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A modern day aerial photograph of London and the River Thames

Sir Hugh Myddleton's New River Supply

Image Credit: | Above: A modern day aerial photograph of London and the River Thames

At which words the flood-gates flew open, the streame ran gallantly into the cisterne, drummes and trumpets sounding in triumphal manner.

Walter Thornbury, Old and New London: Volume 2, 1878

Years before the Plague of 1665, Parliament, and even King James I, realised that improving hygiene for Londoners would be impossible without a proper supply of water. Simply using Thames river water wasn't going to provide a solution. Instead, an impressive feat of engineering saw water brought from 20 miles away right into Londoners' homes, via a canal known as the New River.

London's population exploded in Tudor times: from about 120,000 in 1550 to 250,000 in 1600. In a seriously over-crowded city with no sewage system, hygiene was a major problem.

Londoners only had access to water from wells or from the (filthy) Thames, via a large waterwheel at London Bridge. Although Acts of Parliament had been passed in 1605 and 1606 to improve the situation, it was a challenge issued by King James that finally brought a response. The man who met that challenge was Hugh Myddleton, goldsmith, banker and friend of Sir Walter Raleigh.

Myddleton offered to build the water supply himself, which was quite an undertaking. Work started in 1609 and took four and a half years, during which he oversaw the construction of a canal that was around 40 miles long, 3 metres (10 feet) wide and 1 metre (3 feet) deep. The source of this canal, which became known as the New River, was a series of springs near Ware in Hertfordshire. From here, it flowed over a rambling route that had to follow the contours of the terrain to a reservoir in Islington, North London, known as New River Head.

Water was then taken from the reservoir into the city in pipes made from hollowed elm logs and then into individual houses through lead pipes. By 1670, up to two-thirds of houses in many parts of London had running water thanks to the New River.

Solving the problem didn't just involve technical challenges: Myddleton also had to deal with objections from owners of land that he needed to cross. He soon ran out of money to pay them off. Luckily, the king stepped in and financed half of the costs in return for half of the profit.

The New River was opened with a ceremony hosted by Myddleton's brother, who happened to be Lord Mayor of London at the time. And in 1622, Myddleton was rewarded for his efforts by the king, who made him a baronet. Because it was an open water course, the New River didn't entirely solve the hygiene problem. But it did improve things. Now, having been shortened and straightened, it still provides water for some Londoners. It is mostly covered over and now stops at Stoke Newington. But you can still see some uncovered parts, visit the site of New River Head at the end of Myddleton Passage and tip your hat to Sir Hugh Myddleton at his impressive statue at the south end of Islington Green. The 28-mile New River Path offers an alternative way of appreciating Myddleton's contribution to London.

Did you know?

The New River offered the opportunity for Londoners to enjoy spas. It fed the delightfully named Clerkenwell Cold Bath, City Road Peerless Pool and Merlin's Cave Spa among others.