Water, Moral Economy and the New River
North London’s New River was built between 1609 and 1613, in an attempt to alleviate, but also to cash in on, the shortage of water in the City of London.
Looking backwards, the development of piped water supplies, to replace wells and medieval conduits seems to us like an incontrovertibly progressive move. But not everyone was in favour at the time, especially those whose livelihoods were affected…
The digging of the New River subverted existing ‘moral economies’, which operated around water, its availability, and how it was delivered to where it was needed; undermining existing assumptions about the distribution of this vital resource, expectations shared by people from differing classes of society, with forms of exchange based on hard cash only. The New River’s creation was integral to the rise of capitalism, as it was then beginning to replace older forms of class relations – in fact how the river was financed was influential in that process.
But just as capitalism always finds ways to exploit natural resources, opening up markets and avenues for profit where none had previously existed, so the New River itself, and the shareholders’ dividends, were subverted, by locals who lived along its banks. Despite the New River Company’s determination to maintain control over its product – water – the new waterway was ‘unlawfully’ used during its whole existence, for the washing of clothes and bodies, for pleasure and as the centre of a disorderly social life.
…Nor any drop to drink…?
Water has always been a precious commodity, in London as everywhere else. For centuries, until the late Middle Ages, London had relied on supplies from the river Thames, smaller rivers like the Fleet or Walbrook, or from springs (of which a number could be found near to the City), or wells sunk into nearby areas of loam.
From the thirteenth century, as London began to grow rapidly in size and importance, these supplies became insufficient to support the increasing population and industry. Both the Thames and its main tributaries, especially the Fleet, running just to the west of the City wall, became also more and more polluted, since they served as both water supply AND drainage solution all in one. At any given point in the rivers, one lot of folk would be drawing water to drink, wash, clean, cook, while another would be emptying faces and urine, household waste, dead animal parts, blood, washing their clothes and themselves; there was also the dumping of refuse from ships in the Thames, run-off from the gutters in the streets… For centuries London authorities attempted (with varying success) to impose an effective control of this process, legislating as to what could be dumped, where, who was responsible for building toilets, regulating fines for littering the streets, polluting the streams, etc. In the fourteenth century the king, via the City officials, had issued a proclamation banning anyone from chucking rubbish, muck or human/animal waste into the Thames, the Fleet, and other City streams: “without throwing anything into the Thames for the saving of the body of the river . . . and also for avoiding the filthiness that is increasing in the water and upon the Banks of the Thames, to the great abomination and damage of the people.”
That so many orders were issued and fines imposed suggests they were often flouted; it’s also true that people had little alternative but to discharge waste into the rivers. There was no separate sewage system – until the mid-19th century.
The Walbrook, a small river which ran through the centre of the City, was the object of repeated clean-up campaigns and laws against dumping. These regulations though were often contradictory. By the early fourteenth century, individual toilets were built all along its banks, the stream acting as a sewer. Around 1345, those people caught with such facilities were forced to remove them. But by 1374, the authorities recognised people’s right to install privies over the Walbrook – only they were forced to pay for the right to do so, and later, as long as they dumped no other refuse into it. Eventually, however, all latrines over the stream were again abolished.
The Walbrook gradually disappeared under London as it grew and grew: by the seventeenth century, the Walbrook was completely hidden underground.
The official solution was to cart all such pollutants out of the city (and dump it elsewhere?!) or to places where it would be put in “dung boats”. Rakers (medieval bin-men) and gong-fermers (who cleaned cess-pools and gutters) bore the brunt of this enriching work.
On top of this, for the Thames, and the Fleet in its lower reaches, those drawing water had to be careful to take it at the right time in the ebb and flow of the tide; otherwise water used for cooking, ale-making etc could be too salty. One medieval complainant recorded that “the tide from the sea prevailed to such a degree that the water of the Thames was salt; so much so that many folks complained of the ale tasting like salt.”
Although the freedom of water had its place in moral ideology, (see below), there were always entrepreneurs ready to try it on for a quick buck. In 1343, residents living along the streets leading to the Thames tried to close the streets and extract a toll from everyone going to the river for water.
As a result of these issues, the Great Conduit was built (construction began in the mid-13th century). Pipes connected the spring at Tybourne with the Great Conduit House in Cheapside, from which the water flowed through pipes for a distance of a mile or more. At the terminus, the water was stored in a larger cistern equipped with cocks or taps for dispensing the water.
