Victorian London - Health and Hygiene - Sewers and Sanitation - Water Supply

see also Hector Gavin's Sanitary Ramblings - click here

    I am sure that I do not exaggerate the sanitary importance of water, when I affirm that its unrestricted supply is the first essential of decency, of comfort, and of health; that no civilization of the poorer classes can exist without it; and that any limitation to its use in the metropolis is a barrier, which must maintain thousands in a state of the most unwholesome filth and degradation.
    In the City of London the supply of water is but a fraction of what it should be. Thousands of the population have no supply of it to the houses where they dwell. For their possession of this first necessary of social life, such persons wholly depend on their power of attending at some fixed hour of the day, pail in hand, beside the nearest standcock; where, with their neighbours, they wait their turn—sometimes not without a struggle, during the tedious dribbling of a single small pipe.
Sometimes there is a partial improvement on this plan; a group of houses will have a butt or cistern for the common use of some scores of inmates, who thus are saved the necessity of waiting at a standcock, but who still remain most insufficiently supplied with water.
    Next in the scale of improvement we find water-pipes laid on to the houses; but the water is turned on only for a few hours in the week, so that all who care to be adequately supplied with it must be provided with very spacious receptacles. Receptacles are sometimes provided: and in these, which are often of the most objectionable description, water is retained for the purposes of diet and washing, during a penod which varies from twenty-four to seventy-two hours. One of the most important purposes of a water-supply seems almost wholly abandoned that, namely, of having a large quantity daily devoted to cleanse and clear the house-drains and sewers; and in many cases where a waste-pipe has been conducted from the water-butt to the privy, the arrangement is one which gives to the drainage little advantage of water, while it communicates to the water a well-marked flavour of drainage...
    In inspecting the courts and alleys of the City, one constantly sees butts, for the reception of water, either public, or in the open yards of houses, or sometimes in their cellars; and these butts, dirty, mouldering, and coverless; receiving soot and all other impurities from the air, absorbing stench from the adjacent cesspool; inviting filth from insects, vermin, sparrows, cats, and children; their contents often augmented through a rain water-pipe by the washings of the roof, and every hour becoming fustier and more offensive. Nothing can be less like what water should be than the fluid obtained under such circumstances; and one hardly knows whether this arrangement can be considered prefer able to the precarious chance of scuffling or dawdling at a standcock
    It may be doubted, too, whether, even in a far better class of houses, the tenants’ water supply can be pronounced good. The cisternage is better, and all arrangements connected with it are generally such as to protect it from the grosser impurities which defile the water-butts of the poor; but the long retention of water in leaden cisterns impairs its fitness for drinking; and the quantity which any moderate cistern will contain is very generally insufficient for the legitimate requirements of the house during the intervals of supply. Every one who is personally familiar with the working of this system of intermittent supply can testify to its inconvenience; and though its evils press with immeasur­ably greater severity on the poor than on the rich, yet the latter are by no means without experience on the subject...

Dr John Simon, City Medical Reports, 1849

SUPPLY OF WATER. The north or Middlesex side of London is dependent on five sources for water-the New River at Islington, the East London Waterworks at Old Ford on the River Lea, the West Middlesex Waterworks on the Thames at Barnes, the Grand Junction Waterworks on the Thames at Kew, and the Chelsea Waterworks on the Thames at Chelsea. The Southwark and Lambeth or Surrey side of London is dependent on two sources-the Southwark Waterworks on the Thames at Battersea, the Lambeth Waterworks on the Thames between Waterloo and Westminster Bridges. London is therefore supplied by seven different companies. The daily supply is 44,573,979 gallons per day, of which the largest, the New River Company, contributes about 13 millions. The City is entirely supplied from the New River and the River Lea! not by the Thames. Of the 16,701 houses or tenements within the City supplied with water by separate service pipes, the NewRiver supplies 15,684. The old sources of supply were the River of Wells, better known as the Fleet River, Walbrook water, Langbourne water, Holywell, Clement's Well, and Clerk's Well, Tyburn and the River Lea. .... the New River even now is unable to supply more than two-thirds of its com plement of population. ... In the year 1708 Southwark obtained its chief supply of water from pipes laid over London Bridge, from a small waterwork at the Bank Side, and from cuts or ditches flooded by the tides of the Thames. There are at present (1850) two rival companies for supplying London with water, - one called "the Henley and London Aqueduct Commission," and the other "The Metropolitan Water and Mapledurham Company." Both draw from the Thames, - one from Henley, the other from Mapledurham, near Reading, and both have reservoirs on the north side of London ; the Henley Commission at West-end, Hampstead, and the Mapledurham Company at Primrose Hill. The Henley Commission propose taking 100,000,000 of gallons in 24 hours, and the Mapledurham Company to extract a third of the river. The Mapledurham plan would lower the water at Teddington Lock seven inches. Taking, as we do at present, our water from the Thames at or near London, is making a noble, though dirty, river at once our cesspool and our cistern.
Strangers coming to live in London should beware of drinking the unwholesome water furnished to the tanks of houses from the Thames. Good drinking water may be obtained from springs and pumps in every quarter of the town, by sending for it.

