Two water companies were involved with the grand experiment of 1854 in which John Snow studied cholera deaths associated with
contaminated drinking water. During 1845-52, Both companies supplied people living
in the same area with polluted water drawn from the River Thames. Then in 1852 the Lambeth
Waterworks Company move its water intake to a cleaner location upriver,
while the Southwark and Vauxhall Water Company left its intake in the
same contaminated location.
When the next cholera epidemic appeared in
neighbors were unknowingly receiving cleaner water from the Lambeth company
while others consumed more polluted water from the Southwark and Vauxhall
company. This change in location of the water intake was the basis for a natural experiment, which allowed Dr. Snow to compare mortality patterns by water source
and strengthen his hypothesis regarding the transmission of cholera.
Click here to learn more about the grand experiment of 1854.
Both companies obtained their water from the River Thames.
But where were the intakes located?
LAMBETH WATERWORKS COMPANY
John Snow wrote, "The Lambeth Company removed their
water works in 1852 from opposite Hungerford Market to Thames Ditton [Seething
obtaining a supply of water quite free from the sewage of London."
1855, part 3, page 68.
There is, however, more to the story.
Since 1785, the Lambeth company had been supplying water to southern and eastern London from an intake on the River
Thames near Hungerford Bridge, in the heart of old London.
At first they used wood mains to transport
the water to customers, but then replaced them with iron in the early 1800s. In 1832,
the company constructed a reservoir at Streatham Hill, and then in 1834 constructed new
waterworks and a second reservoir in Brixton. Two years later they sold
some of their new Brixton site to the city to construct a prison. All this
while, the intake remained in the polluted region of the River Thames.
In 1847, the Directors of the Lambeth Waterworks Company
decided to move the intake from the Hungerford Bridge area to a new location, away
from the Thames tides that brought contaminated water to their intake.
They selected Seething Wells next to Thames Ditton, 22 miles up river and far
from the contaminated water in the London section of the river.
The Directors had remembered the cholera epidemic of 1832 and the public outcry over the
quality of water. A
pamphlet which Snow published in 1849 brought back these memories, with new
thoughts on the cholera hypothesis. Snow forcefully stated his theory that
cholera was caused by "a poison extracted from a diseased body and passed
on through the drinking water which had become polluted by sewage."
More pressure was placed on the River Thames water companies by a report
in 1850 by Edwin
Chadwick, who recommended that London water should come from new sources,
and that private water companies such as Lambeth should be bought out by the government. This was only a recommendation, however, and not
law. Finally in 1852, the Metropolitan Water Act was passed into law, mandating
that water companies move their intakes upriver where the water is
fresher. Because the Lambeth company had earlier made the decision to move its
intake 22 miles upriver, they became in 1852 the first water company to comply
with the new law.
SOUTHWARK AND VAUXHALL WATER COMPANY
In 1845, the Southwark Water Company merged
with the Vauxhall Water Company to become the Southwark and Vauxhall Water
Click here to learn more about the Southwark Water Company before the merger.
Their facility and intake site were next to Battersea Park,
upriver a few miles from the Lambeth company intake at Hungerford Bridge.
They had a large ground, with reservoirs covered nearly 18 acres. While
much of their water came from the River Thames, some also was drawn from deep
company used steam engines to force water to a perpendicular height of 175 feet,
allowing them to supply much of London south of the Thames.
The reputation of the new company was awful. In 1850, the
microbiologist Arthur Hassall wrote of the River Thames water they were using,"...a
portion of the inhabitants of the metropolis are made to consume, in some form
or another, a portion of their own excrement, and moreover, to pay for the
The company remained at the River Thames site until 1855 when
forced by the 1852 Metropolitan Water Act to move its intake to a location far upriver near Hampton. At the same time they
built four new reservoirs south of the river by Nunhead Cemetery. Water
was then pumped from Hampton to Battersea and on the Nunhead reservoirs.
All this occurred, however, after the period of the grand experiment.
MUCH MORE TO COME...
of Water Companies
Click here to see maps
and more on the
Hardy A. Medical
History (Suppl No. 11), 76-93, 1991
Snow J. On the
Mode of Communication of Cholera, 1855.
Weinreb B, Hibbert C. The London Encyclopaedia, 1993.
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