How Islington’s lost river helped put London on the map

PUBLISHED: 09:00 28 May 2016

Local historian and walking guide Rob Smith on the former site of the New River reservoir

Local historian and walking guide Rob Smith on the former site of the New River reservoir


When, first thing in the morning, you stumble blurry-eyed to the kitchen to fill up the kettle, how much thought do you give to where the water’s coming from? Very little, probably, and why would you? It’s there. It’s wet. It does what it’s supposed to do.

River Street, so named for its proximity to the New RiverRiver Street, so named for its proximity to the New River

The role Islington has played in bringing you that water, and providing London with its water for hundreds of years, is a story that often goes untold. But through the New River, my guide Rob Smith tells me, “Islington played a vital role in helping London become the thriving success story it is today.”

Toward the end of the 1500s, London and its population were growing at a steady pace. As more and more people flocked to the capital from all over the country, the pressure on London’s wells was becoming almost too much to bear, with Clerks Well in Islington (from which the name Clerkenwell comes) seeing hundreds of people queuing for water every day. It was clear a solution needed to be found.

Enter Edmund Colthurst, a former army engineer who had a solution to the problem. “His thought was, if you can’t rely on a river to supply water, why not build one?” says Rob. A seemingly simple answer to a simple question.

Colthurst’s idea was the New River, a scheme that would take water from wells in Hertfordshire and deposit it in a reservoir in Islington (not far from where Angel station is today). From there a network of elm pipes would take the water all over London.

The former site of the New River reservoirThe former site of the New River reservoir

The scheme wasn’t without its challenges though, Rob tells me. With 42 miles from its source to its head, and no electricity or steam pumps, gravity was the only way of transporting the water. A complicated route was planned, dipping 18 feet from top to bottom to allow the water to flow, with the specifics being calculated by esteemed mathematician Edward Wright and, later, the rather aptly named Edmund Pond.

But how would they dig this route?

Tens of thousands of pounds (a huge sum by today’s standards) was ploughed into the scheme. Edmund Colthurst went bankrupt, and was replaced by Hugh Myddleton, who eventually sold his house to raise funds for the river’s development. Labourers were paid per foot of earth they dug, with the help of bell ropes from local churches often enlisted to pull up the trees that were blocking the way. What’s more, in the absence of any form of technology, several trumpeters and drummers had to be employed to allow communication along the way.

Eventually, in 1613 and with the financial backing of King James himself, the New River was opened following an extravagant parade through the streets of Islington. “Access to the New River water was via a subscription, though,” explains Rob, “meaning that being able to claim your house was supplied by New River water was quite the status symbol.”

Over the next 300 years, the New River adapted and evolved to meet the demands of an ever-growing London. Gravity was replaced by horsepower and then steam power to help the flow of water, and the river became a hub for leisure activities such as fishing and boating. Our very own Sadler’s Wells theatre even had a lake built into the theatre in 1804, Rob says, all made possible by water supplied from the New River.

Growing competition for water supply meant the New River Company was taken over by the Metropolitan Water Board in the late 1800s, which later became Thames Water. And after suffering substantial damage during the Blitz, the New River was soon diverted to the reservoirs at Stoke Newington, with the majority of its former channels being converted into linear parks. Signs of the river’s former route through the borough can be seen all over.

Rob shows me the base of an enormous windmill once used to pump water through the borough, although it is now located in the car park of a Thames water building. Myddleton Square, just off Pentonville Road, was named after the man who bankrolled the scheme, and one of the reservoirs used during the New River’s time in Islington remains at Claremont Square.

While it no longer runs through Islington, the New River still supplies about 8 per cent of London’s water, and Islington’s role in bringing fresh water to London some 400 years ago was vital for the expansion of the capital. So next time you fill up the kettle in the morning, perhaps you’ll take a second to appreciate the journey the water has taken to provide you with your morning caffeine fix.

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