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Lea Bridge Waterworks timeline



The East London Company's Waterworks May 1884 (V&A Collections ref. E.4592-1923)

With the tainted water controversy receding, the major challenge for the East London Company in the latter part of the nineteenth Century was to continue to expand the quantity of supply to support the growth of East London and Essex whilst meeting public demand for all dwellings to receive an affordable, continuous, and uninterrupted supply. Increasingly frequent periods of drought and low flow and periodic flooding were to frustrate these objectives. The solutions required expansion and greater integration between the Company’s own works, now scattered across London and Essex, and either closer co-operation between the private London Water Companies or public control.

The East London Company faced a complicated climate of increasing political agitation focused on Lea Bridge. Consumers and increasingly well-organized pressure groups were demanding an affordable and uninterrupted supply to all homes. The London County Council and the District Councils were pressing for public control of the London supply. Leyton District Council was resisting the political encroachment of the metropolis into Essex and the reach of the LCC whilst pursuing a political boundary dispute with Walthamstow over the Lea Bridge Works and the land on which the Company hoped expand. Local Campaigners (backed by not entirely altruistic Leyton Councilors) were resisting the expansion of the Lea Bridge Works and the enclosure of open land, extinguishing ancient grazing rights and rights of way.

The practical solution to many of the challenges faced by the East London Company in the latter part of the nineteenth century lay in further improvements and expansion at Lea Bridge. This had to be achieved in the face of rising public expectations and in the midst of political controversy and opposition with the very survival of the Company as a private enterprise at stake.

The Chief Engineer charged with the task was William Booth Bryan.

William Booth Bryan

W.B. Bryan was appointed Engineer to the East London Company in 1882, a position he held position until the East London Company was brought under public control in 1903, when he was appointed Chief Engineer of the Metropolitan Water Board.[1]

Prior to his appointment to the East London Company, Bryan designed and built viaducts, bridges, and sewerage improvements and other new municipal works, including a new Borough water supply from the West Riding and Lancashire Hill. Before he could completed these works he was appointed Chief Engineer to the East London Water Company.[2]

Bryan introduced measures to tackle wastage, purification, and adequate provision against scarcity during drought, and well as flood protection measures. This included digging deep wells at Lea Bridge in 1891-96.

Four triple expansion vertical pumping engines were erected by Bryan from 1890 at Lea Bridge. The first two triple expansion engines ‘of the marine type’ designed by Bryan proved so economical and successful that the Directors ordered the purchase and erection of two further, more powerful engines in 1893.[3] [4] ‘The ‘triples’ pumping-engines which; ‘represent in outline a triple- expansion compound engine of the inverted marine type designed by Mr. W.B. Bryan, two of which have been erected at the Lea Bridge Pumping Station of the East London’.[5]

A new style of deep- well pump, was made for the East London Waterworks, of London, to the orders of WB Bryan. The vertical compound pumping engines working two  ‘Ashley’ deep well pumps were invented by Herbert Ashley, engineer at the Waterworks, and manufactured by Messrs. Glenfield and Kennedy, Ltd. of Kilmarnock, Scotland. The pump was suitable for wells, bore-holes and mines. The pump had bucket 20in. in diameter, by a stroke of 3 ft. 6 in. Four of these pumps stood upon the bottom of a well 200 ft. deep, and lifted their water to the surface of the ground only, while  two stood in another well of similar depth, and were fitted  with plungers to lift their water to a height of 80 foot above the surface of the ground, a total lift of 280 ft. [6]

Bryan had anticipated the finding that the settling effect of impounded water in the reservoirs lessened the load imposed on the filter beds and introduced deep wells at Lea Bridge to supplement the water supply to the East London system as the population grew. He designed and supervised the construction of the East and West Warwick, the Banbury and the Lockwood Reservoirs and extended the old Racecourse Reservoir. Bryan also adopted innovative new devices such as the Humphrey pumps for Chingford.

Bryan’s tenure as Engineer to the East London Waterworks Company was marked by a series of building of architectural merit at Lea Bridge and the Company’s facilities, now spread across in east and west London and Essex. These include the Italianate octagonal sluice building/turbine house constructed at Lea Bridge Weir of 1885, the Engineers House, and the Foreman’s House (now demolished).

