Safe drinking water is essential to daily life. Meeting that demand with bottled water is a luxury too far, argues Emma Jones. She is not a lone critic of the packaged water industry. However, this author looks to history for solutions to a major sustainability problem: in the design, management and use of the city. With original stories from London's archives, Parched City tracks drinking-water obsessions through a popular architectural history tale.
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About the Author
Emma M. Jones is a Dubliner by birth and a Londoner by chance. She studied architectural history at the Bartlett, University College London and currently works in modern medical history research at Queen Mary, University of London.
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A history of London's public and private drinking water
By Emma M. Jones
John Hunt Publishing Ltd.Copyright © 2012 Emma M. Jones
All rights reserved.
Wells, Conduits and Cordial Waters: drinking water sketches A.D. 43–1800
Your Petitioners doe humbly desire, for that there is great defect of water, in the said conduits: and that it is a generall grieuance, to the whole City ...
(Water-Tankerd-Bearers, Citie of London, 1621)
From the Roman City and throughout the incremental introduction of piped domestic water from the late sixteenth until the mid-nineteenth century, most Londoners' water depended on vast quantities of daily labour, either expended by them or by others on their behalf. This chapter draws a historical map of some of the urban spaces tied closely to water access and traces when and where the issue of water quality arose. Traversing this expansive historical terrain, we will briefly dip into larger subjects, such as the early mineral water market and spa culture, which other researchers have documented in depth. My aim now is to set the drinking water scene in pre-modern, early modern and eighteenth century London. From here, some of the key themes in the city's modern drinking water story begin to ripple out.
Early Britons' settlements on the river Thames pre-dated the foundation of the Roman city. This riparian, or riverside, community had no shortage of running water at its disposal. And below the ground, former waterholes contain material evidence of a spiritual culture. Vessels recovered from these underground pits, dated as early as 1500 B.C. are believed to have been offerings to the 'netherworld of spirits'. Remnants of decayed food, tools and weapons found within the watery subsoil played a symbolic role in this community's culture. After A.D. 50, pre-Christian forms of water worship persisted as Roman beliefs mingled with these pagan practices. For the Mediterranean inhabitants of Londinium, some may have viewed the Thames simply as a conduit to the mythological River Styx, a realm of the Gods. For instance, remains of the upper body of a marble sculpture of a male, from circa A.D. 150, are thought to represent a water god who inhabited the liminal space of the river, hovering between life and death. Water's spiritual associations did not, however, displace its practical role in daily life. Plumbing was an important characteristic of Roman civilisation.
Geographically and geologically, ancient London was by no means parched. The Thames was naturally important for transportation; however the tidal river was not a likely freshwater source. Underground water supplies (aquifers) served that need, as well as two other rivers (surface water). Unlike other Roman cities, renowned for their hydro-geological engineering feats; Londinium had no need for aqueducts. The contents of the Chalk, London's vast groundwater source, lay just metres below layers of brick earth, sand and gravel sitting above the impermeable London Clay. Within hours of digging, a task most likely performed by a slave, the water swilling underfoot added to resources from the Fleet and Walbrook rivers. The contours of the city's two hills also meant that, in places, water rose very close to the surface.
Londinium was the only urban centre in Roman Britain with a watercourse running through its city centre, the Walbrook. On a recently revised map of Londinium (by the Museum of London), the Walbrook river and many tributary streams can be seen snaking under the ancient city's walls and between the amphitheatre and the basilica, with the Temple of Mithras situated on its banks just before the river flows into the Thames (near modern-day London Bridge). Archaeologists are certain that Londinium's urban designers were more than aware of the hydrological wonder underground and recent discoveries endorse their view. However saturated the ancient city might have been, were its inhabitants really water drinkers?
Vitruvius, a Roman architect, is the first recorded architectural critic and theorist in the west. He promoted water's centrality to a high standard of living. In fact, he dedicated an entire chapter to the substance in his famous architectural treatise: Ten Books on Architecture (circa 20–30 B.C.). Even though Vitruvius wrote long before Londinium was founded and he wrote in balmier Mediterranean climes and drier landscapes than northern Europe, it is thanks to him that we have clear evidence that in Roman culture water use was not confined to the indulgent bathing practices of a leisured elite. They were definitely drinking water.
According to Vitruvius, water was not only consumed as a wine-diluter to keep Bacchus at bay, it was also consumed neat: 'Water, offering endless necessities as well as drink, offers services all the more gratifying because they are gratis' (his interpreters clearly enjoyed his intended pun). For Vitruvius, not all water was equal. He believed that the rainfall of stormy weather was particularly vital as a liquid. The architect's writing offers strong evidence of Roman cultural beliefs that water was a substance of purity and health because of its ability to cleanse the inaccessible inner landscape of the body. Ingesting healthful waters, according to Vitruvius, could even cure defective internal organs. And Athenians apparently distinguished between the water sources from which its citizens could safely drink, and those for external functions such as washing.
Ancient springs were not always thought to be pure and nature's raw bounty was recognised as both blessed and cursed.
