A River Runs Through It | New River

London badly needed fresh water in the 17th Century so an enterprising goldsmith, with a little help from the King, built a channel through which water could flow from the countryside all the way to Clerkenwell.

The New River, as it was known, was an enormous engineering feat. To mark the 400th anniversary of its completion, John Morgan tells the New River’s story…

Between 1500 and 1600, the population of London increased threefold to around 150,000. The Thames was becoming polluted, and the city’s springs and wells were not providing enough water for the rapidly growing population.

Enter one Edmund Colthurst, who devised a scheme to bring clean water to London from springs at Amwell and Chadwell near Ware in Hertfordshire – a distance of around 20 miles as the crow flies. Colthurst received the approval of King James I, but although he started the work in 1604, he lacked the financial resources to continue. His approaches to the City of London for financial support were rejected. However one enterprising City dignitary, Hugh Myddelton (later to be Sir Hugh), a wealthy goldsmith and jeweller, saw an opportunity and took over the scheme. Work restarted in 1609 and the scheme employed more than 200 men – labourers were paid four pence per day and carpenters six and a half pence.

The idea behind the New River was that water would flow south by gravity, the river dropping about 5 inches each mile through a channel about 10 feet wide and 4 feet deep. Its route needed to follow the 100-foot contour of the Lea Valley, which increased the distance the water would have to travel to about 40 miles. This meant the New River would have to cross the land of many landowners. The landowners often objected and so even the wealthy Myddelton got into financial trouble. In 1611 King James agreed to bear a proportion of the costs in return for a 50% share of the profits. He also made it clear that landowners would ‘occur his displeasure’ if they objected. Myddelton may have been opportunistic and is often given credit for coming up with the New River idea, but Colthurst was not abandoned – he was employed as an engineer and given some shares in the scheme.

The New River was officially opened on 29 September 1613. The water flowed all the way to the New River Head in Clerkenwell, the site of which can still seen in Myddelton Passage, near Rosebery Avenue.

Once the flow of water reached the reservoir at the New River Head it was distributed to the City by pipes made from hollowed-out elm trees. An example of these ‘pipes’ can be seen at the Islington Museum.

It was many years before the New River Company became profitable, and King James actually returned his half share in exchange for an annual payment of £500 which clearly looked like a good deal at the time, but subsequently shares increased significantly in value. Myddelton was knighted and died a very rich man in 1631.

The New River flowed close by Sadler’s Wells and an enterprising manager there at the beginning of the 1800s diverted some of the New River to fill a huge water tank in order to stage ‘aqua drama’. ‘The Siege of Gibraltar’ reputedly featured more than 100 miniature ships firing cannons, with child actors playing the part of drowning Spanish sailors.

Ever wondered why one road in Islington is called Colebrooke Row on one side and Duncan Terrace on the other? It is because the houses were built on either side of the New River. At one end, now indicated by a plaque on a house called Colebrook Cottage, lived the poet and essayist Charles Lamb and his sister Mary. Lamb wrote of being visited by a fellow poet who had the unfortunate mishap of walking out of his house straight into the New River.

On 15 October 1940, during the Blitz, a large bomb hit the Dame Alice Owen’s school in Goswell Road. Although the school children had been evacuated, about 150 people were sheltering in the air raid shelter in the school basement, and the bomb damage blocked their exit. The blast also fractured a pipe which was carrying New River water. The shelter was flooded and the majority of those sheltering were killed.

Four hundred years after its completion, the New River no longer flows down to Clerkenwell. These days it goes only as far as reservoirs in Stoke Newington. But it still supplies a significant percentage of London’s water. And there are plenty of clues to the New River in Clerkenwell – place names like Amwell Street, Chadwell Street and Myddleton Square and, of course, a fine statue of Sir Hugh on Islington Green.

John Morgan is a volunteer guide for the Clerkenwell and Islington Guides Association. Clerkenwell and Islington Guides lead a weekly walk along part of the New River route. Starting at Angel tube station ticket barrier at 2pm on Sundays, the ‘Angel’s Delights’ walk takes in part of the river route and ends at the New River Head in Clerkenwell.