Later several other conduit systems were built, all fed by a natural spring, which supplied a cistern or tank, from which pipes were gradually dispersed the water to another conduit in the city.
Free as Conduit Water
These water conduits, so important to daily life before piped water, had become practically and symbolically central to the areas in which they were situated. They were places people had to go to, especially the poor, who could obtain no private water supply. They became centres of gossip, rumour, meeting points, where collective feeling and strength could become action and protest and riot could arise. A neighbourhood’s common interest was expressed here – collective sanctions against local ‘offenders’, petty crims and moral transgressors were often enacted around the conduit. The importance of water made the conduits representative of the moral economy of a neighbourhood. On top of this, water itself was subject to moral community constraints – it was seen as something that should be freely available: “free as conduit water” was a popular expression. Like bread, it was viewed as an essential; collective opposition to its commercial exploitation was common, and from this came regular direct action to maintain everyone’s recognised right to access to it.
They were also resorts of the young (especially young apprentices) and of women, as carrying water was seen their work. Apprentices resented being forced to carry water; but apprentice culture also built initiation rituals and bonding, mythology around the conduit. Women also clearly found conduits to be places to meet each other, discuss and maybe find common cause; Mark Jenner suggests this represented an alternative power centre maybe in some way, though counter to that, you’d have thought any piped water supply in their home would probably have made their work easier – if only in terms of less carrying to and fro. It has been claimed, though, that the increase in piped water supplies changed the nature of women’s work… piped water led to higher expectations of domestic cleanliness, which would have had a knock on effect on women’s domestic work. (A thorny question, to be sure; one contemporary feminist critic – this writer’s other half – ridicules the idea that lugging water from a tap in the street, no matter how many other women you might meet there, is in any way empowering. However… what makes actual work lighter can change the socialising rituals associated with traditional ways of doing that work… Obvious improvements can sometimes lead to, for instance, an isolation emerging from having a washing machine in your home, where the communal laundry might have meant meeting others, getting to know people, discussing, looking out for each other, and so on…)
The conduits became places with their own ritual – their inspection by city officials became heavily ritualised and potent. Punishments for various crimes were also often carried out near to conduits, and they were used as landmarks for giving directions, orienting you in the City.
Cockney ****in’ Tankards
Water was provided to individual households by water-carriers, sometimes known as “cobs,” which were paid to deliver water from the river or from conduits to customers. Some hawked water through the streets, in a large tankard on their shoulders; others would lug two 3-gallon wooden tubs hung from a yoke over their shoulders. The London tankard bearers or water carriers were an organised force, a fraternity who had their own guildhall in the 1490s, though they had to sell it in 1560 when the fraternity split between freemen and non-freemen. The ‘cobs’ campaigned actively around access to water and their right to carry it… sometimes using violence to maintain their rights, as they saw them, but rooting this firmly in an accepted moral framework.
Around 1600, a water bearers’ petition to Parliament reckoned the number of them and their dependents at 4000.
The petition called the authorities’ attention to some of the failings of the conduit system:
“. . . most of the water is taken, and kept from the said conduits in London by many private branches and cockes, and laid into private dwellings, being suffered also to runne at waste, to the general grievance of citizens, and all others repairing to the same…”
The water bearers complained of a number of specific cases of illicit connection to the conduits, which not only made the supply scarce but also deprived the cobs of part of their traditional livelihood. Apparently water scarcity at the conduits was leading to disputes between the carriers, jostling to fill their tankards before others in the queue:
“At the conduit striving for their turn_
The quarrel it grows great_
That up in arms they are at last_
And one another beat.”
Where There’s a Quill…
The wealthy could obviously get around the hassle of collecting water from conduits (apart from the fact that they’d send their servants!). By the sixteenth Century those who could afford it usually paid water bearers to collect it for them – those who didn’t have their own wells could often pay to have a private pipe or ‘quill’ branched off the supplies to the City conduits. These big users would however often be targeted at times of water shortage, accused of hogging the flow of water or wasting it on frivolous pastimes… Private quills could be cut off by City officials, due to moral pressure exerted by the lower orders.
Beyond the class distinctions that caused obvious resentment, commercial and industrial users of water were also accused of misuse, or overuse, of the precious liquid… After much dispute, the City authorities decided to enforce peace at the taps, by appointing keepers of the conduits, whose main duty was to guard against water being hogged by commercial interests. In the early fourteenth century, an order was issued making brewers, cooks, and fishmongers pay for the water they used, at the discretion of the keeper of the conduit. (This presumably was a classic recipe for bribery, but there you go).
