%". London: The Guardian. Retrieved 2007-03-25.
  24. ^ "Replacing London's Victorian water mains". Thames Water. Archived from the original on 2007-03-14. Retrieved 2007-03-24.
  25. ^ Case Study: Thames Beckton Water Projects Online. A European Water Companies combined project. Retrieved 2014-12-10.
  26. ^ "Thames Water Ring Main Extensions". Thames Water. September 13, 2005. Archived from the original on September 28, 2007. Retrieved 2007-03-24.

External links[edit]