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A healthy Victorian attitude to profit

A chance referral from independent consultant Chris Binnie prompted me to look at the organisation of Britain’s water supply a century ago, particularly in the London area.


Across Britain there was a mixture of private and municipal ownership of water supply that had developed over a period of time, but was affected by the rapid industrialisation and associated urban growth of the nineteenth century.

In 1915 there were 800 public-owned water utilities, reflecting the growth in municipalisation. The contribution of civil engineers - notably James Simpson, Thomas Hawksley and John Latrobe Bateman - to the provision of safe drinking water through filter beds and the design of safer, larger dams are well-known. Issues of stress in water supply and the relatively later emergence of constant water supply are less so.

Private water companies

In the late 19th century, London was served by several private water companies serving a defined district. The New River had from the start, drawn its supplies from outside London. The growth of the city and state of the river Thames obliged companies serving south and west districts to seek sources further up the river. In the second half of the century most shallow wells were closed. The process towards purification was encouraged by the 1871 Metropolis Water Act, which set up the role of a water examiner. In the late 19th century a major reservoir construction programme took place west of London.

Customers of the East London Company were affected by a series of droughts from 1887/1898. Paradoxically, this company had made most progress towards constant supply since the 1860s. The river Lea was, after the Thames, London’s chief source of supply. Unfortunately, the East London Company’s intake was below that of the New River, which meant it was harder hit by low flows. The newly formed London County Council (LCC) felt the metropolitan water companies were unable to offer a holistic view of the state of the Metropolis’ water supply and were neglecting public health. In 1894, Alexander Binnie, LCC chief engineer, reviewed potential sources. He favoured a scheme costing £18M, drawing water from the Wye. The persistence of droughts led to a further report by Benjamin Baker and GF Deacon in 1897, which supported the idea.

Political agenda

While the LCC pursued what was effectively a political agenda, the East London Company’s engineer WilliamBryan, took steps to remedy the situation. In 1898 a junction of mains with the Kent and Southwark Company enabled some water transfer. Reservoir works were brought before Parliament in 1893, but delayed by the LCC and not completed until 1896.

Political pressure for public ownership, supported by both main parties, in part response to profiteering, led to passage of the 1902 Metropolis Water Act by the Conservative government and the establishment of the Metropolitan Water Board (MWB). The companies were bought out for £30.7M, partly financed by the issue of bonds. Bryan was appointed Engineer. Inevitably the MWB had to consider the LCC scheme of Binnie, Baker and Deacon, but Bryan persuaded them that there was no need to turn to Wales - judicious construction of further reservoirs in the Lea Valley and Thames could deliver constant supply.

What’s striking about laissez-faire Victorian capitalism period, is that political parties came to a consensus that where public health was at stake, private profit was inappropriate.

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