4 out of 5 stars

A copy of this was provided free of charge from the publisher in return for an honest review.

Every human needs water to survive and in the modern world, I can turn on a tap and have more than enough to drink. Go back several hundred years though, and it was a much tougher proposition. In hamlets and small communities, it is relatively easy to source from a well or river. When you get into towns getting water to people is much harder. For a city like London, the story of its water and how it got to people is a fascinating story.

In this book, the story begins in 1478 when a man called William Campion was convicted of stealing water from the public conduit near his house in Fleet Street. His punishment was suitable public and damp. Most people, including children, drank their water in the form of beer, the brewing process made it much safer to drink. These conduits brought water into the city from outside the walls and it was in short supply and could still be tainted with all manner of pollutants.

In 1613 though the way that water was supplied to the capital changed forever. A new venture called the New River Company was formed and they built a new aqueduct into the city. This company was a new type of business and the King himself had a financial interest in it. Water was originally supplied water in bored out trunks of trees that leaked terribly, and they began to develop new pipes to stop the leaking. They were innovators in many things, using the latest technologies to get water into the capital and new filtration systems to ensure that the water was potable. In fact, these were so good that they are still used today to purify two-thirds of London’s drinking water.

It was also a licence to print money too, this business made so much money that others wanted a piece of the action too. Because there was no overall plan for the infrastructures then it was a bit of a free for all. Each water company wanted to supply water to their customer and would spend a lot of time digging up roads to lays pipes. They would also engage in nefarious activities such as cutting people off with no notice and switching customers without their permission.

I thought this was a fascinating account of the history of water in London, I learnt a lot of things reading this. Higham has a way of explaining the details of the way these companies operated that is very relatable to the general reader. Should you wish to delve into more academic papers then there are references in the back of the book. It does feel that we have gone full circle with private companies in charge of our water once again who only care about profit and avoiding tax through horrendously complex convoluted ownership structures. And the quality is heading south too with water companies being given tacit approval by the government to fill the rivers with crap once again.

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