If the rich could, largely (though not always) legally, obtain an authorised quill, having running water piped direct to your home was so desirable that Londoners illegally tapped the conduits. In 1478, a man was brought before city officials and charged with having diverting water from a conduit where it passed his house into his private well. He was found guilty, and the nature of his punishment reflects the moral constraints on water use, which were expressed partly in the legal code, as well as informally. The culprit was “placed on horseback, with a vessel shaped like a conduit on his head. At each of the city’s conduits he was required to proclaim his crime while water from the vessel dripped over his face.”
…There’s A Riot
In 1547, during a time of water supply problems, two girdlers were imprisoned for gathering a crowd at the Cheapside Standard and issuing seditious words on the subject of water and how it was distributed. In 1561, an alleged plot by young men and water bearers to start a water riot, aimed at the destruction of the private quill of Lord Paget, which was popularly believed to have caused the Fleet Street conduit, to which it was connected, to dry up. The riot was prevented by local aldermen (the City of London councillors).
Gradually the moral economy around water distribution was eclipsed by new waterworks. The way these works were dreamt up and financed reflected the growth of capitalism and industrial development in sixteenth century England; technical innovation driven by increased need, population and industrial growth, combined with private finance and investment, in a manner relatively new to London.
As London’s size and population expanded, the city authorities grew more and more worried about how to balance the demand for water with its supply. But even more than today, the expense of beginning on large public works projects was huge, and they were reluctant to commit to such cost and effort. However, they were more amenable to allowing private individuals who were interested in making a profit to take the risk. “Capitalism had arrived in the water supply business.”
In 1574, Dutch hydraulics engineer Peter Morice was granted a lease of the northernmost arch of London Bridge, where he placed a water-wheel, designed to raise water, which was then pumped uphill to nearby parts of the City. The city’s water carriers complained about the scheme, which obviously affected their trade. The wheels also faced early design problems, but gradually became more effective, and Morice was granted a lease on two further arches. Water was lifted to the conduit house in Leadenhall Street, by 1582, then Old Fish Street, and other areas of the city. The wheels could turn both ways (to work with the ebb or flow of the tide), and supplied up to 52 pumps, forcing anything up to 132,120 gallons an hour to a height of 120 feet. Later a competitor called Bevis Bulmer set up a pump engine at ‘Bygot House” (roughly where the Millennium Bridge is now).
An artists impression of one of the water wheels that operated under the arches of London Bridge
Even these hugely innovative (and very profitable) developments were increasingly inadequate for London’s demand for water, however. Hence the New River.
The New River was built by Hugh Myddleton & Partners, begun in 1609, and finished in 1613. It brought water from springs at Amwell and Chadwell in Hertfordshire, to reception ponds in Islington, from where it was piped into the City. The Company had difficulty in getting investors to support them; many thought it a bad risk financially. Various landowners along the route of the River also opposed the river being cut through their property. This opposition actually stalled the progress of the river for two years between 1610 and 1612.
King James I at New River Head – coming to check on his investments…
However, after an approach from Myddleton, king James I bought a half-share in the Company (and any prospective profits), which influenced other potential investors, cowed any prospective complainants (after all, who wanted to take on the king?). James also leaned on Londoners, backing up the New River Company’s slightly heavy-handed approach to increasing income: “attempts were made to put pressure on the citizenry to take New River water; and a letter was sent to the city asking the corporation to use its authority to require compulsory purchase of the new water supply”!) Even then, it took twenty years for the number of Londoners connected rose high enough to make a profit for the Company.
By 1638 the New River was supplying 10 per cent of water to houses in the City of London’s jurisdiction. Customers paid a yearly rent for access to water, £1 a year in 1629. This was, however, beyond the means of many even middle-income households.
But by the end of the 17th Century many people were purchasing water from new capitalist water companies… this had arisen during the century as demand increased. Hugh Myddleton’s Company rose to become an important economic force in London. In 1695, the three companies with largest capital were the East India Company (the world’s first multi-national), the Bank of England, and the New River Company. The New River Company existed as a private utility until 1904, when the whole of London’s water supply passed to the Metropolitan Water Board. But the Company continues to exist as a property company, managing its considerable land holdings.