Environmental pollution caused by poisonous metals such as gold, silver, iron, copper and lead were known to seep into water supplies in certain geological areas. One Persian spring was even reputed to have caused its drinkers' teeth to fall out. Drinking water also had pleasurable associations for Vitruvius. Some springs were thought to make people drunk 'even without wine', whilst other sources were renowned for exciting erotic arousal. Whatever its effect, Vitruvius' sommelier-like description of water endowed the liquid with a flavour spectrum ranging from a touch on the bitter to the outright delicious.
High Street Wells
One beverage that was certainly consumed in the Roman City of London, and in no mean measure, was wine. Barrels were shipped up the Thames' estuary from Germany and Spain, in vast quantities. Those barrels provided the materials for the construction of one system of wells (a second type had square shafts lined with timber). Once the wine had been quaffed, reusing the barrels involved removing their tops and bottoms so that the tightly bound strips of curved wood could be employed to reinforce the earthen walls of the well-holes reaching down into underground sources. Remnants of this system are preserved in the Museum of London, including fragments of a ladder used for descending into these watery shafts. One can easily imagine the staccato rhythms of bodies disappearing and reappearing from a cluster of eighteen wells, near contemporary Queen Victoria Street (it adjoins Mansion House tube station with Blackfriars bridge). Although most of Londinium's wells are thought to have been associated with individual buildings, this cluster formed a definite centre for communal water access. Queues and jostling may also have occurred at this cluster and, no doubt, gruelling journeys with water vessels from the source to homes and places of work. Remains of plumbing infrastructure near some wells also suggest the conduction of freshwater supplies direct to local buildings. Pipes were constructed from different materials to visually distinguish the flow of fresh, inbound water and used outbound water from the city, with impressive sanitary nous.
Wells were not all used in the service of the greater civic good. Some wells were entirely private and relate directly to the social inequalities embedded in Roman civilisation. Location was everything. The labour cost, in terms of time and energy, for those who had to transport their water from the public source to the point of use can only be imagined. As the classical historian Peter Marsden summarises: 'There were three classes of people in Londinium apart from Roman citizens; the free, the freed and the slaves. The native Britons, who were free but had none of the special rights of a Roman citizen, were known as the Peregreni.' The Peregreni were essentially Londinium's working class.
These inhabitants' daily lives forged a very innercity experience. They lived in tightly packed timber-frame 'Mediterranean style' houses. At Londinium's height between A.D. 100 to 200, many of the city's population — anywhere from circa 24,000 to 45,000 people — were working iron and leather for a living. This industrial activity was concentrated in the north of the city, close to modern-day Moorgate, on the banks of the Walbrook. Waste from this industry saw vast quantities of materials, such as iron slag and the by-products of tanning, entering the watercourse. Downstream of the tanners and ironmongers, the Walbrook's contents would not have been appetising to dip into, no matter how dehydrated those workers were. Archaeologists have deduced that the underground water-fed wells, constructed a few metres away from the Walbrook, were an important source of drinking water. It seems plausible to imagine that they provided refreshment for these workers and for local residents own freshwater needs (both cooking and drinking).
Whilst the Romans and the Peregreni were in the bacteriological dark, we know from Vitruvius's writing that the correlation between illness and the consumption of polluted water was understood on some level: 'Deadly types of water can also be found; these, coursing through harmful sap in the earth, acquire a poisonous force in themselves.'
Remains of a high-tech well in Londinium, one of two unique to Roman Britain in the city, suggest that effectively filtered water was pumped out of the earth close to the amphitheatre on Gresham Street. Although the engineering ingenuity of this 'water-lifting mechanism' sank to a similar depth to the crude 'barrel' wells, a great quantity and quality of water could be guaranteed thanks to slave labour. Operated by a chain-and-bucket system from above ground, this water would not be muddied by the boots of a person climbing down into the well shaft for instance.
Only discovered in 1988, today one can roam around the amphitheatre's ruins below the Guildhall Yard. Up to 6,000 spectators could be found here baying for blood at gladiatorial spectacles, or participating in less gory religious activities. Either pursuit equalled the production of lots of thirsty spectators. Calculations show that the mechanical wells would have produced two litres of water per second, or seventy-two thousand litres over a ten-hour period. Though the technology's chain-and-bucket system has been praised for its early engineering ingenuity, it has also been noted that constant slave or animal energy was needed to turn its vast wheels. How much of this water was for drinking only cannot be known for certain. For instance, there was a bathhouse just south of Gresham Street that also needed a water supply, but evidence suggests the bathhouse was actually served by cisterns that drew directly from the underground supply. However, a design to extract water at a point of naturally high filtration through sand filtration suggests the organisation of the resource into hierarchies of quality for different uses and users. Possibly, the best drinking water in Londinium was reserved for those in the best seats in the amphitheatre. Labour was essential to the production of both that high quality commodity and water drawn from less high-tech wells. Although Vitruvius wrote that water was gratis, this human cost of hydration was evident in this northern outpost of the Roman Empire.
