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Prior to 1707

Lea Bridge Waterworks timeline

The River Lea

The Lea Bridge Waterworks occupies a significant position upon the River Lea. The River Lea is a tributary of the Thames. The lower reaches of the Lea are affected by the tidal Thames, which has a very large tidal range (in excess of seven metres /twenty-two feet on spring tides), reaching as far as Lea Bridge - over five miles from its confluence with the Thames.[1]

Whilst the tidal reach has altered over the centuries, the Lea was recorded as tidal as far as Lockbridge (an early bridge at Lea Bridge) in the sixteenth century[2] and a very high tide would tail up to Lea Bridge mills in 1866.[3]

Since at least 1707, waterworks have been located and sustained at Lea Bridge because of a combination of topographical and hydrological factors. The characteristics of the river at this point have implications for water flow (and water power), drainage (and sewage and flooding), for navigation along the river and for the relative ease of crossing the river at this point.

The barrier effect of the tide at lower crossings of the Lea is almost certainly the main reason why (as documented from at least the fifteenth century) the present Lea Bridge area became

  • a favoured crossing place - most notably by the major medieval trade and pilgrimage route still known locally as the Porters’ Way; and
  • a well-documented location for fords, ferries and bridges, with tracks, causeways and then roads radiating out from the crossings.

The position at the tidal head affected the pattern of navigation, the arrangement of locks and weirs and the form of mill power that grew up. Barges would travel as far as Lea Bridge on the flood tide and return back down with the ebb. Mills at, and above, Jeremy’s Ferry (at the site that is now Lea Bridge) could not operate on tidal power and, instead, were reliant upon the strength of flow or upon impounded water bodies in reservoirs or behind the weirs and locks.


In 1868, Mr. Maine (resident engineer of the East London Waterworks at Lea Bridge Station) reported finding a hard well-made road at Lea Bridge Mill Head, six feet below the present level, which tended towards the north-east. There was then speculation of a Roman road heading westwards towards the site on which, in 1867, a white marble Roman sarcophagus was found behind the old London Orphan Asylum in Lower Clapton. Roman coins were often reported to be found at Lea Bridge and a coin of Nero was also discovered at an earlier date.[4]


A mill, from which North Mill field in 1381 and South Mill field in 1443 were named, was presumably the forerunner of corn mills at Lea Bridge.[5]

London’s early water supply

Early water supply in London depended upon rivers, springs, wells, streams and gravity fed channels or conduits. Upper areas of Hackney were probably served by wells, springs and brooks, but the eastern border may have been served by water carriers and carts that drew water from the Lea.

Hackney has several Wells of wholesome and excellent Water as Pig well, another Well in Church field, another which gives the Name to Well street another on the Downs and also Shacklewell seems to take its Denomination from some Well thereabouts. There is also another Chalybeat Well passing a little Way out of Church street towards Dorleston but now disused.[6]

Persons were regularly employed to convey water from the rivers or conduits to houses in cone shaped three-gallon tankards, hooped round like a pail with a small iron handle and a bung or stopple. London’s water bearers and their tankards are alluded to in Ben Johnson's comedy of Every Man in his Humor.[7]

An old reservoir south of Lea Bridge, thought to be as old as the fifteenth century, was backfilled in the nineteenth century.[8] This was presumably associated with mills, or possibly a fishery, but (given the Lea was susceptible to drought) may possibly be associated with water storage and supply because.

Hackney was an early source of London’s water supply with conduits constructed from about 1236. Water was brought from Hackney to a conduit erected in 1535 in Aldgate. An Act of 1543, in the reign of Henry VIII, empowered citizens to bring water to, and erect conduits in, the City.

A series of unrealised schemes were developed to extract water at Lea Bridge and channel it to the City of London. In 1551, the City of London sponsored legislation to construct a canal from the River Lea to London. Parliamentary opposition thwarted the original ambitious scheme. In 1609, an Act was passed for bringing a fresh stream of water by engine from Hackney Marsh to the City of London for the benefit of the King's College at Chelsea, between Lock Bridge near Hackney and Bow Bridge at Stratford.[9]

The London Bridge Waterworks, erected by Peter Maurice in 1582, provided the first supply to dwelling houses by means of small lead pipes with water raised by a waterwheel worked by the tide. Water was raised to a height of 120 feet in a retort tower by 16 force pumps.[10] This pattern of impounded water, waterwheels, tower, force pumps, reservoirs and a piped supply to dwellings was to be replicated at Lea Bridge in 1707.

An Act of 1756 required the City to pen up the water but the blocking up of the arches became a nuisance to navigation and the works were destroyed after an Act of Parliament of 1822. Among a sequence of subsequent additions at London Bridge, Smeaton added a large wheel to the fifth arch in 1767 and, at the same time, an atmospheric engine was erected.

The New River, conceived by Sir Hugh Myddleton in 1605, was eventually completed by 1613, with the Governor and Company of the New River incorporated in 1619. All other parties were prohibited from bringing water for the supply of the ‘Cities of London’. In 1738, arrangements were made with the trustees of the River Lee Navigation to enable the New River Company to abstract water from the Lea.


[1] London Regional Flood Risk Appraisal. October 2009

[2] A History of the County of Essex: Volume 6: Leyton: Introduction, pp. 174-184, Fn 23. W.R.Powell (Editor). 1973

[3] Evidence of Nathaniel Beardmore, engineer to the River Lee Navigation, Rivers Commission: Minutes of Evidence. 11th December 1866

[4] The Eclectic Magazine of Foreign Literature, Science, And Art, Volume 10. July 1869

[5] British History On Line Middlesex Economic History

[6] A survey of the cities of London and Westminster, borough of Southwark, and parts adjacent. Robert Seymour Esquire Vol.2 M,DCC,XXXV 1735

[7] The London encyclopaedia, or, Universal dictionary of science, art,literatureand practical mechanics, Part 25. Thomas Curtis (editor)

[8] Essex Wharf, Lea Bridge Road, Clapton, An Archaeological Desk-Based Assessment. Steve Preston, Thames Valley Archaeological Services Ltd

[9] The Navigation Of The River Lee (1190 – 1790). Occasional Paper New Series No. 36, Edmonton Hundred Historical Society. J.G.L.Burnby and M.Parker. 1978

[10] On the Supply of Water to the Metropolis. The Civil engineer and architect's journal, Volume 3, February 1840 (p.11). Thomas Wicksteed

leabridge.org.uk December 2012