“poor men and women that used to get their Bread”
These innovations didn’t go down well with water bearers. The Mayor and the Lord Chancellor had assured them they would still have plenty of work, but in 1592 they were said to be ‘unruly’, protesting their poverty and lack of work. In 1621 the Water bearers complained again to City officials, this time about the New River, after there was a shortage of water at the City conduits.
On Midsummer Day 1654, water bearers of the ward of St Leonard Eastcheap conducted a mock funeral to mourn the absence of water at the conduits.
They were still agitating in 1682: a petition was sent to aldermen about neglect of the conduits. In the same year “poor men and women that used to get their Bread” as water carriers were described as destitute. Clearly they were losing the battle: piped supplies were taking over and the conduits were being run down. A financially stretched City had totally privatised water supplies and resources for five miles around London. In 1693 the City leased ponds and springs at Hampstead, Hornsey and St Pancras to a consortium. The following year ponds in Dalston, Marylebone and Paddington were leased.
In 1698 tankard bearers of St Giles Cripplegate petitioned the water should be restored to the Conduits. But the conduits were on their way out. In 1730 many were demolished as a nuisance and obstruction, probably to allow building and expansion of the highways, but perhaps also to prevent undesirables gathering there (see below).
Many people, however, even some of those who could afford to buy from the New River Company, refused to do so; the old conduit system and paying water bearers to carry water had been strongly linked to charity and vertical social bonds of cohesion. Many bearers were ex-servants, charity cases, the disabled, the very poor; water carrying was in some ways a ‘make work’ scheme, a complex mix of charity and moral obligation. The idea of a water conduit was even used as a symbol for charity in literature. Taking New River water meant severing these bonds, and even many middle class householders were reluctant to do this; not just because of the unruly water bearers, but because they genuinely felt it was breaking with a tradition worth maintaining. In the early years, under pressure from this morality, Myddleton’s Company had to set up standpipes in the street for water bearers to use.
But for many people, in the City and surrounding areas, piped supplies were still totally out of the question due to poverty. The moral economy of the water supply survived into the 1820s; sympathy to water carriers and preference for carried water as against piped supply was grounded in notions of a communality, in which the conduits had become symbolic social symbols.
As the tankard bearers died out, the rituals of conduit culture were taken over by other groups – the spaces they had occupied were colonised by other collectives. For example, by the 18th Century, the Conduit of upper Cheapside had become the haunt of chimney sweeps. This was partly because it was a good place to tout for business, but also a symbolic reversal. The sweeps had overturned the milkmaids old rituals for Mayday and taken them over in an ironic reversal of cleanliness, ruralness and purity associated with milkmaids to ‘filthy urban waste’; placing themselves next to the ‘cleansing waters’ may have been a similar ironic move.
‘Very little prejudicial to navigation”
The New River also managed to alienate the users of another water course – the nearby River Lea. By 1619, the year of the Company’s incorporation, the number of tenants had increased to over 1,000 and the water provided by the springs was insufficient. It was decided to tap the Lea by diverting part of its water into the New River. A dam was built for the purpose in the Lea. But the Lea was an important waterway for trade goods to reach to London, and from the Thames inland to Essex, Hertfordshire and even further. The river bargemen were understandably upset, and they had a long history of fighting for their rights, often violently. Claiming the dam was an obstruction, but also that the Lea’s water-level had dropped as a result, making navigating it harder, they protested by removing these dams; they were however quickly rebuilt. This dispute though rumbled on for decades; around 1667 another dam between Hertford and Ware erected to divert water into the New River was sabotaged by bargemen. In 1670 the king appointed a committee (which included architect and city planner Christopher Wren) to look into the matter and make a final ruling. This proved a knotty problem, as the Lea barge trade kept food and beer prices in London low by bringing corn and malt in from surrounding counties (and had in fact braved the recent 1665 plague to keep the ailing citizens fed); bit the New River’s water supply was also now indispensable.
In the end, perhaps unsurprisingly, this committee came down firmly on the fence, on the one hand claiming their investigations had ascertained that “the pipes drain off from the navigable river (Lea) about one part of thirty parts, which seems to us very little prejudicial to navigation and which could not abate the river half an inch”, but also recommending that two jetties (instead of a dam) be built to divert water, and the Company’s pipes be reduced in size. But this pleased neither side. It may have been that the bargemen were also backed by the powerful London brewers, who relied on their cheap malt supplies, and probably had grudges against the New River Company over the amount they were charged for their water… (This dispute was actually still being debated sixty years later).