Peter Cunningham, Hand-Book of London, 1850

see also George Godwin in London Shadows - click here

see also Dickens's Dictionary on the New River - click here

Victorian London - Publications - Social Investigation/Journalism - Street Life in London - by J.Thomson and Adolphe Smith, 1877    

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THE old wooden water-cart will be rapidly superseded by a perfectly-constructed iron tank fixed on the framework of a specially-fitted cart. The tank, besides containing a larger supply of water, is not liable to leakage, while the span of its perforated tube behind, and the force of the water discharged, are all admirably adapted for the efficient watering of roads.
    Independently of the rain which frequently cleanses the metropolis, and the gentle showers that lay the dust, the enormous quantity of water annually poured on the roads of London constitutes an important drain upon the water supplied to the metropolis.
    The men employed on the water-carts work according to the state of the weather. Thus, in summer under a hot dry wind, they emerge at early morning from the vestry yards and radiate over the parishes. During wet weather some are employed in cleansing the roads, others in carting materials for the contractors who supply the building trade. These are the hands who find constant employment under one master at weekly wages ranging from eighteen to twenty-three shillings. In justice to the contractors, I must express my admiration of the carts men, and horses used in this branch of road labour.
    The accompanying illustration is a fair specimen of the modern water-cart and its accessories. The cart is, I believe, protected by a patent, and is assuredly of the most novel construction. The horse is typical of the class of animal used for the work-large and powerful, so as to stand the strain of incessant journeyings two and fro, and of the weight of water in the tank. The man is a fair type of his class, being attired in a manner peculiar to watering-men. Beyond the ability to groom and manage a well-fed docile horse, nothing approaching skilled labour is required. He sits on his perch all day long, only descending when it is necessary to refill his cart at the hydrants.
    I was fortunate in making the acquaintance of a young water-carman, who commenced life as a butcher, but disliking the trade, he left and took to cart- driving. He was a singularly-handsome young fellow, attired in a manner at once simple, careful, and betokening the cleanness of his occupation. I found him when he had nearly finished his day's work, whistling gaily while his cart was filling at a hydrant. He informed me that his hours of labour were from five o'clock in the morning to seven at night. First of all his custom was to tend his horse and prepare for the day's journey. At an early hour he received instructions regarding his day's work. If his services were required on the roads, he started out with his water-cart, taking first the main roads along his beat, and gradually making his way round into less-frequented streets, until the dust had been effectually laid through the length and breadth of his ward. The work is constant and monotonous while it lasts, and one hour and a half only for meals is allowed. As soon as his cart had gone the rounds, and discharged on an average forty-three fills of the tank, he returned to the yard, and had again to start off with another load-it might be of bricks or sand. For this final load he received extra pay, his weekly wages being twenty-three shillings. He gave me the following account of his mode of life:-
    "I may say, sir, I have no proper home. My father and mother are both living. But mother for many years has done all the work." He modestly confessed, a blush mantling his cheek, to helping his mother. He indeed gave her regularly the extra three shillings of his weekly earnings. "As to my father," he continued, "I had to leave home on his account. I quarrelled with him, and never could have saved a penny while I lived under his roof. I had a small cash-box containing my savings - some three pounds odd; my father one morning broke open the box and helped himself to one pound. I never could feel the same to him after that, I felt savage and sorry too. So I left the old people, and took a lodging not far off. My mate, in the same employ, and me, pay half-a-crown a week each for one room, washing, and cooking. It must pay the landlady, because we are no trouble. She cooks, we buy the meat just as we feel inclined. My washing is not heavy-two shirts, two pairs of stockings, one slop jacket, and the kerchief I have about my neck. It costs me, all told, about twelve shillings a week for my living, the rest I mostly save. I have laid by about eight pounds this last twelve months; I mean to put it in the bank, that, please God, when I am old, I may need no man's help."
    It is refreshing to come across a man of this stamp, kind-hearted, independent, and steady. "If I have ever done any good," he said, "it's my mother I have to thank for that. She managed to keep us straight when we could do nothing for ourselves, and when things looked black enough."
    Another weather-beaten waterman told me he had been off and on twenty years with the cart. In his young days he served a corn-chandler. "But the hours was killing; and my gov'nor would ha' took more if he could. Seventeen hour a day sometimes, what do ye think of that ? I left when I got this job, waterin' in summer, and cartin' in winter." I remarked on the fine condition of his horse. "Bless ye, yes," he said; "you see, sir, my family is all grow'd up like and away, and I takes to this beast uncommon." I said that he was uncomplimentary to his family. "Not a bit, not a bit! Some on em ad not the manners o' that beast, but they was mainly good. That os knows my and as well as if he war a dog; he knows my foot too, and w'en I wakes im he pricks up is ears, and a'most smiles he do w'en I says a cheery word. I believe that os understands all I say, and if he could speak would give me as good a character as my master. But I don't want no new place, I am comfor'able, e and I gets on like brothers. That is the os for me."

