Archive for the ‘Victorian period’ Category

A guest post by London Historians Member, Laurence Scales.

Review: The Mercenary River by Nick Higham.

mr coverThere can be few London Historians members of my acquaintance who do not revel vicariously in the horrors of the mid 19th century Thames and, worse, of the animalculae and other dark matter which might then have found their way into your cup. The Mercenary River is, therefore, a new book with instant appeal. But it is also much more ambitious. Where Stephen Halliday’s The Great Stink is indispensable for the story of Sir Joseph Bazalgette and his sewers, a broader book on London’s water supply has been long overdue.

Nick Higham’s The Mercenary River takes in most aspects of London’s water from its origins in rural rivulets, through the cisterns and down the S-bends in the home, out of the roadside fire hydrants, and down to the sea. Londoners can now get to know some new heroes (and a heroine) from centuries of water history from among entrepreneurs, engineers and doctors, and sometimes disgruntled consumers.

Higham, ex BBC man, formerly an arts and media correspondent, a familiar face, gives a possible clue as to his impulse to write about water. He used to work around the corner from the famous well, damned by Dr John Snow’s epidemiological evidence, and the pub later named after him.

The main reason that you do not expect to die of cholera or typhoid, or routinely suffer lesser paroxysms of the bowels, is not that your lav is connected to the internet of sewers that Bazalgette created but that your drinking water is filtered and treated before it is served from the tap, and is not simply a urinous yellow sample of the Thames or the Lea. Once the only thing between you an a tumblerful of weeds and bug-eyed creatures was a coarse iron grating. ‘It serves you at once both for eating and drinking,’ wrote the satirist George Cruikshank in 1832.

The most underappreciated Victorian hero in this respect is engineer James Simpson (1799–1869) who laid down filter beds in place of the ‘subsiding reservoirs’ in which other water companies hoped the most noxious contaminants would settle into permanent repose. Simpson also had the vision to source water remote from the metropolis. It had long puzzled me how such a benefit to the public was sold to the company directors. Higham has the answer, and it was not godliness.

Higham begins his story, largely told chronologically, in 1236 with a new pipe or channel into the City from high ground. A gap in the book, perhaps, is Roman London. Remains of Roman bucket chain water pumps have been found in the City. Probably the author preferred to concentrate on documented characters rather than hands unknown.

A major step forward from the conduits, at least in volume, if not in purity, was the establishment of the London Bridge company. Its water wheels forced a supply up into the City. A couple of subsequent chapters are devoted to the New River, not excluding the most humble servant of the company, its mole catcher.


The New River. Image: Laurence Scales.

As London expanded the New River Company began to be joined by other venturers. I was amused to find among them the incorrigible Thomas Neale, popping up here in yet another history, so diverse were his schemes and peculations. (He was the Master of the Royal Mint whose mismanagement there took Isaac Newton to rectify.) Also making an entrance is the wicked Joseph Merceron of The Boss of Bethnal Green. There are plenty of other villains throughout history including venal turncocks and builders, and the devious cow keeper, Thomas Tubbs. One of the longer chapters concerns corrupt practice in the industry in the late 19th century. A motif throughout the book is the hazard of placing a public necessity in the hands of a private monopoly.

Social changes affected demand for water. There are sections on the production and the use (or otherwise) of soap. The evolving etiquette and affordability of laundering clothes and washing the person are charted. In my lifetime a visit to the public baths for a private scrub could be preferable to pot luck with your landlady’s old geyser.

And in the last century or so people have even begun drinking the stuff! As everyone now knows, demand for water was vastly increased by the development of the water closet, creating a vicious circle of higher demand and deteriorating quality. Higham devotes some chapters to sewage. The well known stories of Edwin Chadwick and Bazalgette are entertainingly and succinctly told in a couple of chapters. Where Halliday stopped with the building of the sewers, Higham continues with the vital story of the chemists and microscopists such as Edward Frankland and Arthur Hill Hassall attempting to identify the culprit in London’s cloudy water that made it deadly.


Bazalgette’s Western Pumping Station. Image: Laurence Scales.

I feel that Higham might also have given a nod to Londoner Joseph Jackson Lister here, the famous surgeon’s father, who so improved the microscope in Hassall’s time that eventually the existence of germs became incontestable. Nor do Bazalgette’s successors who vastly expanded the sewer system get a mention.

The book is a jaunty and good humoured read. It also has generously large type ensuring a comfortable cruise through 400 pages. I already had some familiarity with the subject but there was plenty that I found new and interesting. I will just squeeze in mention of water examiner Francis Bolton who met his end from conducting a fantasy of coloured water fountains. In the end it was not the descriptions of the reeking Thames in The Mercenary River that made me queasy. It was Higham’s digest of the dizzying financial aquabatics of the modern water companies, showing more concern for overflowing their wallets than purifying our streams or allowing us to fill our cisterns economically.

The Mercenary River (480 pp) by Nick Higham is published in hardback by Headline Books, and illustrated in colour. Cover price is £22 but available for less.
Laurence Scales is a specialist guide and lecturer interested in the history of science, invention, engineering and medicine in London. He has been a long time volunteer at the archives of the Royal Institution and Royal Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce. He is currently working on a history of western engineering.


The author will be presenting an online talk based on this book on the evening of Wednesday 29 June. More information and to book your place.

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