In fact, the Committee identified the culprits for the problems of navigating the Lea as being local millers who had deepened their cuts to take more water out of the Lea than they needed, and would charge to let some of this water back into the river when there were complaints about the level.
“Every stream had its mills, most commonly for grinding corn but also for fulling cloth, or in more highly industrialised areas than the Lee for tilt-hammers and for operating the bellows of blast furnaces. A artificial cut was made from the river to bring the water to a water-wheel, and in an effort to ensure an adequate supply of water at all times, the mill owner usually built a weir across the river to hold back the water and form what amounted to an artificial reservoir.
The centre of the weir was made of planks held in place by beams, which could in theory be removed when a boat needed to pass, in practice the miller was reluctant to remove the barrier and so lose his precious water, especially in times of drought. Rather than planks, some weirs had a single pair of swinging gates or one vertical one; they were known as staunches or flash-locks.
Weirs obviously constituted a barrier to free navigation but they could also confer benefits. In its natural state a river passes through alternate shallow rapids and deep quiet pools in high summer these shallows provide insufficient water to float a barge. It is just at these places that mills were usually built because they gave the sharp fall necessary for the working of the wheels. The mill weir which held back the water and forced it into the leat leading to the wheel also deepened the water upstream for some distance which was helpful to navigation. When a barge approached from below, if the miller felt so inclined he could open the weir and let a rush of water through sufficient to float the boat over the shallows. This was termed a “shoot” or “flash” for which the watermen paid the miller a fee.
It is not surprising that a continuous war was fought between the fishery owners and millers, and the watermen who required an unimpeded passage.” (The Navigation of the River Lee, (1190 – 1790), J.G.L.Burnby and M.Parker, Edmonton Hundred Historical Society Occasional Paper New Series No. 36, which recounts several centuries of disputes around navigation and other water uses in the Lea, including much trouble with the New River Company.)
Of course, looking backwards, piped water supplies were a step forward in terms of public health. But until the nineteenth century, most of London’s working classes and poor were never able to afford a piped connection, and many continued to use conduits out of necessity. In the days before a proper sewerage system this could lay people open to all sorts of water-born diseases, as John Snow found, when he identified the Broad Street conduit, polluted by a local cesspit, to be the origin of a cholera outbreak in 1854 (as well as his comparative study, the year after, of cholera instances in London areas which took some of their water supply from the Thames, and those that moved away from this, which was in many ways more influential in the long term). This discovery not only helped develop understanding of cholera as a disease spread by contaminated water, not miasmas or bad air, but was also pioneering in how statistics and mapping were used to nail down the outbreak’s centre, and was massively influential in the growth of public health and the birth of the science of epidemiology.
Ironically medical journal The Lancet was a major force in doctors’ reaction against these discoveries, initially ridiculing Snow’s findings. Founding editor Thomas Wakley, in many ways a progressive and pioneering doctor (as well as being a radical MP and a supporter of Chartism) thought Snow was obstructing his attempts to clean up foul-smelling industries and improve London’s health. Wakley shared the general belief in miasmas as the cause of cholera and other diseases, and he denounced Snow and questioned his findings as non-scientific. In time Snow was vindicated. The Lancet in fact published such nonsense in its attempt to undermine Snow, and such a curt and ungenerous obituary when he died, prematurely, in 1858, that it had to belatedly apologise.
In April 2013 in fact!
Something In the Water
Piped water supplies may have gradually become more acceptable socially, but age-old fears about the vulnerability of settlements and their water supplies persisted. Poisoning the wells was a charge levelled successively at Jews, nobles, foreigners of all descriptions in times of crisis, especially in the late Middle Ages, times of upheaval, social change, war… Piped water supplies in some ways concentrated this fear on new areas of threat. The New River’s importance in London’s growth and daily existence focussed some of this sense of vulnerability.
Possible threats to the water supply led to rumour, paranoia, and often official panic. Rumours spread that Catholic agitators (the major bogeymen of English society for a couple of centuries) had secretly turned off the stopcocks on the New River, just before the 1666 Great Fire. This was only one of the many allegations about the starting and spreading of the Fire: both Catholics and Dutch protestant immigrants were variously blamed, and victimised, at the time, and to this day the Monument to the Fire still displays the sign blaming it all on the papists. And during the (in origin anti-catholic, though subsequently generally anti-establishment) Gordon Riots in 1780, the military was ordered to protect the New River and London Bridge waterworks after rumours that those damn papists were at it again and planned to sabotage the supply. Troops were stationed at New River Head, at Highbury Frame (the embankment built in Highbury to carry the River across a dip in the land: roughly it ran in an arc from the junction of Somerfield Road and Queens Drive, to the junction of Riversdale Road and Wyatt Road, and was know locally as the ‘Boarded River’), and Bush Hill Frame (in Enfield, where the River crosses Salmon Brook).
