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Overview

Overview

General plan of the Waterworks c.1945 (Vestry House Museum)

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Founded in 1707, the Lea Bridge (or Hackney) Waterworks are often omitted from the list of London’s earliest waterworks. This probably reflects the fact that Hackney developed from a satellite village into a fashionable pleasure resort and, later on, into an early London suburb (particularly after the Great Fire of 1666).

At the start of the eighteenth century, water piped directly into homes was a privilege and a luxury for the few. The Hackney Waterworks supplied the successful high-class resort and prosperous growing suburbs of Hackney and Clapton. Therefore, as a reminder of the increasing refinement of late eighteenth century taste, the Lea Bridge Waterworks are of historic significance.

The Lea Bridge Waterworks are associated with a great range of historically significant people. These people are referenced in the following section on the history of the Waterworks and are also listed and further described in the later section on historical figures.

Through the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the gradually deteriorating quality of the water in the River Thames and the River Lea was met by only slowly developing concern with water quality, and correspondingly slow progress towards safeguarding the purity of the drinking water supply.[1] The development of the Lea Bridge Waterworks by the East London Waterworks Company (‘the Company’) was a direct response to these challenges, whilst the Company and the Lea Bridge Works were directly and notoriously implicated in the tragic failure to supply safe potable water.

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The Lea Bridge Waterworks stand as a reminder of a great sweep of technological, mechanical and industrial innovation across the eighteenth and nineteenth century. The late seventeenth century had seen the emergence of two new features in the London supply system: firstly, the mechanical pumping of water from rivers; and, secondly, its conveyance directly by means of leaden or wooden pipes into private homes. Lea Bridge Works was not the first, but was nevertheless one of the earliest such systems with, from as early as 1707, waterwheels, force pumps, pipes and reservoirs. As the works expanded, water wheels designed by the renowned engineer John Smeaton were installed and some of the largest steam engines of the nineteenth century were subsequently installed.

Among the London water companies, the East London Waterworks Company was the most constantly, even notoriously, criticised.

The Lea Bridge Waterworks is the earliest and most complete surviving complex of the East London Waterworks Company. It embodies the scale of the Company’s ambition, its limitations and failures and its efforts to remedy these.

The rising standards that accompanied the nineteenth century public health revolution demanded the continual development and extension of water supply and treatment facilities. The Lea Bridge Waterworks encapsulate the episodic development and extension of the water supply infrastructure.

The Lea Bridge Waterworks represent the role and achievement of private enterprise in water supply and the commitment of vast sums at great risk (with potentially great rewards) in an endeavour that at times strained the Company’s resources beyond their capability.[2]

Together the East London Waterworks Company and the Lea Bridge and Old Ford waterworks are inextricably linked with supplying contaminated water and the resulting cholera epidemics of the nineteenth century. Following the closure and redevelopment of the Old Ford Works, the Lea Bridge Waterworks are possibly the sole surviving built structures associated with these failures.

However, in the later years of the nineteenth century and in East London in particular, the achievements of the London water companies were considerable. Their financial and administrative commitment to London water in the last thirty years of the nineteenth century was substantial and the East London Waterworks represent this commitment and the scale of ambition.

The Lea Bridge Waterworks are also of regional historic significance. The scale and nature of London's water supply infrastructure was transformed during the course of the nineteenth century in response to the scale and speed of the metropolis’s growth and the accompanying social problems (most evident in what became known as London’s ‘East-End’). The Lea Bridge Waterworks were an early component of east London’s water supply infrastructure that quickly became central to helping to meet the technical and administrative demands of London’s rapid eastward expansion. The modern water distribution system was established by the end of the nineteenth century and Lea Bridge Waterworks was central to this modernising project.

The nineteenth century saw many scientific and medical advances in water testing and treatment and in public health. Increasing concern with water quality and public health mirrored the gradual evolution of medical and scientific ideas during this period. The increasingly sophisticated water treatment facilities at Lea Bridge were supported by some of the earliest attempts at scientific examination and testing, which is of historic significance.

By the end of the nineteenth century, the continuous supply of potable water to all dwellings in the London area had gradually come to be seen as a necessity, a public utility and indeed an entitlement. The East London Waterworks Company and the Lea Bridge Waterworks were at the vanguard of efforts to provide a continuous supply. This was a great feat of engineering innovation of immense scale and cost, but also a feat of commercial organisation and enterprise.

Nineteenth century improvements at Lea Bridge were also partly a response to the strident political demands of increasingly powerful district, county and metropolitan councils, mirrored by the emergence of water pressure groups and a popular public voice. The London County Council (LCC) and the Local Boards of Hackney, Walthamstow and Leyton opposed private control of what was increasingly viewed as a public utility.

They opposed the expansion of the Lea Bridge Works and fomented popular public opposition, demanding that ancient grazing rights and rights of way be protected, whilst also demanding that a sufficient, continuous and pure water supply be provided to all homes, in the face of regular droughts. They criticised the capabilities and level of service provided by the water Companies in the face of ‘water famines’, but resisted granting further powers and instead demanded and agitated for abolition of private water supply and municipalisation. The East London Waterworks Company was caught in a political pincer movement focused upon Lea Bridge. The Councils challenged one another for control of the spoils with the LCC claiming victory with the foundation of the Metropolitan Water Board but with district government representation.

By tradition, a hostile view of the East London Waterworks Company has become the dominant historical narrative.[3] Yet, despite its dubious reputation at the time, the Company was a pioneer in the field of water supply technology - from waterwheels to high-pressure steam engines for pumping to filtering technology and the development of a reliable and constant supply. The Lea Bridge Waterworks was a central, and is the earliest surviving component of, this innovative Company’s infrastructure and still today contains buildings and structures indispensable to this historical narrative.


References

[1] Water and the search for public health in London in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, Medical History, 1984,28, pp.250-282. Anne Hardy

[2] Water and the search for public health in London in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, Medical History, 1984,28 pp. 250-282. Anne Hardy

[3] From users to consumers – water politics in nineteenth century London, London, Birkbeck ePrints. http://eprints.bbk.ac.uk/archive/00000277, Frank Trentmann and Vanessa Taylor. 2005

leabridge.org.uk December 2012
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