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The East London Waterworks Scandal

April 9, 2022
by Nick Higham

Nick Higham author of The Mercenary River – Private Greed, Public Good: A History of London’s Water reveals a salient lesson from history, warning of the dangers of privatised water companies who invariably put profit above safety.

The largest cylinder ever made for a water-pumping engine, 1849 (courtesy of London Museum of Water & Steam)


Take a walk along the banks of the River Lea in the shadow of the Olympic stadium and your gaze might land on a collection of ancient pipes straddling the river, graffitied and begrimed. They look out of place beside the manicured lawns and landscaped pathways of the Olympic Park.

These pipes are all that remain of a waterworks on which hundreds of thousands of East Enders once depended for almost a century and which, in London’s last cholera outbreak in 1866, was responsible for the deaths of nearly 3,800 people.

The East London Waterworks was first set up at Old Ford in 1806. It was one of a raft of new water companies founded in east, west and south London to serve the expanding metropolis, and one of the more ramshackle. Its engineer was fired before he had laid a yard of water main. Its chairman was forced to resign following an insider share trading scandal and later fled the country when it was revealed that he had also embezzled thousands of pounds of public money. Later members of the board included Joseph Merceron, a corrupt magistrate and slum landlord dubbed the ‘Boss of Bethnal Green.’

Towards the end of its life, the company struggled to get enough water from the Lea to keep the East End supplied. It had to build an eighteen-mile pipeline to bring water from the Thames at Hanworth in the eighteen-sixties and large storage reservoirs in the Lea valley – now Walthamstow Wetlands – where a couple of the company’s old pumping stations still loom over the waterfowl. Even those measures proved insufficient in a series of droughts in the eighteen-eighties and nineties when the company had to ration water.

The East London Waterworks, one of eight private London water companies, was not all bad. In 1829, it recruited the young Thomas Wicksteed as its chief engineer and he introduced the latest high-pressure steam pumping engines developed for use in Cornwall’s mines. These engines were more than twice as powerful as the previous generation of steam-driven pumps built by the Birmingham partnership of Boulton & Watt and two-thirds more efficient. A handful survive and have been restored, massive constructions of cast iron and brass. You can see them at work at the London Museum of Water & Steam at Kew Bridge.

The East London Waterworks was also a pioneer of ‘constant supply.’ Originally, water in London was delivered only a few hours every two or three days. Turncocks toured, turning the water on and off street by street. In the eighteen-fifties, the East London Waterworks was the first to take on the challenge of keeping its mains charged permanently so water was always available to customers at the turn of a tap.

But the 1866 cholera outbreak marked a low point in the company’s history. In the eighteen-forties and fifties, the tidal reaches of the River Lea had become increasingly tainted with sewage and toxic discharges. Prompted by legislation, the company moved its intake upriver to Lea Bridge, beyond the reach of the tide. There it installed filter beds to purify its water – today the beds have been left to run wild, part sculpture park, part nature reserve.

But the water from Lea Bridge still entered a covered aqueduct leading down to the company’s original reservoirs at Old Ford, from which it was pumped into the mains. Somehow the water in these holding tanks became tainted with cholera.

There are several possible explanations. One was contamination from sewage discharges upstream, perhaps from new houses built as homes for the 1,500 employees at the government’s arms factory at Enfield. Another was that water from the polluted river was seeping through the walls of the reservoirs at Old Ford. It was a problem made worse by the fact that this was the last place where London’s magnificent new sewerage system by Joseph Bazalgette was not yet finished and untreated sewage still poured into the Lea.

Yet an official inquiry established the likeliest cause of the contamination was negligence on the part of Wicksteed’s successor as chief engineer who allowed his foreman, on a nod and a wink, to top up the Old Ford reservoirs – illegally – with unfiltered water when supplies ran short.

Not everyone accepted that the company’s water was to blame. Even though official statistics showed that ninety per cent of those who died from the cholera were in the East London Waterworks’ area. Many – including several medical officers of health in the East End – refused to accept the findings of Dr John Snow, published before his death in 1858, that cholera was a waterborne disease.

The City of London’s medical officer insisted the water could not be the cause because he had analysed it and found it free of impurities, but he was also on the East London Waterworks’ payroll.

The company’s directors appear – from the minutes of their meetings – to have been blithely unperturbed by the revelation that their service might be killing the customers. They scarcely discussed the issue, and contented themselves with passively approving whatever steps their engineer took in response to the outbreak. It was not an untypical response from the capitalists of the era. This was one reason why the East London Waterworks disappeared in 1904, when with all the London water companies were taken over by the publicly-owned Metropolitan Water Board. The shareholders were richly rewarded.

Today, London’s water is again in private hands and campaigners report that the Lea is contaminated by discharges of untreated sewage.

The pipes that brought the cholera to the East End, still in use today

East London Waterwoks Coppermills pumping station in Walthamstow

East London Waterworks manhole cover at the junction of Old St and Hoxton St

Announcement of water shortage, 1896

Thomas Wicksteed’s drawing of a Cornish high-pressure steam pumping engine (courtesy of London Museum of Water & Steam)

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8 Responses leave one →
  1. April 9, 2022

    Most interesting. The last sentence if food for thought. Water, electricity, public transport, etc. cannot be in private hands. Have a good week end.

  2. Ann Caird permalink
    April 9, 2022

    An excellent ‘teaser’ to what is undoubtedly an excellent researched & penned book. Looking forward to hearing Nick in person & buying several copies of this book.
    Thank you.

  3. Bernie permalink
    April 9, 2022

    Two comments:
    1. It is only marginally relevant, but I have just discovered (from Smiles’ Engineers, John Murray, 1904) that London’s New River is much older than, as a resident of Stoke Newington, I had ever imagined or knew. Apparently it was first created in the early to mid 1600’s, and partly financed by King James I.
    2. Sewage contamination is surely to be expected when houseboats are permitted, even if they are nominally required to use self-contained toilet devices.

  4. Gillian Tindall permalink
    April 9, 2022

    Excellent survey of such an important subject. And how typical that the notorious Merceron, about whom there is a Spitalfields Publication, should have been involved in this scandalous situation!

  5. Mark permalink
    April 9, 2022

    Fascinating story.
    A warning from history.
    Continued by your local Tory vermin.

  6. April 9, 2022

    The East London Waterworks reservoir facility was at Hanworth Rd, near Kempton Park and initially pumped Thames water from Sunbury…later fed from Staines and amalgamated with the separately established Kempton Park waterworks when the MWB was formed

  7. Marcia Howard permalink
    April 10, 2022

    Nothing much changes, does it? The Fat Cats try to hoodwink and continue to fleece us, and plagues continue in one form or another…

  8. Marcia Howard permalink
    April 10, 2022

    I do however love the architecture of some our Waterworks Pumping Stations!

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