But alternatively, there was a contemporary claim that Gordon rioters, not catholics, tried to cut off water supplies from the New River: “… in the midst of horror and confusion, there was an attempt to prevent the extinction of the flames by cutting off the water of the New River…”
(Lord Loughborough’s Charge to the Grand Jury in trials of Gordon Rioters, 10th July 1780, Session House, St Margaret’s Hill.)
According to a report in the Mechanics’ Magazine and Journal of Science, Arts, and Manufactures, Volume 55, 1851, “a panic has sometimes been occasioned by a report that the New River was poisoned, as it happened during the excitement occasioned by Lord George Gordon’s riots; all the water was then for a short time red; this, on examination, was found to have arisen from a quantity of refuse madder, thrown in from a dye-house.”
In 1803, at a time of great fear of French invasion and/or radical revolution/uprising, “persons employed to supply the Metropolis with water… are mostly Irish and… have been heard to declare that in the case of invasion or insurrection they should… assist the enemies of this country by preventing the supply of water in cases of fire.”
[This kind of paranoia didn’t die out in the 19th Century: in the 1960s, sections of the media, especially in the US, became obsessed by the idea that subversives, terrorists or radical hippies could paralyse society by dumping loads of LSD in reservoirs, and that plans had even been made to do so… For some of the story behind this, it’s worth checking out this article.]
Cuttinge the bankes
Once established, the new River gradually became a part of the culture of the areas it passed through, in many ways, not all of them legit. The River’s wooden pipes fanned out from New River Head, across the fields and into the City and its outlying suburbs. For some distance the pipes ran on the surface, sometimes overhead. Tapping both these pipes, or digging channels from the River itself, to underhandedly supply your gaff with water for free was common. Similarly, at a time when most houses, especially those of the lower classes, had no water supply of their own, washing both yourself and your clothes in the River was an obvious solution – it was right there, after all, open to be used. The old moral economy, of water as a free right that belonged to all, revived, and people took free advantage.
“(There are) many abuses and misdemeanors daylie committed and onn in and upon said river (“New River”), by lewde and ill-disposed people, in cuttinge the bankes and letting out the said water, to the inconvenience and prejudice of tennantes, casting in dogges and filth, and lettinge in sewers and other fowle and unclean water, to the annoyance of the said water; breakeinge and carreinge away the bridges, vaultes and rayles standinge in upon the river, taking and carryinge water out of the said river in lickquer cartes, tubbs or barrells, and stealing branches and cockes from the pipes, together with many such abuses and annoyances . . “.
It’s uncertain from the above complaint how much of this was people lifting water for their own use, and how much was vandalism, or using the New River as they had the old London rivers – partly as supply and partly as a sewer.
“Persons Trespassing By Bathing”
But another area of conflict between the River’s owners and its immediate neighbours in pre-suburban North London was its popularity for free and disreputable pleasure-time. Swimming in the River was popular, and associated with not only rowdy picnics but a spot of al fresco sex as well.
A watch-house on the New River, built to house the New River Company’s private security guards hired to deter skinny-dippers… Still standing today.
Already a year after its opening, the New River Company had to pay two labourers to keep swimmers – and dogs! – out during the Whitsun holidays. In 1728, the schoolmaster at Enfield, Mr Davies, was warned to stop his Boarding School pupils from bathing in the River, being warned that “Sundry persons have been lately committed to the New Prison for the same.” By 1770, despite the many notice boards “affixed to posts on different parts of the River about Islington… to prevent persons trespassing by Bathing, or otherwise…”, unofficial use of the river had grown to such proportions that the following proclamation was issued: “Whereas a great Number of idle and disorderly persons have assembled together in the Fields between Islington and Newington and parts adjacent and have by bathing and washing themselves in the New River broke down the banks and done other damages to the said river and have also in a most atrocious and indecent and illegal Manner committed many other offences highly injurious to the property of the Company and to the Public in General. This is therefore to give Notice that the said Company are determined to prosecute with the utmost Severity of the Law, all such persons who for the future shall be found so offending.”