No association has been made between Londinium's decline and waterborne disease. But decline it did. The ancient city is believed to have been uninhabited after the gradual ebb of Roman occupation, circa A.D. 450, until the first Christian Saxon settlers arrived in the early 600s. During that interlude, dust settled over grand villas and wells alike.
In that transition period, some minor evidence of early-Saxon presence in the former city has been detected — such as a lost brooch — but these traces were scattered by transient people. New foundation stones were only laid once more when Christian London became the seat of an archbishop in the seventh century. Evidence that water drinking was a common practice beyond London came in the form of bronze cups suspended from posts alongside springs on the 'highway'. These cups were gifts from King Edwin of Northumbria, permitting the traveller to enjoy raw water supplies freely.
Saxons reoccupied London in the sixth century as Britain's new religious culture deepened. St Paul's Cathedral was founded in A.D.604 and during the eighth and ninth-centuries Christian beliefs were further inscribed in churches of a more modest scale inside the boundaries marked by the old Roman walls. Extramurally, Westminster was defined as a community in A.D. 785 for 'the needy people of God' and an order of Benedictine monks settled under the watch of St Dunstan, Bishop of London, in A.D. 960. When Westminster Abbey was completed in A.D. 1065, rudimentary plumbing conducted water for the ritualistic washing practices of the Benedictines. Remains of a tap excavated from the original site are believed to originate from a 'water-filtering system'. No doubt general matter such as leaves and insects had to be strained away, but it is possible that water for cooking and drinking was also treated to some aesthetically superior version of the raw good.
Back inside the walled city, citizens of the City of London were granted a charter outlining their rights under William the Conqueror's administration in 1066. During that century, the only hard water evidence of note in the Museum of London are water-collecting buckets dated from the Norman period, suggesting that new wells had been sunk or rediscovered. By 1215 a government for the Square Mile, with a Mayor and an elected Corporation was in place. Extramurally, parish ward boundaries, such as St Martin-in-the-Fields and St Dunstan, were drawn up during the late tenth and early eleventh centuries. By the end of the twelfth century, Christian London's population was estimated at between 20,000 and 25,000 people, making it the most populous, and wealthiest, city in England.
Twelfth century author William Fitz Stephen wrote of social life at 'special wels in the Suburbs, sweete, wholesome and cleare, amongst which Holywell, Clarkes wel and Clements well, are most famous and frequented by Scholers and youthes of the Citie in sommer evenings, when they walk forth to take the aire'. Two of these wells related to locations of important nunneries founded in this century. Holywell was the site of a major nunnery and Clarkes well was situated just outside the walls of St Mary Clerkenwell, which was founded in 1144 on ten acres of land. Fitz Stephen's reference to the taste of these waters confirms that they were drinking sources. Imbibing 'holy' water was part of Christian culture of this period, in which some wells were associated with the cult of the saints and miracle cures, many with pagan origins. The historian Alexandra Walsham describes how the grounds surrounding certain wells 'became littered with crutches left behind by grateful pilgrims', who presumably believed that they had been cured. External and internal uses of such waters were considered to be equally therapeutic, depending on the ailment.
Fitz Stephen's categorisation of the suburban wells as 'special' suggests that other un-holy wells related to ordinary water uses such as mere thirst relief or cooking. Within the City walls, the supply of ordinary, but sufficient, high quality, freshwater became a quest in the thirteenth century.
Conducting sweete water
Evidence suggests that the plans to convey water from Tybourne 'for the profite of the Citty' began as early as 1236 with donations from 'Marchant Strangers of Cities beyond the Seas'. According to William Fitz Stephen, the City's increasing populace 'were forced to seek sweete waters abroad'. Significantly in this quote, the water's quality ranking as 'sweete' obviously suggests its relationship to human consumption. The project he was referring to resulted in the construction of the City of London's first 'conduit'.
One interpretation of this early form of water engineering, provided by the London water historian H.W. Dickinson, is that the idea for a conduit was inspired by monastic water supplies.
Excerpted from Parched City by Emma M. Jones. Copyright © 2012 Emma M. Jones. Excerpted by permission of John Hunt Publishing Ltd..
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Table of Contents
Chapter 1 Wells, Conduits and Cordial Waters: drinking sketches A.D. 43-1800 10
Chapter 2 Private Water and Public Health 1800-1858 34
Chapter 3 Philanthropic Fountains 1852-1875 58
Chapter 4 The Birth of Bacteriology and the Death of Corporate Water 1866-1899 83
Chapter 5 ChloriNation 1905-1933 105
Chapter 6 Blitz on the Board 1937-1945 122
Chapter 7 Purity and Poison 1948-1969 140
Chapter 8 Maggie Thatcher, Jane Fonda and the Water Cooler 1973-2000 160
Chapter 9 Wasteland and Council Pop: tracking the anti-bottled water Zeitgeist 2010-11 196
Chapter 10 21st Century Tap Water 2011-2012 233
Conclusions and Questions 262