Stephen Selby pays tribute to the men whose ingenuity brought clean water and good health to Hackney

Hackney was a country village on the outskirts of London until 150 years ago when work began to develop the area into a vast housing estate. Shoreditch and Islington were already becoming overcrowded – and the push for building new homes became an unstoppable feature of life. Nothing has changed!

But in the days of our ancestors their legacy was far worse – too many poor people being squeezed into cramped conditions meant disease and premature death were almost inescapable. Lack of regular nutritious food didn’t help but premature demise was mostly caused by lack of sanitation.

Cholera was common. In 1848-49 it became an epidemic which killed 14,137 people of all ages. This was followed by another outbreak which killed 10,378.

The basic solution was probably first inspired by a journalist named George Godwin (1813-88). This bright and most observant young man in his early 20s is still unheard of today but could probably have won a Nobel Prize for his contribution to prolonging life. From unexpected beginnings, writing for the Builder magazine, Godwin produced a series of articles which eventually became a single publication called Town Swamps and Social Bridges.

This writer ventured below ground to expose the deadly proximity of raw sewage mixing with fresh water. It was an impassioned depiction motivating serious reaction.

He also identified the balance between clean and fetid air prevailing in typical buildings that were inhabited in those days.

He wrote: ”It might be useful if those who have the making of laws would visit such places to glance at the thousands who are crushed together and study the circumstances under which they are placed.

“The cubic space afforded is less than 150ft per head. It has been proved that each person consumes about 14ft of cubic air per hour. But when the oxygen is not replaced through lack of windows, the air becomes charged with poisonous matter.”

Goodwin was not alone in providing his detailed observations establishing the framework for future civil engineering. Joseph Bazalgette conceived the idea of a vast sewerage system in central London. This was eventually built below the present Thames embankment from 1865 and took ten years to finish.

London had previously grown, fulfilling housing needs without any idea of the consequences until it was too late. Livestock, whether for butchery or cows for milking, jostled amongst the crowds as an everyday event. People lived in rooms above the animals and became unaware of the stench that people today would wince at.

The high peaks of rubbish at Nova Scotia Gardens on Union Street, off Kingsland Road, was one of many dust heaps across the city. Here many women lived off the spoils.

Without the welfare we are all familiar with today, enterprises existed on every corner and in every dark basement.

About 250 years before Goodwin, Welshman Sir Hugh Myddleton ambitiously sought to bring constant fresh water into London. This he accomplished by rerouting the generous Amwell Spring in Hertford some 38 miles to the south.

He designed a canal to flow through tunnels and embankments meandering through to a deep holding reservoir next to Sadlers Wells in Islington. It was built between 1608 and 1613 and named The New River.

His skilled engineering work is still in existence today and the top reservoir overlooking London from Pentonville Road is the original.

Even on the 1645 map of Cromwell’s enormous walled fortress around London, this strategic water supply was highlighted for maximum defence.

In 1597 there had been a plan to route a tributary of our beloved River Lea across the city to Moorgate. But this never materialised, probably due to finding an earlier reference to “defects in the water” between Waltham Holy Cross and Stratford at Bow in 1583.

Hackney had used its own wells until this time – The Pigs’ Well, Churchfield Well and a considerable well on Hackney Downs.

So next time you turn the tap on, take a shower, use the washing machine or fill the dishwasher, just reflect on the value of clean and fresh water, not so many generations ago.