The Mercenary River: Private Greed, Public Greed: A History of London Water
No city can survive without water, and lots of it. Today we take the stuff for granted: turn a tap and it gushes out. But it wasn’t always so. For centuries London, one of the largest and richest cities in the world, struggled to supply its citizens with reliable, clean water. Nick Higham tells the story of that struggle from the middle ages to the present day.
It is a tale of remarkable technological, scientific and organisational breakthroughs; but also a story of greed and complacency, high finance and low politics. Among the breakthroughs was the picturesque New River, neither new nor a river but a state of the art aqueduct completed in 1613 and still part of London’s water supply: the company that built it was one of the very first modern business corporations, and also one of the most profitable. London water companies were early adopters of steam power for their pumps. And Chelsea Waterworks was the first in the world to filter the water it supplied its customers: the same technique is still used to purify two-thirds of London’s drinking water.
But for much of London’s history water had to be rationed. Nick Higham describes our changing relationship with water and the way we use it, and asks whether today’s 21st-century water companies are an improvement on their Victorian predecessors.
Nick Higham is a former BBC News correspondent. The Mercenary River is his first book.
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