see also Cassell's Household Guide - click here

see also George Sims in How the Poor Live - click here

see also James Greenwood in The Wilds of London - click here

    A CHAT ABOUT WATER-PIPES AND RESERVOIRS.—’ Such a wonderful thing happened to-day when we were coming from school,’ said Jack Reynolds to his father as they walked in the garden after dinner.
    ‘What was that?' asked Mr. Reynolds.
    ‘Nothing so very wonderful,’ said Charlie, Jack’s elder brother; ‘only a spurt of water. A watercart man had filled his barrel and hadn’t put the screw on tightly, and Joe Lang meddled with it; he’s always up to some mischief. It was fun, though,’ added Charlie; ‘such a big splash! We got our boots and stockings quite wet.’
    ‘Is that fun?’ asked father. ‘I should imagine wet shoes and stockings would be rather uncomfortable. Were your feet wet, Jack ?’
    ‘No; Mary took my hand, and we looked, but didn’t go near enough to wet ourselves. A man came and told us all to run away. He soon stopped it, but it wetted the street ever so much more than the water-cart did.’
    ‘We ought to be thankful that our city has such a good water supply.’
    ‘Does it rain as much in other places as it does here?’ asked Jack.
    ‘There is a great difference in the rainfall in different parts of the world. The rainfall in England is 31 ¼   inches. What do I mean by that, Charlie? You have learnt something about that in your geography lessons, haven’t you?’
    ‘Yes; you mean that, supposing all the rain in England could stand where it fell for a year, and not sink through into the ground, it would measure 31 ¼  inches in depth'
    ‘Nearly a yard of water!’ said Jack in surprise.
    ‘Yes; or let us put it differently: on one acre of land—that is the size of the playground—we should have 706,937 gallons of water. In what part of England is the greatest rainfall, Charlie?’
    ‘Somewhere in Cumberland—I forget the name of the place.’
    ‘Stye, at the head of Borrowdale in Cumberland, is the wettest spot in England; the rainfall is 165 inches. In London it is only 25 inches. In some parts of the country where there are no wells, brooks, or springs, water storage is a matter of great consideration. In such places the people have to depend on the roof for supply, and the houses ought to be provided with cisterns large enough to contain a supply for fifteen or sixteen weeks. The quantity of rain-water falling upon a slated roof is generally sufficient for that house.’
    We don’t use rain-water, do we, father? It would taste so smoky coming through our city atmosphere.’
    ‘No; the water we use comes long distances. The water supply for most large towns is brought, as a ide, many miles at very great expense, by means of conduits or water-ways, and stored up. flow is it stored, Jack?’
    ‘In big cisterns,’ said Jack.
    ‘We call them by another name. They are called reservoirs, or tanks for holding a reserve of water. Do you know how we get the water from the reservoirs, Jack? We don’t fetch it, do we?’
    ‘No; we get it out of the tap.’
    ‘How does it get into the tap, though?’ asked Charlie.
    ‘In every large town there are waterworks companies, or a number of men who undertake to supply from the reservoirs pure and wholesome water, not only for the use of the different households, but for the carrying on the great manufactures and other industries, and for public pumps, baths, and wash-houses. The head of every house and every establishment pays at certain times of the year, fixed by the company, a sum of money known as the water rate. This money helps to pay for the expense of bringing it to our houses.’
    ‘I didn’t know we had to pay for water,’ said Jack.
    ‘Large pipes called mains are laid in the principal thoroughfares, and these are connected with many smaller ones. The water is sent along these pipes.’
    ‘How deep are they laid below the surface?’ asked Charlie.
    ‘Generally not less than two feet down. Then there are pipes laid through the houses. It is the duty of every man who builds a house to see that the pipes into his house are well made and in a proper position. These are generally made of lead, but sometimes of copper or wrought-iron. Iron is the worst material that can be used; can you sell me why, Charlie?’
    ‘Because it rusts.’
    ‘Quite right I and should the pipes become blocked with rust the stream of water would be very poor. Pipes should be of equal thickness throughout, and no pipe should weigh less than five pounds to every yard; many are made much heavier, and are therefore stronger. But there are dishonest builders and plumbers, who sometimes make their pipes very thin and slight where they cannot be seen; and so, when the frost comes the worthless pipes are at once cut with the ice, and as it thaws again the water pours through the cracks, and often great damage is done and needless expense caused.’
    Can they find out at the reservoirs when there is a waste?’
    ‘They are able to measure the quantity sent out daily, and if a waste is suspected, men are employed to go round and find it out. Wilful waste of water may be punished by law, and the waterworks company may cut off the supply where there is any long-continued waste.’
    ‘how did people in olden times keep a water supply?’ asked Charlie.
 ‘We read in ancient history of huge metal vases for the storage of water. In India and Egypt large tanks or cisterns are found. Cisterns of very ancient date are to be seen in Peru and Chili. They were used in Greece; and in Rome there are nine large underground cisterns made thousands of years ago. Can you tell me of any great cistern we read of in the Bible, Charlie?’
Charlie shook his head.
    ‘The brazen sea made for Solomon was really a cistern. It was of very great size, nine feet deep and sixteen feet round, and splendidly ornamented with cast lilies. Many of the contrivances now in use for sending water along pipes were known to the ancients.’
    ‘Where does all the dirty water which has been used go to?’ asked Jack. It goes through pipes, doesn’t it? Don’t they ever get mixed?’
    ‘It is a very wicked thing when such is the case. Great care ought to be taken that the drain-pipes conveying the dirty or sewage water away shall be quite separate from those which bring the clean, pure water. If the pipes cross each other at all, the clean water-pipe is protected by a cast-iron outer pipe strong enough to keep it from becoming fouled. The drainage of large towns is of the greatest importance. Of late years clever and experienced men have made this their chief study, amid now our largest towns are often more healthy than less thickly peopled places. Not very many years ago, when a street was built, the drainage in some cases had to take care of itself. Now when a street is formed the drainage is thought about first.