A 40-shilling reward was offered for reporting of those caught and charged, and occasional bathers were nicked, but it doesn’t seem to have put a stop to the skinny-dipping, as eleven years later an advert was inserted three times on the front of the Daily Advertiser, offering rewards for dobbing in offenders, and the fee had risen to £2. The Company claimed that bathers were destroying the banks, widening the river to a dirty lake in parts, and disturbing the riverbed, polluting the water.
Bathing was common not only in the River itself but in the reservoirs and ponds it fed. In 1783, householders near Battle Bridge (modern Kings Cross), whose houses were fed by the West Pond at New River Head, above Amwell Street, complained that their water was running “thick and unclean” which they blamed on the large numbers using the Pond as an open air bath. In response the Company Board ordered a brick wall built around the pond. On the section of the River behind the Angel, between Colebrooke Row and Duncan Terrace, the respectable folk living by its banks threatened to sue the Company if the didn’t do something about “a set of Worthless Rascals who are always, especially on Sunday, Washing their nasty rotten Hides in the New River Water near the City Road… a great abominable shame for a rich Company to suffer such indecency.”
“Behaviour Subversive to Public Decency”
The final insult seems to have been the flaunting of nakedness, especially in open view of nice middle class homes. In 1809, John Tyre of Islington was had up at the Middlesex Sessions at Hicks Hall (the old County Court in St John Street, Clerkenwell, itself located close to New River Head); after having gone bathing in the New River, he had allegedly gone for a run, naked, across Highbury Fields, in front of the ultra-posh houses in Highbury Place. He was found guilty of Behaviour Subversive to Public Decency – and sentenced to two months in Newgate Prison.
Such stiff sentences did little to curb the enthusiasm for bathing in the river, though, as in 1830 a report claimed that 800-1000 people were using the river to bathe or swim in every summer. Long term, the only way to reduce the endemic bathing problem was for the Company to supply water free to new public Baths, and to imprison the water in pipes and re-route it underground in places. The River was also fenced in severely in some places. Illegal angling was also a problem: the fishing rights for the whole length of the River were retained by the Company, who granted permits to landowners and the local worthies; however poaching of fish by undesirables was widespread.
This article is greatly indebted to From Conduit Community to Commercial Network: Water In London, by Mark Jenner, in Londonopolis: Essays in the Cultural and Social History of Early Modern London.
LETS DIG UP THE NEW RIVER
Since the nineteenth century, large sections of the New River have gradually been re-routed underground, covered over by the growth of suburban streets. Much of its length is still open, and can be walked… Much more flows through pipes, or even runs above ground but is fenced off. The author of this pamphlet lives on one such stretch, where the River runs beneath a green pathway down the middle of the wide street. In my neighbourhood, the river dives and resurfaces, flitting between a secret conduit and a landscaped narrow green promenade.
Capitalism, a powerful engine driving England’s developing industrial society, played a big part in the development of the New River. Without a doubt the risks taken by capitalists objectively allowed some of London’s most important and useful features to be built. Others were built despite capital and property interests, pushed through by enlightened or foresighted local authorities, or philanthropists and private charitable institutions. Undeniable social progress, over the last few centuries, came about for a myriad web of reasons, including the drive for profit, genuine ideologies of humanitarianism and compassion, or of political conviction of the rights of working people, or a fear of the potential of the poor rising in revolt.
But capital’s needs, the drive for profit, can only produce social progress as long as it’s profitable, as long as it coincides with hard cash… It’s also easy to see how we have benefitted from some developments, long term; but for the people who lived through the actual ‘progressing’ sometimes it made their lives rapidly worse – witness the water bearers in the New River story, but on a wider scale, the industrial Revolution in England was instrumental in the destruction of myriad ways of life, forced people into factories, or workhouses, drove down life expectancy for decades, and robbed working people of security and all the fruits of their labour bar a pittance. Progress in Britain also came at the expense of mass slavery for Africans, pillage and plunder of resources all over the world, the near-destruction of whole races and species of animals. We have to go beyond ‘progress’ based on wealth and profits, to a world where all of us have free access to resources, more than just to survive, but to flourish and prosper. All of life ‘free as conduit water.”
