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CIVIL ENGINEERING

New River Canal

Built in the early 17th Century by Sir Hugh Myddleton, the New River Canal was one of the first projects to bring fresh water to central London from the countryside. It is still in use today.

In 1600, London's water supply came from the Thames, wells within the city walls and springs in the suburbs. Fresh water was in increasingly short supply as the city expanded. Water was sold by carriers who fought and jostled to collect it at the conduits.

The New River Canal was an attempt to carry water into the city from the home counties. Originally a scheme drawn up by the Corporation of the City of London, it was taken on by Sir Hugh Myddleton, a wealthy London merchant who undertook to bring water from the Hertfordshire springs of Chadwell and Amwell to London.

Myddleton was to finance the scheme and retain any profits.

Construction began in 1608 and it took five years to build the 10 ft by 4 ft channel along a 40 mile route from Hertfordshire to Clerkenwell in London in 1613. Difficulties encountered included areas where the ground was 'oozy and muddy', and outcrops of rock. Trees often stood in the way and had to be uprooted and moles undermined the embankments.

The New River Canal was to feed a cistern known as the Ducking Pond at Sadlers Wells, north of the city of London. From there it supplied other areas of London through wooden pipes.

There were two aqueducts on the scheme which were to prove costly to construct. The one at Enfield was over a quarter of a mile long and made from timber with a lead lining. Myddleton was forced to approach King James I to provide finance for half of the 50 tons of lead required. King James' enthusiasm later dwindled when he was tossed from his horse into the frozen canal.

Despite the need for fresh water Myddleton had to overcome considerable opposition as he strove to get the New River Canal built.

Landowners complained that 'the canal would turn their meadows into quagmires' and worried that 'their farms be mangled and their fields be cut up into quillets and small pieces'. Priests said it was an unnatural use of land against the will of God. But Myddleton had considerable political power and was able to push the project ahead.

Unfortunately for Myddleton he did not make much money from the project. It suffered from the fact that the Sadlers Wells cistern was too far from the centre of London. As a result an expensive network of timber pipes had to be laid. The water carriers also complained bitterly about their loss of trade, spreading tales that the water was poisoned.

Since his death the route of the canal was re-engineered and reduced to 27 miles through the skilful use of culverts.

The canal came into its own during the height of the Second World War blitz when three of London's water mains were severed by a single bomb.

Nowadays the canal is maintained by Thames Water and recharges the aquifer beneath Enfield and Haringey. Anna Moorhead

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