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The New River
Chadwell Springs in Hertfordshire to Clerkenwell in London
associated engineer
Edmund Colthurst
Sir Hugh Myddleton
George Sorocold
Robert Mylne
William Chadwell Mylne
date  1605, May 1609 - September 1613, and onwards
era  Stuart  |  category  Water Supply/Pipes  |  reference  TL350139
ICE reference number  HEW 277
The New River is an early canal, constructed four centuries ago to bring fresh water from Hertfordshire to the City of London. Now much shortened and partly flowing in culverts, the watercourse is nevertheless still in continual use and, with the London Tunnel Ring Main, forms part of the capital’s drinking-water supply.
Until the beginning of the 17th century, London's water was drawn from the River Thames, city-centre wells or suburban springs, and sold by water carriers to customers. As the population grew, fresh drinking water became increasingly scarce and a 'new river' was proposed to bring water from the surrounding countryside.
In 1602, Edmund Colthurst (c. 1545-1616) proposed the idea of bringing water in open channels from two springs in Hertfordshire, north of London. King James I granted a charter two years later. Colthurst's route would bring the water on a winding, almost-level course, nearly 65km in length.
Although not surveyed accurately until 1609 (by mathematician Edward Wright), the route must have had enough of a provable fall in level between the springs and the proposed end point at Islington. In 1605, work commenced and 4.8km of the canal was dug — before financial difficulties stopped work.
A Parliamentary Act of January 1606 enabled the Corporation of the City of London to restart the scheme, empowering them to create a channel not more than 3m wide and largely following Colthurst's route. Colthurst petitioned the City, keen to get the work going again but the City decided to take control and in March 1609 they appointed Welsh entrepreneur, goldsmith and Member of Parliament Sir Hugh Myddleton (1560-1631) to deputise for them. He had been a member of the Parliamentary committee that considered the project and was likely one of Colthurst's supporters.
Work began again in May 1609, with Colthurst as resident engineer and Myddleton superintending. The route follows the 30.5m contour on the west side of the Lea Valley, almost doubling the straight line distance to London.
Over its original 65km route, the water flowed under gravity all the way, falling only 5.5m in total (5 inches per mile). When finished, the board-sided conduit was generally the full 3m wide and contained water 1.2m deep, flowing over four weirs, which reduced the gravity fall even further. It was crossed by numerous timber bridges and some of brick. A wooden trough aqueduct took the canal over a stream at Edmonton.
The northern end begins at Chadwell (literally ‘cold well’) Springs, which rise through cracks in the underlying chalk and flow into an 18m wide stone-lined circular basin, producing up to 18 million litres of water daily. The springs are named after St Chad, Bishop of Lichfield. The stone plinth placed there is inscribed: "Chadwell Spring, Conveyed 40 miles, opened 1608, repaired 1728". The New River is also fed by water from the springs at Amwell 3km downstream.
Work more or less halted in February 1610, once again over financial matters but also because of opposition from local landowners. By that time about one quarter of the length was completed and the labourers had reached Cheshunt.
Myddleton negotiated an agreement whereby the King would pay half the construction costs in return for half the profits — and would command an end to unlawful opposition. Myddleton split the second half of the profits into 36 shares that were given to the original financial backers in proportion to their contributions. Colthurst received a life interest in four shares, free of charge. Work resumed in November 1611, with some 200 labourers and the surveying now undertaken by Edward Pond.
The canal originally terminated at New River Head in Clerkenwell in London where it fed the Round Pond near Sadler’s Wells Theatre. Water was conveyed from the pond to the City, and later to the West End, via pipes made from elm trunks with a 178mm diameter bore.
The New River was formally opened by Lord Mayor Sir John Swynnerton and Lord Mayor-elect Sir Thomas Myddelton (brother of Sir Hugh), when the flood gates admitted water to the Round Pond at New River Head in Islington on 29th September 1613. Sixty labourers carrying their work implements marched around the reservoir in celebration.
The elm pipework to the City was completed in November 1614. The King continued to pay instalments until 1617 but finances remained tricky. Myddleton had to borrow from the City in 1614. By March 1615, only 384 householders were paying rates. Profits were first recorded in 1622.
In June 1619, the New River Company was incorporated. Myddleton was its first Governor and the 26-member partnership group became shareholders, including the King and Colthurst. Myddleton remained in post until his death. In 1622, he was created a baronet, for the New River work and for the reclamation of Brading Haven the development of silver mines in Wales.
Local tradesmen had argued that the diversion of spring waters into the New River would have a disastrous effect on River Lee businesses such as milling and boat traffic. In fact, the springs proved inadequate to supply the New River and the New River Company sought to abstract water from the Lee. This was first permitted in 1669 and enacted in 1738. Travel on the River Lee was improved after the navigation works of 1767-82 were completed.