At past tense we have long floated and battled the rapids, as part of currents that saw the possibility of a post-capitalist existence… We have long fought the forces that push all of us towards dealing only with each other through money, competition, getting ahead, the forces that rob us of our time and pay us a grudging fraction of what we earn for them… Against that we build human relations, the needs of people, our creativity, the potential we have to live totally differently to the daily grind.
But a change in society to us doesn’t just mean a bland change in economic relations; we also dream of altering the physical space around us – for use, yes, but also for beauty. The places we live, the space we inhabit, the environments around us where we work and play, are there to transform. We love to walk the banks of the canal from Limehouse to Brentford, the banks of the smaller streams that feed the Thames, the Thames banks themselves. For decades we’ve watched these banks transformed, to some extent opened for all to wander, but lined also with the increasing developments designed overwhelmingly for the rich. We walk the Thames now, yes, from Deptford to London Bridge, but at the sufferance and under the eye of the yuppie towers and ever-multiplying high-rise penthouse playgrounds. It seems a city increasingly beyond our control, rented to us part-time at extortionate rates – because they need us to run the place, make it work; but more and more they see us like the rats that carried the plague.
All this we want to change – all of existence should be free, creative, shared and open to all… Not hipster bars by trendy New Riversides, fake edge for rich kids playing at living in Hackney (until they can turn it into another reprint of whatever suburb they crawled out of)… but a freely running stream for freely dancing folk.
It’s not just landscaped paths we want… wildness is being bred out of the city, green spaces being built on unless they’re protected, or fought for… But the half-wildernesses and empty spaces, demolished buildings left to tumble, the Bricklayers Arms or Beckton after they were knocked down, and before the new estates, were claimed by people and opened up as unofficial playgrounds… In some ways this made for wilder and more fun spaces. The banks of South London’s Wandle, for instance, were more fun to wander when the path was half-wild, half overgrown factories falling down, part-reclaimed by weeds, parts where you had to scramble and trespass. The ordered council walks are probably better for baby-buggies though, and open space is a playground for dodgier elements too, who have to co-exist with kids… So it’s a toss-up, always, a negotiation about who gets to use space, who it’s for… It’s hard to consensus use of space.
We would like to see the New River open throughout its length, not only dug up, but navigable. We desire to drift by dinghy or home made raft, from Wood Green to Angel, stop off and picnic drink by its banks, run naked through Highbury like John Tyre, go skinny-dipping where the River crosses Salmon Brook.
Obviously for this to happen would means the re-instating of the River at points where roads now run… In some places where gardens or allotments grow… Some people living and working, growing there might object. Perhaps the New New River we foresee would only some about in a radically different North London, where roads and cars would be less important, in a social system where work could be transformed too, where time wasn’t driving us always to some other place for the purposes of earning enough to get by… Some of us have wandered almost every mile of the rivers of London, those on the surface and those stretches lost or buried. For some reason waters and waterways call to us, pull us along their ever-onward meandering. Maybe its cause we’re two-thirds water ourselves; though ways that are lost always have a special urge for some humans. For years a vision of a new London, teeming with canals and opened up lost rivers, new waterways and other paths, has haunted us. Snatches of the New River have been part of the inspiration for this – the stretch from St Paul’s Road to Canonbury Road, or … You can walk there, and think: London should be filled with paths like this, in every area there should be hidden paths and secret ways, dark water and willows barely weeping, kids fishing for the one fat carp that has ate the rest. They are in some ways an answer and a rebuttal of the ever-growing M25-ising of the city, as interesting and alternative space is ironed out, everything that is not for profit is slowly dried out and drained of its moisture. We have fought that process for years, a war that continues. Currently we’re losing.
Beyond that, we have stood on Holborn Viaduct and day-dreamt a Fleet river estuary re-flooded, with boats wandering up as far as the Apple Tree pub, to share a pint with some Mount Pleasant postal-workers. Or going further – the streets of the City flooded for ever, with the banks and transnational corporations long fled, new canals linking their abandoned sky-scrapers, squatted and turned into vertical playgrounds for kids (whole floors hollowed out for adventure slides and zip-wires), allotments on the 33rd floor of the Gherkin, open to the wind and weather. All of London one vast waterway, not even as stinking as Venice in the Summer (OK, so we’ll have some gong-ferming to do). The new waterways in fact could be the arteries and veins of new social networks.
But if this vision seems a long way off, remember the thousands who always reclaimed the New River in defiance of the Company. Who says we can’t dig up the hidden stretches ourselves, even if no great social change seems like it’s round the corner? Gates are there to be opened and fences climbed…