If ever we are tempted to take water for granted, a new book makes you stop in your tracks. No city or town can survive without water, and lots of it.
The story of London’s water supply is told in The Mercenary River by Nick Higham, a renowned journalist who spent 3 decades as a BBC reporter and therefore knows how to tell a tale compellingly. And what a tale this is. The author’s passion for history oozes from every page of this meticulously researched historical book, which is both gripping and shocking.
For those in The Water Dispenser & Hydration Association, or anyone working in the business of supplying clean, safe, and plentiful water, this book is a revelation.
As the author points out, today we take a public water supply for granted. Yet for 300 years, London, one of the largest and richest cities in the world, struggled to supply its citizens with reliable, clean water. Londoners were the victims of greed, disdain, and corruption compounded by atrocious political practices which allow those supplying this, one of the most vital of services, to get away with murder.
They have also benefited from the odd maverick scientist and from clever engineers without whom London would not – could not – have flourished.
The New River was transformative: an aqueduct completed in 1613 it became one of the first modern corporations, changing not just the water supply but the way business was conducted. Water companies carved up the supply of water to the growing city. One of these enterprises was the first to filter water, using a technique that is still used.
For centuries, turning on the tap, for those who had one, was very different from the experience today. For years, water was supplied intermittently and often was filthy. It took a bold scientist and epidemiologist, who was vilified by most of the scientific community of the time, to show that waterborne diseases were the scourge causing so many deaths due to cholera.
As Higham points out, the scientists were asking the wrong questions and analysis of the water proved useless. The problem was recognised by the populace, embodied in that famous cartoon Monster Soup by William Heath (under the name Paul Pry).
Killing your customers is never good, yet the private water companies did – to varying degrees – for a long time.
The story of two crises resulting from the disdain shown by Victorian companies for their clientele is revealed in this book for the first time, based on original source materials. The book takes us through the formation in England and Wales in 1974 of ten new regional water authorities and beyond when the Thatcher government privatised the water supply once again. Prices rose and so did profits whilst standards were – and remain – regular cause for criticism. Higham is not so sure that nationalisation would greatly help with efficiencies and standards, however.
A shortfall of 1 billion litres of water a day is predicted by 2050. The story of water supply continues. To understand that story, perhaps consider buying this book.