Wench reader Jeannette asks: “A question about the water supply in London. Was there a muncipal water supply for Mayfair back then? Surely they didn't have wells. Was the sanitation, even in the wealthy neighborhoods, quite bad? How did one dispose of "waste", for example? Did they have trash pickup?”
All great questions and I am going to try and answer a few of them at least. I’m sure the other wenches will have done some research on this as well so will chip in with some fascinating facts on water, waste and wells!
I first became interested in the logistical problems of a water supply for London when I visited Canonbury Square a few years ago. Canonbury Square was laid out in 1800, the first square to be built in Islington as residential London started to spread outwards in the late 18th century. As an aside, Canonbury Square has a lot of literary associations. It was developed by Henry Leroux and Richard Laycock on land belonging to the Marquess of Northampton and over the years has been home to Evelyn Waugh, Nancy Mitford and George Orwell. Some of the elegant Georgian houses still have their original numbering. Anyway, whist I was sitting in the garden in the centre of the square I noticed a plaque about the “New River” which supplied water for London.
The “new river” (it was new in 1604) is an aqueduct that was designed to bring natural spring water from Hertfordshire into central London. In the 17th and 18th centuries, private water companies were formed, funded by shareholders, in order to develop ways to improve the water supply to the city. The New River was a good example of how this was done. A covered reservoir was built at the beginning of the 18th century and during that century they increased the amount of water drawn by using a windmill powered by a windlass. In the 19th century this was replaced by a steam engine. The water was piped into central London in elm pipes. Walking along the New River (which has now been turned into a lovely park) really made me think about the demand for water in an ever- expanding city.
In 1800 the population of London was approximately one million and water was still being piped in to the city via wooden pipes, which frequently needed repair, especially where the joints cracked. Elm pipes would last about 20 years and several rival water companies would have pipes in the same streets. In 1763 the Duke of Bedford wrote to the New River company: “I am going to pave the street before my house; and observing that the pipes belonging to you are continually breaking and that the pavement when taken up to mend the pipes is always laid down in a very bad manner, I give you this notice that you may direct that the pipes be made good.”
The Duke paid the New River company £10 6s a year for the water supply to his huge house in Bloomsbury Square. Smaller houses paid roughly a guinea a year. The company owned 400 miles of pipes, each of which was 7 foot long, meaning 300 000 pipes and joints to maintain! It was no wonder there were issues with water leaks.
A number of reservoirs were built in and around London, including one at Cavendish Square near Oxford Street. The water companies tried wind power to pump the water but found it too unreliable, so fell back on horse power and later steam power. They also learned that covered reservoirs were essential – in winter the uncovered ones often froze! The other hazard to look out for was fish. Both carp and eel were found in pipes belonging to the New River Company.
A later account of water supply is more complementary as standards improved: “Beneath the pavements are vast subterraneous sewers arched over to convey away the waste water which in other cities is so noisome above ground, and at a less depth are buried wooden pipes that supply every house plentifully with water, conducted by leaden pipes into kitchens or cellars, three times a week for the trifling expense of three shillings per quarter.”
Once in the kitchen or cellar the water was stored in a cistern. The turncock was in control of the water supply. It was he who turned the water on and off for the use of the inhabitants. It ran only for a few hours and only for two or three days per week. In the poorer parts of London where there was an even more limited supply, people would fill every container they could find with enough water to last them seven days.
The “sewers” were not sewers in our sense of the word but drains to take away the waste water. Until the later 18th century sewage went into the cess pit where it was emptied by the night-soil men who took it away in barrels in the middle of the night. Since this was another service one had to pay for, those inhabitants of London who were below the poverty line had neither water supply nor the means to have their cesspools emptied and it took a cholera epidemic in the 19th century to change things for the better. However, the middle and upper classes were starting to have “water closets” by the later 18th century and there were sometimes sewers into which this “offensive matter” as it was referred to at the time, could be emptied.
In contrast, the management of household waste was surprisingly advanced for the time. In 1751 a city-wide system for the management of waste was proposed with the idea that rubbish should be taken out of the city and put into landfill. Appropriate waste matter could also be used as fertilizer to improve the land. In cities such as Southampton there was by the 1750s a municipal waste collection for rubbish and animal dung. The refuse collectors were called “scavengers” and were paid “10 guineas per year plus a couple of capons.”
That’s it for my brief foray through water and waste for London. Thank you to Jeannette for the question! It makes me hugely thankful that these days even those of us living out in the country have an efficient system of water supply and waste disposal and it also makes me very aware that there are still parts of the world where this isn’t the case.
Do you have any water-related experiences to share? How do you cope when there’s a water shortage or if you can’t have access to running water? Do you think you could have managed with water for only a few hours a day a couple of days a week? And how would you react to an eel in the pipes?