Not all Londoners were happy with the new water supply — some water vendors, fearing loss of trade, claimed that the water was poisoned. Before filtration was standard, fish could get into the pipework. In addition, high demand later on meant supplies often ran out.
A higher-elevation covered reservoir (the Upper Pond) to the design of Derby water engineer George Sorocold was constructed in Islington's Claremont Square (TQ311830) in 1709. This extended the scheme's distribution area, including proper coverage to Oxford Street in the West End, and drew water up from New River Head using a six-sailed windmill, backed up by a 'horse-engine' for times of little wind.
However, Sorocold's windmill solution wasn't too successful and was replaced by a horse gin in 1720. Steam engines were in use from 1768, housed in a building designed by John Smeaton. The New River Company's newly appointed joint surveyor, Robert Mylne (1733-1811), was involved in this installation work. Mylne would become the company's chief engineer in 1771 on the death of the other surveyor, Henry Mill.
In the 19th century, deep wells were sunk beside the New River to obtain extra water. An interesting example is at Hampstead Road, dug in 1835-8 under Robert Mylne's supervision. It had a 3.8m diameter opening, and was lined in brick backed by concrete, passing through made ground, red gravel and blue clay. The opening reduced to 3.3m as it passed through softer clay, where the walls were lined with cast iron cylinders. As the well reached sandy layers, the lining became a wrought iron tube that moved down as material was excavated, eventually reaching the underlying chalk. The final depth was 55.8m, where the shaft was just 1.4m in diameter.
In the 1850s the New River’s many loops were straightened using culverts, which reduced the total length to 45km. Two pumping stations were now needed. The leaky timber pipes were replaced with cast iron ones from 1810 onwards, and lead pipework connected the cast iron supply pipes with domestic cisterns.
Cholera outbreaks in London hastened legislation for cleaner drinking water, including the Metropolis Water Act 1852. To meet the new legal requirements and cope with expanding demand, waterworks with filter beds were built after 1852 at New River Head, Stoke Newington and Hornsey. Some 20ha of settling reservoirs were constructed at Stoke Newington around 1828.
The New River Company was well served by the Mylne family. On Robert Mylne's death in 1811 he was succeeded by his son William Chadwell Mylne (1781-1863), assistant engineer from 1798, who was chief engineer until he resigned/retired in 1859 and the position was taken by James Muir (1817-89). In 1845, William Chadwell Mylne Jr (1821-76, son) was appointed River Surveyor and remained in post until 1875.
By 1920 the reservoir at New River Head had been drained and new offices built to replace the sluice house. The buildings were extended in 1934-5 but in 1946 the works here were closed, so that the New River terminated at Stoke Newington. The offices were converted into apartments after 1987.
The Metropolitan Water Board took over New River Company in 1904, following the 1902 Metropolis Water Act, and it was renamed The New River Company (Limited). The New River itself passed into the ownership of Thames Water in 1973, while London Merchant Securities acquired the company’s property holdings in 1975 (merged with Derwent Valley Holdings in 2007 to form Derwent London).
The New River continues to be maintained by Thames Water and recharges the aquifer beneath Enfield and Haringey during the winter, but water is pumped back into the river when levels drop. The New River augments the supplies from the Thames Water Ring Main (completed in 1994, extended 2010).
From north to south, the important works along the New River are New Gauge House at Chadwell, Turnford Pumping Station, New River Aqueduct over the M25, Flash Lane Aqueduct in Enfield, Clarendon Arch, Hornsey Treatment Works, Stoke Newington Pumping Station and New River Head in Islington.
Surveyor (1609 - November 1611): Edward Wright
Surveyor (November 1611 - 1613): Edward Pond
Pipelaying (1810 onwards): Thomas Docwra
Contractor (Hampstead Road well): Hunter & English
Research: ECPK
"On the Supply of Water from Artesian Wells in the London Basin, with an Account of the Sinking of the Well at the Reservoir of the New River Company, in the Hampstead Road" by R.W. Mylne and W.C. Mylne, in ICE Transactions, Vol.3, pp.229-244, London, January 1840
"The Man Who Buried Nelson: The Surprising Life of Robert Mylne" by Robert Ward, Tempus, Stroud, 2007
"Obituary: William Chadwell Mylne, F.R.S., 1781-1863", in ICE Proceedings, Vol.30, pp.448-451, London, January 1870
"Obituary: William Chadwell Mylne, 1821-1876", in ICE Proceedings, Vol.44, pp.231-232, London, January 1876
"Obituary: James Muir, 1847-1889" in ICE Proceedings, Vol.96, pp.323-326, London, January 1889
"The River Lea 1571-1767: A River Navigation prior to canalisation" by Keith Roland Fairclough, doctoral thesis, University of London, 1986
reference sources   CEH LondBDCE1

The New River