Imagine London where you can turn on a tap for a glass of water, but only for a few hours a day and never on Sundays. That was London’s modern water supply for several centuries until comparatively recently.

When we think of the huge achievements in water supply and sewage removal over the centuries and congratulate ourselves on how great London was at delivering these things, we may not be aware of just how bloody awful the new “modern world” was for those living through it.

That’s the topic of a book by former BBC journalist, Nick Higham who has managed to tell a story that many of us are only vaguely aware of, and it’s the story of how London’s water supply came into being.

And it’s an ugly story.

Although much of medieval London’s water supply was as bad as you would expect, it was the arrival of private companies selling water that was to both make water more available, but at a price that was ruinous to customers and a quality that wasn’t much better.

Companies granted overlapping regions fought for customers, sometimes literally fighting, and engaging in many shady tactics to get them to swap suppliers. If you think about how for example you can choose from lots of electricity suppliers, but you still have just one main electricity cable into your house. When the water companies were fighting, you could have several water supplies running through streets side by side.

And they weren’t always underground — Higham tells of pipes around the back of the British Museum that ran above people’s heads. And leaked, so people walked under them to get a bit of a shower.

The worst was to come though, as the companies quietly agreed to stop competing and laying pipes side by side, and well over a century of rampant profits for their shareholders was to follow until eventually Parliament, reluctantly at first, stepped in to sort the mess out.

Nick has managed to piece together this story in an engaging book, and considering the complexity of the names and companies involved, it’s a credit to his pleasant writing style that it’s not bewilderingly complex, but actually quite understandable.

Along the way, you’ll also learn about the Victorian attitudes to regulating private companies, which were vastly different from what we think of today, many of the unsung heroes of the time who attempted to get the water companies to clean up their act, and the eventual triumph of regulation that gave us the modern water supply we barely think about.

However, for several centuries, London was effectively held hostage to a supply of often polluted water, that was only available for a few hours a day and so expensive that the poor struggled to pay for it.

When you consider how important water is to life, it’s remarkable that London’s water supply and its sewage were allowed to be so badly managed for so very long.

It’s an eye opener of a book and you’ll never again be able to casually draw off a glass of water from the tap without thinking how remarkable such a simple act is today.

The Mercenary River by Nick Higham is available from Amazon, Foyles, Waterstones and many local bookstores.


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One comment
  1. Trevor says:

    An excellent book to highlight. Full of interesting details but written in an engaging style.

    Also available at your local library.

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