Bryan commissioned a series of buildings with similar architectural character as the Engineers House at Lea Bridge: The Ferry Lane Pumping Station in 1893-4 with a roof with gablets upon a ceramic corbel table; Chingford Mill and Ferry Lane with ‘Arts and Crafts of Germanic styling, with shapely roofs’ Wanstead (‘domestic gabled grouping’); and the Greaves Pumping Station, South Chingford in the ‘English Baroque’ style.[7] Pevsner speculates upon a possible link to Charles Driver of the MWB architect of the Gothic-Byzantine Abbey Mills pumping Station.

Bryan was reported to have a retiring disposition with an aversion to self-advertisement. He was relatively little known to the public, seldom spoke publicly and published very little. He was due to give the Thomas Hawksley Lecture at the Institution of Mechanical Engineers, his subject being ‘Pumping and Other Machinery for Waterworks and Drainage.[8] He died two days before on 27th October 1914 at the Savoy Hotel.

Expansion at Lea Bridge challenged

All development plans for Lea Bridge, from at least 1824, encroached upon ancient Lammas lands. Each successive expansion of the Lea Bridge works required the extinguishment of these commonable rights, by agreement or stealth.

In Leyton Walthamstow and Hackney this right of common was held by all residents of the parish.  Until 1752 or thereabouts, Walthamstow and Leyton had intercommoned on what was known as the Great Mead (or Walthamstow Common Mead), the system breaking down due a dispute over the change in the Calendar in 1751/2. 

The waterworks lay on both banks of the Lea, bridging the boundary of Essex and Middlesex from at least 1760, whilst expansion after 1850 was concentrated on the Essex bank within the Districts of Leyton and Walthamstow.

The land, and the return on the property rates, was a valuable public asset. The Walthamstow Slip, an ancient strip of land within the district of Leyton but belonging to Walthamstow extended from the River Lea, across the waterworks eastwards towards Wanstead, further complicating the situation. [9]

A considerable portion of the Lammas lands on Walthamstow and Leyton Marsh were dislammased in 1854 when the East Waterworks London Company needed them. This compounded earlier losses reducing the Walthamstow Lammas land to only 100 acres.[10] The Lammas Lands Committee met with Company representatives at the Ferry Boat Inn to agree the compensation to be paid to owners since the area of land to be given up was so great that the normal practice of providing compensating land was not feasible.

In 1858, Leyton challenged Walthamstow's attempt to establish the course of the Walthamstow Slip through the most valuable part of the waterworks company's Essex Filter Beds.[11] By 1873 a fence had apparently been erected on the parish boundary.[12] In 1890, the waterworks company laid railway tracks and erected fences across a bridle path in order to create an access to their new filter beds. By 1892, commoners were agitating for the marsh to be preserved as an open space. The commoners refused to sell their rights.


On Lammas Day 1892, when the company had failed to remove the rails and fence, the people of Leyton, augmented by a force of some 2½ thousand men from Hackney, andled by Councillor Christopher George, a member of the Local Board  and the Essex County Council and Henry Humphreys (who also lived in Leytonstone), tore them up.[13] The Hackney contingent was led by agitators of the “Commons Defence League,” a radical association that had been founded by the famous political activist John de Morgan - an Irish-born radical who had for some time lived in Hackney, and had twice served time in prison for his part in riots against theft of Common Land in South London.

The Waterworks Company took proceedings against the two men, who had taken responsibility on behalf of the Commoners.  Local people - at a packed meeting at Leyton Town Hall on Wednesday 30th November 1892 - formed a ‘Lammas Lands Defence Committee’ to defend the two men, and to oppose the Parliamentary Bill then being promoted by the East London Waterworks Company to extinguish further Lammas rights on Leyton Marshes.

A compromise was reached in 1893, confirmed by the East London Waterworks Act of 1894. The company withdrew all claims to enclose any part of the marsh, stayed its proceedings and paid all costs, with £100 to improve the bridleway. In return, the rails were allowed to stay.[14]

Essex vs. London County Council

The issues were reignited on February 26th 1895 when a meeting of Leyton Ratepayers addressed by Councillors Musgrave and Trimble  [both members of the Leyton Lammas Lands Defence Committee] opposed the perceived attempt by the London County Council to take control of the parts of the waterworks infrastructure in Essex, but turn these to serve the interests of London.[15] The object of this dispute may have been a proposal to straighten the River Lea between at the point formerly known variously as the “Two Friends” or “No Man’s Friend” at the south east corner of the Waterworks.  The Borough of Hackney was by this time a Metropolitan Borough within the newly-created London County whereas Leyton was still an Urban District Council in the County of Essex.


