The Mercenary River, by Nick Higham

The recent catastrophic mains leak on Hornsey Road demonstrated just how dependent we are on clean water and just how vulnerable an old and creaky London infrastructure has become.

As this year’s drought intensifies there has been much comment about the astronomical salaries and bonuses enjoyed by Thames Water executives, the swimming pools of water that seep away before getting near our taps, the thirty-year lack of investment and the vast profits syphoned off to overseas investors.

The question of public ownership is once again on the table.

To help inform how we got in this position, former BBC journalist Nick Higham (a Stoke Newington resident) has written a magnificent history of how this most basic of commodities has been supplied to the capital for the past few centuries – and for most of the time, it has been a grim struggle.

The Mercenary River combines accounts of civil, sanitary and hydro engineering genius, public health, finance, social history and stories of some outrageous characters – both altruistic and avaricious.

Weaving through north London from Hertfordshire, the New River was built in the early part of the 17th century and was intended to bring sweet water to an expanding capital city whose growth was being held back by a polluted and foul Thames.

It was eventually absorbed into the Metropolitan Water Board, later Thames Water Authority and now Thames Water Utilities Ltd.

Those wanting to learn more will not be disappointed with almost an entire page of New River references in the book’s comprehensive Index with many more specifically for the Company’s original visionary Sir Hugh Myddelton.

Over 450 or so pages, Higham tells the story of all the other London water companies and the sharp practices employed to retain customers, maximize profits and ensure their monopoly.

In tandem are the stories of far-sighted technical innovation in the introduction of filtering systems, sanitation and testing, the use of steam powered pumps and continual improvements in the distribution network.

The pages are littered with facts, anecdotes and knitted together in a compelling, informed and at times witty narrative. There’s nothing dry about the Mercenary River!

Higham writes of Myddelton that he “...was driven as much by the prospect of making money as the prospect of philanthropy.”

Perhaps, four hundred years after Sir Hugh the imperative to make money has rather eclipsed philanthropy.

The Mercenary River is out now, published by Hachette UK.