Water Supply

Originally, the water supply to the home came from street pumps, wells, water carts and nearby rivers, streams and ponds. Public pumps were often open only for a short period on certain days. People collected the water in pails or jugs and it would be stored in these until needed. The Victorian period saw dramatic improvements in the delivery of safe drinking water to homes.

Leeds was one of the first towns in Britain to have a piped water supply to houses; this came into operation in 1694. A water wheel pumped water from the River Aire through 1.5 miles of lead pipes to a storage reservoir and then was supplied to the wealthier inhabitants. As another example, Bristol had its first waterworks in 1846; a piped water supply was extended to the rest of the city over the next 20 years.

In London, the goldsmith and entrepreneur Hugh Myddleton helped meet the demand for water considerably by creating the 'New River'. This was a 40-mile channel that carried water from springs in Hertfordshire to Islington in North London. The scheme became operational in 1613 and is still partly in use today.

By 1726, every street in London contained a water main of oak and small lead pipes took water into the houses.  

By the 19th century, most people in London received raw and unfiltered water from the Thames and Lea Rivers or from surface wells.  Supplies were unreliable and water had to be stored in the home.  London water was contaminated with industrial pollution, human excrement, as well as the effluent from animal and human carcasses.

In 1848, a Metropolitan Commission of sewers was created and pushed through the City Sewers Act. The Commission began a programme to clear sewers, abolish cesspits, and improve domestic drainage. This work reduced the level of pollution in the water supply.

As the population of London swelled, companies began to supply more water. Between about 1830 and 1900, the companies increased the supply by nearly 700%. By the mid-19th century, all but the poorest houses had a cistern or tank, often in the roof, filled at guaranteed times.  

Although these companies were filtering the water by the 1850's, the cholera epidemics of this period led to major improvements in both the sewage system and water supply.

The private companies which provided water were eventually brought together in 1902 to form the Metropolitan Water Board.

Similar processes occurred in other towns and cities.