Floods and droughts at a time of growing demand led to ‘water famines’ in the late nineteenth century when the East London Company was simply unable to provide a sufficient supply to meet demand, so the taps ran dry.  The Walthamstow Fire Brigade complained that there was insufficient water pressure to put out fires.

The East London Company works at Lea Bridge continued to be susceptible to flooding. Floods struck the area in 1877, when it was reported that: ‘the lands lining the river bank are for many miles on both sides quite submerged and many of the cottages and fishing houses are from two to four feet deep in water. In some circumstances the inhabitants are living in the upper storeys:  The necessities of life being conveyed to them by boat’.

W.B. Bryan, supervised emergency action in 1903 to prevent the inundation of the Lea Bridge works as floodwaters rose. The River Lea was to flood again through the twentieth century. The works were inundated in 1947, followed again by flooding the next year.

Drought and water famine

The late nineteenth century saw continuing and increasing demand by consumers for a constant, clean and affordable water supply to all homes. Pure water, free from visible and invisible taints, had become a general expectation by 1900 but considerable improvements in the nature of the service were still to be made. The parallel concern was with constancy of supply through periods of drought and frost and in response to growing demand. A constant service to houses throughout the city was the principal feature of improvements to London's water history after 1870.[16]

The record of the East London Waterworks Company in providing a constant supply was the best... As early as 1866, constant supply was the Company's preferred method of service that was commonly laid on to new houses. But this placed increasing demands upon the supply.[17]

The Company was increasingly anxious. Major-General Scott reported that the Company was engaged in adding to its well supply ‘with considerable success’.

The flow of water over Feilde’s Weir, below the East London Company’s intake, fell to 21 million gallons in August 1887, considerably below the 22 million gallon threshold deemed (at least in 1869) to be sufficient for foreseeable daily supplies. Anxieties were raised for the future supply. [18]

 The East London Waterworks Company’s water supply was disrupted again in 1894, marking the start of the ‘East London water famines’ that were to help bring about the abolition of the East London Waterworks Company, and the establishment of the Metropolitan Water Board.[19].

The Company purchased additional land for new works. In 1892, and brought forward a Bill in 1893 to increase reservoir capacity by 600 million gallons and the well yield by 3 million gallons a day. The bill did not pass until 1894, due to the LCC’s opposition and the works were not finally completed until 1896.

In 1895, 1896 and 1898, many parts of London were gripped by a series of ‘water famines’ giving rise to protests. Charles Lyel, a householder and member of the Hackney Vestry, complained that the East London Waterworks Company had stopped his constant delivery and switched back to intermittent supply.[20]

Between 1883 and 1885 Water Consumers’ Defence Leagues were founded, with branches established in East London as well as Islington, Clapham and other parts of London.[21] [22]

The East London Company was compelled to restrict supplies during part of the summer of 1887. By 1888, the Company was sinking wells and driving adits (exploratory shafts) on a considerable scale in an attempt to meet possible future requirements.[23]

Hackney ratepayers called a meeting in September 1898 to protest against the East London Company’s ‘criminal neglect of the consumer’ in restricting supply to four hours a day. The chairman ‘hoped there would be no deaths ... as a result of the ... famine’, but considered that ‘some of the directors (a voice, “All”) might be charged with manslaughter’. This agitation attracted an overflow of over 1,000 outdoors. [24]

 It was not until after 1898, when disaster struck in a drought unparalleled for eighty-six years, that the Water Companies obtained powers for adequate communicating mains.[25]The problems raised by the deficiency of the Lea supply were finally resolved in 1898 by connecting the mains of the East London Company with those of the Kent and Southwark companies, and those of the New River with the West Middlesex and Grand Junction.[26]

G.E. Holman, the Engineers office & Foreman’s House

According to notes prepared by the GLC*, W.B. Bryan commissioned the architect George Edward Holman (1862-1921/2) to prepare designs for the Engineer’s House and the Forman’s House at Lea Bridge. This was the second Foreman’s house to be constructed, the first by Charles Drever in 1855. This earlier Foreman’s House may have been demolished by this time.

