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ICE news - The contractors who laid the water and gas mains of early 19th century London are unsung heroes, says Mike Chrimes.

Much has been said about Britain's leaking water mains, particularly in the London area.

One explanation, frequently cited, is that many mains are 'Victorian'. Whatever the justification for this reasoning, one corollary must be that the Victorians built well for the mains to have lasted so long.

How many of the contractors responsible can be named in the same way as Bazalgette, Hawksley, Simpson, Bateman and other leading public health engineers?

Interestingly, one name associated with the present renewal programme, Clancy Docwra, was also associated with the work of the Victorian water supply.

Thomas Docwra (1813 - 82) was born in Cheshunt, Hertfordshire, and the mainstay of his early career was pipe laying for the New River Company, then London's largest water company.

His father, also named Thomas (1785-1843), probably did similar work, as did his brother Richard. From 1858 Docwra was operating from premises in Balls Pond Road, Islington.

In the 1860s and 1870s his company was working for other firms in London such as Croydon Waterworks, as well as gas companies, including the Imperial and South Metropolitan. He also contracted abroad, in Leipzig and Brno.

Docwra was also a specialist well sinking contractor, as reference to early geological survey memoirs testies.

Docwra was not the first specialist contractor in this area.

Hugh and David McIntosh were working for London gas and water companies from the start of the 19th century, a period when cast iron pipes were coming into their own.

Probably best known for their litigation with IK Brunel and the Great Western Railway, the McIntoshs were major contractors, constructing East India Docks for example. However, they carried out much work in water supply for the Grand Junction Waterworks Company.

Among the McIntosh employees was John Aird (180076). From 1827-48 he worked for the Phoenix Gas Company as an inspector and manager. At the same time, building on his experience with McIntosh, he began mains laying contracts.

In 1848 Aird set up in business as a specialist utilities contractor. In 1846 he took his first water mains contract for the East London Waterworks Company.

Like Docwra he undertook work overseas - Rotterdam, Amsterdam, Hamburg, Altona, Brunswick, Riga and Moscow.

In some cases, as at Berlin, Aird helped form the waterworks company. At Copenhagen he built a major sewer outfall Aird's sons worked with him:

Joseph (1845-1906) was proprietor of Wellington Steel & Iron Works, supplying iron ttings for the utilities contracts.

The second son, John, proved a very enterprising contractor, knighted for his efforts, with a career culminating with the construction of the Aswan Dam.

One of the great Victorian eccentrics, with a sweeping beard, he had a magnicent collection of Victorian art and a theatre attached to his West End home.

Like Docwra the name of Aird continues to be associated with civil engineering, the present Sir John Aird being a member of the ICE.

The McIntoshs, Docwras and Airds of the 19th century caused similar disruption to streets as their present day equivalents.

Few contractors today, however, have to contend with the obstacles that Rigby and Company faced when laying mains across Bow Bridge for the Great Central Company in 1850.

The Bridge was blockaded by labourers hired by the rival Commercial Gas Company and Rigby's men had to storm the barriers when their opponents sought refreshment in local hostelries.

It is easy to obsess on the 'holes in the road' and forget the signi ance of Victorian engineers' achievements in water and gas supply. The leaky shortlived elm pipes of the 17th century and before were inadequate for the Victorian metropolis.

After experimentation with alternative materials, including stone pipes, bizarrely supported by John Rennie, cast iron came into its own in the early 19th century. The mains-laying contractors of the 19th century made improved quality of life possible, initiating the water and gas networks of a modern city.

Pause for thought as you observe Clancy Docwra, Murphy, and colleagues at work today.

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