The transformation of London's water supply, 1805-1821

Graham-Leigh, John David (1985). The transformation of London's water supply, 1805-1821. MPhil thesis The Open University.



In 1805 London was supplied with water by several old-established companies which used the traditional method of distribution by gravity, through wooden pipes, from reservoirs which were at no great elevation above the districts supplied. The New River Company was by far the largest of these. Supplies were intermittent and unreliable, and many of the suburbs had no piped water supplies at all.

During the period 1805-1811 a number of new companies were set up, initially with the purpose of supplying the neglected areas on the outskirts. They used the latest technology of steam engines and cast iron pipes to give a high-pressure supply, and due to the iron pipes their supplies were more reliable, although they generally kept the intermittent system. They soon began to compete directly with the established companies, causing these to lose many customers and to experience severe financial difficulties. The new companies themselves, however, also had financial problems. They expanded their systems too rapidly, in a period of high prices, so that they needed very large capital investment, their share prices were manipulated by speculators, and no adequate return on their capitals could be gained from water charges, which were in general reduced as an inevitable result of competition.

The old and new companies recognised that the competition was likely to ruin them all, and in 1815-1818 agreed boundaries giving each company an exclusive area of supply. They then substantially increased their charges, which led to furious agitation against them by groups of consumers, A Parliamentary Select Committee investigated the question in 1821 and found that the companies had generally acted reasonably.

As a result of the competition and agreements among the companies, London in 1821 had a much more abundant and regular water supply, using the most up-to-date methods, than ever before.

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