Lieut. Colonel G.E. Holman was associated with the Architectural Association in 1881[27] He practiced with Henry Robert Goodrham (1863-1937) from 1896 in the firm of Holman & Goodrham (sometimes misspelt as Goodshaw.[28]) Holman took an interest in the modern application of concrete and attended second annual dinner of The Concrete Institute in May 1912.[29]

Holman and Goodrham designed the new factory extension to the Arlington Building at the former Bryant and May in Bow (1909-11) (Listed Grade II). They also designed a block on Wick Lane in 1935-36.[30]

Holman and Goodrham designed a new open-air school of the Sanatorium of the National Children’s Home and orphanage (opened June 1920)[31] and one of the halls of the Olympia exhibition centre (Listed Grade II). They may also have worked upon the Huntley & Palmers, Ltd. Factory, Reading.

Holman’s design for the extension to St Stephen’s’ National Schools by James Tolley, 1859… was criticized by Pevsner; ‘a burgeoning hall extension of 1893-4 by GE Holman’.[32]

The Musgrave Engine (&/or Worthington, &/or Connaught, &/or horizontal)

There was a collection of engines, engines sheds and boiler houses associated with the No. 2 filter beds in the north-east corner of the works. The sequence of maps attribute different names over time, including: ‘Musgrave’, ‘Worthington’, ‘Connnaught’ and the ‘horizontal’. Further research will be needed to untangle the different stages of development.

The Musgrave engines at Lea Bridge, next to the Essex Number 2 Bed (dated 1922-4 during the term of Engineer Stilgoe) are often attributed to Councillor C.G. Musgrave JP, who was by then the Chairman of the Metropolitan Water Board, and named in his honour. Musgrave, who had led the 1892 protests against the East London Waterworks Company on Leyton Marshes, was an Essex County Councillor and a member of the Board of the Metropolitan Water Board and Chair.

However, it is probable that the reference is to Joseph Musgrave and the firm of Musgrave Brothers, who made engines for waterworks. So-called Musgrave engines and engine houses occur at other waterworks in the UK.

Joseph Musgrave (1812- 1891) was an industrialist and engineer manufacturer of factory steam engines. He worked at the Soho Ironworks under Mr. Hick and then built one of the Globe Ironworks, assisted by his sons Joseph, Jonathan John and James from 1839 in the business of John Musgrave & Son (later Musgrave & Sons). Joseph was the Conservative Mayor of Bolton from 1880-81. Musgrave & Sons manufactured the ironwork for the 710 metre long Tsar Nicholas I Suspension Bridge across the Dnepr river at Kiev in the Ukraine, opened in 1853.[33]

Lea Bridge works in 1895

Members of the Essex Field Club undertook a boat trip along the Lea in 1895. After passing under the Waterworks Bridge, the party arrived at the Tumbling Bay (the pool of water below a weir or waterwheel) and Lea Bridge, and the depot of the East London Waterworks Company.[34] 

Colonel Bryan (probably Chief Engineer W.B. Bryan) conducted the party over the works, explaining ‘the astonishing array’ of powerful pumping engines, eight in number, as well as several turbines for pumping water, actuated by the fall of the River Lea (these are most probably turbines in the octagonal turbine building adjoining the weir, confirming their association with the waterworks, rather than the Lee Conservancy, and their role in pumping water). There were twenty-five filter beds at Lea Bridge stretching over 24 acres.

The Company had also started to sink wells and driving galleries. Colonel Bryan stated that ‘exceptional difficulties’, were encountered in sinking the cylinders because the surface of the ground to the chalk was entirely quicksand. The water from the wells was raised by a differential engine.

A pamphlet by Major Flower[35], The River Lee Up-to date, was distributed during the tour recording details of the last half-yearly Report of the Directors. Capital expenditure from 1807 to 1893, a two and a-half millions. Quoting from the Report for 1891-92, of the Water Examiner—Major-Genl. Scott—to the Local Government Board, in 1891 the East London supplied daily, on an average, 41,580,135 gallons to 1,158,500 persons in 170,967 houses. A portion of the water was drawn from the Thames at Sunbury. The total quantity of water for the year from all sources was 15,176,749,253 gallons.

The visit may possibly have been a part of a public relations exercise on the part of the Company with increasing opposition to the expansion of the privately controlled works.


