Bringing clean water to London

Posted by Tory Historian Tuesday, February 27, 2007 ,

Last week-end Tory Historian was wandering round Islington in London, carefully avoiding the very small trendy part of the old borough (there was, after all, a Fair Maid of Islington in the early eighteenth century and a Bailiff's Daughter of Islington mentioned in Percy's Reliques of 1765) and came across the statue of Sir Hugh Myddelton.

Although the man is clearly a hero in that part of the world, there was very little information about him on the pedestal. So, Tory Historian decided to investigate.

First stop was that old-fashioned piece of furniture, the bookshelf to consult a copy of the one volume Dictionary of National Biography, which said this about Sir Hugh Myddelton, first baronet (1560? - 1631):

Traded as a goldsmith, banker, and clothmaker; alderman of Denbigh 1597; M.P., Denbigh, 1603, 1614, 1620, 1623, 1625 and 1628; the London corporation having obtained a permission from Parliament to bring in a stream from Chadwell and Amwell, offered to execute the work. compelled by opposition and demands of the landlords to apply to James I for money, on which James paid half the cost on condition of receiving half the profits (the canal, which was about thirty-eight miles long, ten feet wide, and four feet deep, completed 1613); obtained large profits from some lead and silver mines in Cardiganshire, 1617; began reclaiming Brading harbour, 1620; created baronet, 1622.
One must assume that James I reclaimed a substantial part of that money in return for the baronetcy.

Nevertheless, one can begin to see why Sir Hugh Myddelton should be a hero, being the man who helped to bring clean water to London.

The DNB also lists two of his brothers: Sir Thomas Myddelton (1550 -1631), who was Lord Mayor of London in 1613 as well as being alderman and sheriff in 1603, the year in which he was knighted and a member of the Virginia Company and an original member of the East India and the New River Companies; and William Myddelton (1556? - 1621), a poet and a seaman, who between expeditions wrote on Welsh prosody and published a metrical version of the Psalms. Quite a family.

There was also a nephew, son of the Lord Mayor, also Sir Thomas (1586 - 1666), a lawyer and Parliamentarian, fought in the Civil War on the parliamentary side, mostly in North Wales but also took up arms on behalf of Charles II in 1659. He does not seem to have been entirely successful in his military career.

One thing to be noted is the longevity of the entire family. Apart from William, who died in his late sixties, they lived into their seventies and eighties, a remarkable performance in those days, both because of diseases and general danger to people who were nor precisely quiet stay-at-home wallflowers.

Here is how one source (if one may be forgiven an almost unavoidable pun) describes Hugh Myddelton's heroic shouldering of the role that many had failed on - that of the man who will bring clean water to London:
The due supply of pure spring water to the metropolis, had often been canvassed by the corporation. At times it was inconveniently scanty; at all times it was scarcely adequate to the demand, which increased with London's increase. Many projects had been brought before the citizens to convey a stream toward London, but the expense and difficulty had deterred them from using the powers with which they had been invested by the legislature; when Myddelton declared himself ready to carry out the great work, and in May 1609 'the dauntless Welshman' began his work at Chadwell, near Ware.
Naturally enough there were many opponents to the scheme.
The engineering difficulties of the work and its great expense were by no means the chief cares of Myddelton; he had scarcely began his most patriotic and useful labours, ere he was assailed by an outcry on all sides from land-owners, who declared that his river would cut up the country, bring water through arable land, that would consequently be overflowed in rainy weather, and converted into quagmires; that nothing short of ruin awaited land, cattle, and men, who mightbe in its course; and that the king's highway between London and Ware would be made impassable! All this mischief was to befall the country-folks of Hertfordshire and Middlesex for Mr. Myddelton's 'own private benefit,' as was boldly asserted, with a due disregard of its great public utility; and ultimately parliamentary opposition was strongly invoked.
The King's support and financial help seem to have been vital for the project, so one must not begrudge whatever profit James I himself made out of the whole project, not to mention the undoubtedly large sum that he extracted from Myddelton later on (as I suggested above) for that baronetcy.

The building of the canal seems to have taken about 15 months (which raises certain questions, possibly not entirely appropriate to a history blog, about present day projects that are built or not with a great deal more mechanical assistance) and the New River was formally opened on September 29, that is, Michaelmas Day, 1613 with a great deal of pomp and circumstance, not to mention pageantry, as is to be expected from all events Jacobean.
There were present Sir John Swinnerton the lord mayor, Sir Henry Montague the recorder, and many of the aldermen and citizens; and a speech was written by Thomas Middleton the dramatist, who had before been employed by the citizens to design pageants and write speeches for their Lord Mayors' Shows, and other public celebrations. On this occasion, as we are told in the pamphlet descriptive of the day's proceedings, 'warlike music of drums and trumpets liberally beat the air' at the approach of the civic magnates; then 'a troop of labourers, to the number of threescore or up-wards, all in green caps alike, bearing in their hands the symbols of their several employments in so great a business, with drums before them, marching twice or thrice about the cistern, orderly present themselves before the mount, and after their obeisance, the speech is pronounced.'
After speech making in verse, the floodgates were opened and the new canal began its function. London had its first taste of clean fresh water that flowed directly to the city.

1 Responses to Bringing clean water to London

  1. Anonymous Says:
  2. Interesting that Drake brought clean water to Plymouth a good deal earlier. Do we know when other cities/towns benefited?

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