Thursday, September 5, 2013

Happy Birthday, New River

About five minutes' walk from my front door flows a river called the New River.  It looks more like a canal than a river, but it's too narrow for boats — its only sailors are swans, geese and ducks.  In reality, it's not really either a river or a canal, but an aqueduct.  It's not particularly new, either, unless you compare it with the age of most actual rivers.  In fact, it's exactly four hundred years old.

Mostly, I use this blog for discussing fantasy, writing, myth and the kind of history that might figure in fantasy, as well as some reviews.  This time, though, I thought I'd use it to celebrate an old friend's birthday.  I've lived near the New River most of my life, and had other connections with it too, and I know much of its length quite well.

The New River arose from a debate in the later 16th century, while Elizabeth was on the throne, Drake was defeating the Spanish Armada, and some guy called Will was writing a play or two.  London's drinking water traditionally came from the River Thames, but by this time even many Elizabethans had realised that water from an open sewer wasn't suitable.  The city was liberally supplied with wells, too, but population growth meant these were no longer adequate.  More water was needed.

In 1604, after several decades of hot air being expended, Edmund Colthurst obtained a charter to build a new river, and he carried out a survey.  By the following year, though, he'd run into financial difficulties, and the project was taken over by Sir Hugh Myddelton, a Welsh entrepreneur whose interests ranged from clothmaking to banking. Myddelton set up the New River Company, along with investors known as “Adventurers” whose shares were each valued at £336 in 1611, with no profit expected for twenty years. Myddelton also gave shares in the company to Colthurst.

Work began on digging the river on 20th February 1608, although the survey on which it was based was unfortunately lost in a later fire that destroyed the New River Company’s records.

The river was begun in Hertfordshire at Chadwell, between Hertford and Ware, taking water from the natural springs there and a couple of miles downstream at Amwell, although this turned out to be inadequate. A channel was then dug to take water from the River Lea, and pumping stations were built along the route, tapping the water-table below the surface.  

The river originally ran a total of forty miles through Hertfordshire and Middlesex, looping around heads of tributary valleys to the Lea and carried over some lower ground by aqueducts built of wood and lead lined. The whole route was engineered with a constant fall of 5 inches per mile, allowing the force of gravity alone to create its flow.  For the time it was created, it was a miracle of engineering.

The labourers Myddelton employed are recorded as earning 10d (tenpence) per day, with an extra 2d if they were working in water. Skilled men, such as carpenters, were paid 1s 4d (one shilling and fourpence, or sixteen pence) a day, and bricklayers could earn 1s 6d. This compared well with average wages at the time, when an agricultural labourer could expect only 8d a day.  

Myddelton, like Colthurst, ran into financial problems, as well as strong opposition from some of the landowners along the river’s route, who feared their land could become waterlogged. Both problems were solved when King James I threw his weight behind the project. He invested £6,347, 4s and 11½d (a massive sum) in return for 50% of the shares, and opposition to a royally sponsored venture melted away.  

In fact, the New River came near to killing James. A few years later, riding on a winter day on his Theobalds estate in Cheshunt, just under halfway along the river's course, he was thrown by his horse headfirst into the icy river, with only his boots showing above the ice. One of his companions, Sir Richard Young, was quick enough to pull the King out before he drowned, but it was touch and go.  

The New River ended in Islington, now part of London but then a village north-west of the city, at a great cistern known as New River Head, from which pipes distributed the water through London. A grand opening was held on Michaelmas (29th September) 1613, attended by the Lord Mayor and many dignitaries.  

Myddelton was created a baronet in 1622 and died in 1631. It was many years, though, before the New River Company began to make a profit, and a rival scheme was proposed in 1631 but never built. Eventually, “Myddelton’s Water”, as it was sometimes known, proved its worth both in practical and financial terms. In 1898, a share in the New River Company sold for £128,500.  

The New River still flows from Chadwell to Islington, although some sections have been straightened or rebuilt, reducing its length to 29 miles. Parts of its course through North London are now piped underground, but it still supplies water to London.  Today, obviously, there are many more ways of obtaining clean drinking-water, as well as a better understanding of its importance, but the significance wasn't lost on past ages.  A monument has stood for over two hundred years near Amwell Springs, with the inscription Sacred to the memory of Sir Hugh Myddelton, Baronet, whose successful Care, assisted by the Patronage of his King, conveyed this stream to London. An immortal work, since Man cannot more nearly imitate the Deity, than in bestowing Health.  

Not a bad legacy to leave.


  1. Cool article, and a good description of the kind of civil engineering that was possible well before the industrial era started.

    Thinking of my own world building, I'm curious about how they pumped water back then. Hand or animal powered screw pumps? I did some research into the origins of the ubiquitous hand pumps that were still found in some farmyards and campgrounds when I was a kid (the kind that figured prominently in stories about the pioneer days), but they only seem to go back to about the 1700s.

    1. I'm not sure, come to think of it. The pump-houses along the New River today date from much later and were built for steam-power, but they must have been pumping the water before that. I'll have to investigate.