[1] Obituary of William Booth Bryan, 1848-1914. Minutes of the Proceedings, PART 1 Volume 199, Issue 1915, January 1915, pages 447 - 449

[2] OBITUARY. WILLIAM BOOTH BRYAN, 1848-1914. Minutes of the Proceedings, PART 1 Volume 199, Issue 1915, January 1915, pages 447 - 449

[3] Annual of the Local Government Board: Supplements to the Board's Annual Report include the: Report of the medical officer, 1893.

[4] The Triple-Expansion Steam-Engine As Applied To The Pumping Of Water, With Special Reference To The Plant At Lea Bridge. (Includes Plate At Back Of Volume). Author: H.R. Lupton Source: Minutes of the Proceedings, Volume 222, Issue 1926, 01 January 1926, pages212 –237, E-ISSN:1753-784

[5] The Principles, Construction, And Application Of Pumping Machinery (Steam And Water Pressure) With Practical Illustration, pp. 285. Henry Davey. 1905

[6] British Progress In Pumps And Pumping Engines. Philip R. Bjorling. Archibald And Constable Co Ltd 1905

 [7] London East Pevsner (Page 752) (Page 49)

[8]OBITUARY. WILLIAM BOOTH BRYAN, 1848-1914. Minutes of the Proceedings, PART 1 Volume 199, Issue 1915, January 1915, pages 447 - 449

[9] (fn. 38)

[10] (fn. 41)

[11] A History of the County of Essex: Volume 6: Leyton: Introduction, pp. 174-184, Fn 14. W.R. Powell (Editor). 1973

[12] VCH Essex (fn. 39)

[13] The Road to Jeremy’s Ferry. Oral history of “Leyton Gateway” Lea Bridge Road. Norma Crooks. 2003

[14] The Road to Jeremy’s Ferry. Oral history of “Leyton Gateway” Lea Bridge Road. Norma Crooks. 2003

[15] Eastern Mercury 1895 (Walthamstow Archives Ref L27.7)

[16] Parish Pump to Private Pipes: London's Water Supply in the Nineteenth Century, Medical History, Supplement No. I1, 1991: 76-93. Anne Hardy

[17] Parish Pump to Private Pipes: London's Water Supply in the Nineteenth Century, Medical History, Supplement No. I1, 1991: 76-93. Anne Hardy

[18] Parish Pump to Private Pipes: London's Water Supply in the Nineteenth Century, Medical History, Supplement No. I1, 1991: 76-93. Anne Hardy

[19] A History of the County of Middlesex Volume 10: Hackney: Communications, pp. 4-10, Fn 88.  T.F.T. Baker (Editor). 1995

[20] Users to Consumers Water Politics in Nineteenth-Century London. Frank Trentmann and Vanessa Taylor. 2005

[21] The Water Supply Of Greater London, London, W. Dickinson, Newcomen Society, 1954.

[22] Parish Pump to Private Pipes: London's Water Supply in the Nineteenth Century, Medical History, Supplement No. I1, 1991: 76-93. Anne Hardy

[23] Parish Pump to Private Pipes: London's Water Supply in the Nineteenth Century, Medical History, Supplement No. I1, 1991: 76-93. Anne Hardy

[24] Users to Consumers Water Politics in Nineteenth-Century London. Frank Trentmann and Vanessa Taylor. 2005

[25] Parish Pump to Private Pipes: London's Water Supply in the Nineteenth Century, Medical History,1984,28 pp.250-282. Anne Hardy

[26] Parish Pump to Private Pipes: London's Water Supply in the Nineteenth Century, Medical History, Supplement No. I1, 1991: 76-93. Anne Hardy

[27] The Building News And Engineering Journal, Volume 41 (1881)

[28] Structural Engineer, Volume 4, Issue 1 1912

[29] Concrete and Constructional Engineering Volume 7, 1912.

[30] The Special Architectural And Historic Interest of Riverside Works, 419 Wick Lane London, E3 L.B. Tower Hamlets Tom Ridge  June 2004

[31] The British Journal Of Tuberculosis, Volume 10, 1916

[32] London East, Pevsner Volume 5 2005

[33] Obituary. Joseph Musgrave, 1812-1891.Minutes of the Proceedings, Volume 104, Issue 1891, 01 January 1891 , pages 313 –315

[34] The Essex Naturalist, The Journal Of The Essex Field Club 1895 P. 98

[35]  Major Lamorock Flower(1829-1901), Sanitary engineer to the Lee Conservancy Board.

© leabridge.org.uk December 2012