‘Before London had its system of drainage the Londoners had to get rid of their dirty water and rubbish of all kinds by means of brooks and ditches, which carried all to the Thames. Then when these ditches became so horribly filthy that the people could stand it no longer, improvements were made in the methods of carrying sewage water away. But meanwhile the Thames . grew dirtier; for as fast as the sewage was cast into the river it kept coming up and down with the tide, and when the river rose to more than its usual height the drains were choked with the horrible mass of filthy matter, amid people died in great numbers from cholera and fever. But forty years ago a scheme was begun for mending matters, and improvements have constantly been made since then. There are more than 1,300 miles of drains in London, amid the water rushing through the network of tubing, and keeping them clear, would fill a lake fifteen times larger than the Serpentine in Hyde Park. There are maps drawn and kept of all the drains of every description.’

Uncle Jonathan, Walks in and Around London, 1895 (3 ed.)

We lived then in London at Chesterfield House, South Audley Street, which covered three times the amount of grund it does at present, for at the back it had a very large garden, on which Chesterfield gardens are now built. In addition to this, it had two wings at right angles to it, one now occupied by Lord Leconfield's house, the other by No.s 1 and 2, South Audley Street. The left-hand wing was used as our stables and contained a well which enjoyed an immense local reputation in Mayfair.  Never was such drinking water! My father allowed any one in the neighbourhood to fetch their drinking water from our well, and one of my earliest recollections is watching the long daily procession of men-servants in the curious yellow-jean jackets of the "sixties", each with two large cans in his hands, fetching the day's supply of our matchless water. No inhabitants of Curzon Street, Great Stanhope Street or South Audley Street would dream of touching any water but from the famous Chesterfield House spring. In 1867 there was a serious outbreak of Asiatic cholera in London, and my father determined to have the water of the celebrated spring analysed. There were loud protests at this:- what, analyse the finest drinking-water in England! My father, however, persisted, and the result of the analysis was that our incomparable drinking-water was found to contain thirty per cent. of organic matter. The analyst reported that fifteen per cent. of the water must be pure sewage. My father had the spring sealed and bricked up at once, but it is marvel that we had not poisoned every single inhabitant of the Mayfair district years before.

Frederick Spencer Hamilton, The Days Before Yesterday, 1930