In 1581 Peter Morris began paying ten shillings to the City of London a year to rent the north arch of London Bridge. Under the arch, he installed a water wheel to pump river water into the reservoir, and from there he distributed it in a network of wooden pipes down the streets.
Morice’s London Bridge Waterworks, which survived until the demolition of the Old London Bridge in 1831, was a fictional response to a crisis caused by London’s rapid growth. The population increased from about 50,000 in 1500 to 200,000 in 1600, which caused a serious water shortage. It was also significant because, for the first time, part of London’s water supply – a vital public service that had hitherto been controlled and financed by city authorities – was effectively privatized.
Thirty years later, the city redoubled its privatization efforts by striking a deal with Hugh Middleton, a Welsh goldsmith and a man of tremendous momentum. The city obtained an Act of Parliament authorizing it to dig a 40-mile canal to bring water to London from springs in Hertfordshire. It agreed to surrender its rights to Myddelton provided that it assumed the entire financial risk of the construction. In return, he can keep whatever return he has been able to make.
Not everyone was happy. Contemporaries complained that “what was intended for the common good must be turned into private gain.” But the city lacked the resources to build this same “new river” and, as Myddelton pointed out, if he was willing to risk his money, he should deserve any rewards. In time, he persuaded other “adventurers” to invest in the scheme and also shared the proceeds.
At London Bridge Waterworks, Peter Morris effectively invented public utilities. He was the first to deliver water to individual consumers through a network of pipes and the first to make money through this, charging customers for delivery. Myddelton’s New River Company borrowed Morice’s business model and since the late 17th century has become highly profitable – almost certainly the most fruitful trading company in British history.
The Morris and Middleton projects set a precedent that was to corrupt London over the next three centuries, by turning over the water supply to the profit-seeking capitalists, thus pitting the interests of private investors, who wanted to keep costs as low and dividends as high as possible, against the public interest in general, who They need and expect a reliable supply of clean water at affordable prices. The dispute was resolved in 1904 when the capital’s water companies became public property. But it re-emerged after the privatization of water and sanitation under Margaret Thatcher in 1989.
In 2022, the ban on hosepipe and the illegal discharge of raw sewage ignited controversy, highlighting decades of underinvestment in water infrastructure at the same time that water companies were paying huge dividends to shareholders, rather than spending on fixing leaky pipes. . or expansion of wastewater treatment plants.
This position mirrors similar ranks earlier in London’s history. By modern standards, the supply with which Londoners in the early 19th century struggled to keep themselves washed and watered was insufficient, filthy and smelly, not to mention expensive. Consumer anger came to a head when the water companies, hitherto competing for customers, reached a series of secret agreements – between 1815 and 1817 north of the Thames and in 1843 south of the river – and divided land between them, creating a series of local monopolies and raising prices as They did. A cartel of only eight companies supplied the entire city.
Consumers complained not only about the cost of water, but about its quality. In 1827, an activist attacked Grand Junction’s Great Waterworks for having their intake fall against the outflow from a major sewer. As a result, her customers were sold “a liquid saturated with the impurities of fifty thousand homes – a dilute solution of animal and vegetable matter in a state of putrefaction – both visually offensive, disgusting to the imagination and destructive to health”. In 1850, scientist Arthur Hale Hassall, who examined company-provided water from the Thames (where most of London’s sewage was discharged) concluded that it was full of “fecal matter”: “a portion of the city’s population” wrote, “made for the consumption of , in one form or another, a part of their excrement, and moreover to pay for the privilege.”
As early as the 1820s, some activists called for the conversion of private businesses into public ownership—an unsuccessful feat in an age when politicians wedded to political and economic non-interference believed that government had no role to play.
But London’s water supply has remained a hotly contested political issue. Between 1821 and 1899, there were at least 16 Royal Commissions and Parliamentary investigations on the subject. In 1852 a reluctant government was attacked by activists for passing a law requiring water companies to clear their waters and build new intakes upstream from the tidal and heavily polluted Thames. Another law in 1871 went even further and subjected companies for the first time to the scrutiny of outside regulators.
It was not until the turn of the century that public ownership of London’s water was accepted as a good thing, long after municipal control of the water supply in many other towns and cities. Publicly owned water companies operated happily for most of the twentieth century, until in the 1970s and 1980s the government proved unwilling to impose penalties on the massive borrowing necessary to modernize aging infrastructure. Privatization in 1989 was a tool (very successful at first) to unlock private sector investment for much-needed improvements. Since then, regulators tasked with keeping water companies in line have proven unable to effectively monitor the industry. Today, it faces calls to nationalize it again.
Nick Higham he is an author The River of Mercenaries: Private Greed, the Public Good – A History of London Waters (Title, 2022).