Thoughts on economics and liberty

Nineteenth century London water supply: Processes of innovation and improvement – Nicola Tynan

This paper is worth a read. Publishing a truncated HTML version, will read and annotate later, as time permits.

  1. Introduction

At the turn of the nineteenth century, those London households with piped water supply received their water untreated, intermittently and at low-pressure. By 1901, the majority of London’s households had piped supply, with 95% receiving water continuously, at high-pressure, and filtered if coming from the rivers Thames or Lea. London water supply was transformed during the century by processes of experimentation and innovation undertaken by London’s water companies during a time of significant uncertainty in the water and sanitation sectors. Government intervention also increased, with at least some negative consequences.

London’s water companies have received little credit for the investment in innovations that not only improved water supply for Londoners but were exported to other cities in England and abroad. The general perception of the water companies is one of failure to invest to improve public health and meet the demands of customers. In trade literature on water filtration, there is little recognition of the role played by London’s water companies in technological innovation.1

Most of the negative perception of London’s water companies can be traced back either to Edwin Chadwick, whose views were conveyed to economists via John Stuart Mill (1851, 1871) and to historians via S.E. Finer (1951) and R.A. Lewis (1952), or to the London County Council and other advocates of municipal ownership.2 The most frequently stated charge against the companies was an insufficient quantity of water, with the connection to public health emphasized. Then, as now, public health played a major role in policy debates regarding the ownership of water works; in many British and U.S. cities this debate resulted in a switch from private to municipal ownership and control.3 A perception of public health improvements in cities switching from private to public ownership provided evidence of prior market failure. When looking at London’s water supply at any given moment, critics have been quick to point out the imperfections in private supply with any government action indicating the superiority of government control.4

London’s waterworks were privately owned throughout the nineteenth century. Private companies had first offered pipe delivery of water in 1582 and continued to do so until 1904, after Parliament’s 1902 approval of a switch to public ownership (Tynan 2002). During this time period, private companies invested heavily in service improvements, though investment came in waves and with some companies proving more entrepreneurial than others. Investment was particularly heavy during the 1800s, as the demand for piped water increased. Companies moved to supplying filtered water, increased the volume of water delivered, introduced high-pressure and continuous supply, and extended their networks to the majority of homes in the metropolis. Public health improved: London experienced its last Asiatic cholera epidemic (England’s major health scare during the nineteenth century) in 1866, long before government purchase of the waterworks and earlier than many European and American cities that suffered high mortality rates during the 1892 cholera outbreak.

In this paper, I assess the economic history of water supply in nineteenth century London, using a process approach rather than one of static efficiency at any given moment in time. Following Mises (1966) and Kirzner (1997), the paper emphasizes entrepreneurship, focusing on the companies that provided leadership in R&D and quality improvements, while identifying the particular challenges of operating in a time of uncertainty due to competing theories of the connections between water, sanitation and disease, and changing government regulation.5 During the early to mid-1800s, London’s water companies experienced brief periods of rivalrous competition (Graham-Leigh 2000, Tynan 2002: 354-355). Over the longer-term, competition for consumers encouraged companies to offer a better commodity: improving water quality by moving intakes and investing in filtration, and improving service by upgrading pipes, installing more powerful pumps, and expanding reservoir capacity.

In Parliamentary and other public debates on water supply, reformers argued that private water companies failed to provide a sufficient quantity or quality of water to prevent the spread of cholera. Following both entrepreneurial and Parliamentary response through time shows that parties on both sides were trying to improve conditions in the face of epidemiological and technological uncertainty. 6 A comparison of company investment and government intervention shows that companies responded to water quality concerns and to evidence suggesting cholera was water-borne at least as fast as public authorities, with at least one company investing in filtration or moving its intake prior to regulation. Government regulation generally imposed on all companies the innovations already undertaken by the most entrepreneurial.

Larger volumes of water and network expansion offered health benefits, but only when combined with an appropriate wastewater and sewerage technology. Non-network sewage removal was dominant in London until the second half of the nineteenth century, and urban households without a sewer connection periodically paid collectors to empty their cesspool (Fletcher, 1844:156; Halliday, 1999:34). By embracing an erroneous miasma theory of cholera transmission, government officials such as Edwin Chadwick and John Simon were responsible for the deterioration in water quality. The public health effect of the move from cesspools to sewers was initially negative as household sewage polluted the rivers Thames and Lea that were the source of most companies’ water.

Towards the end of the century, there is evidence that regulations requiring Parliamentary approval for additional investment slowed improvements in water infrastructure providing possible illustration of Kirzner’s claim that regulation “may discourage, hamper and even completely stifle the discovery process” (1985: 141).

This paper adds to the literature challenging the negative impression of private water provision, particularly regarding public health, that justified government appropriation of water works. Troesken (1999) shows that during the progressive era private water companies in US cities invested in filtration at a faster rate than public utilities; a switch from private to public provision played little role in reducing typhoid rates. For English cities during the nineteenth century, Hassan (1985) provides evidence that public ownership of waterworks generated external benefits in the form of reduced fire costs and more abundant supply for industrial users, but finds little evidence of an improvement in public health. This paper focuses on nineteenth century London as a particularly rich case study given its long and contentious history of private provision.

  1. Overview of Demand, Supply and Technology Changes

Nineteenth century London experienced rapid population growth. In 1801, the metropolis had a population of 959,000, living in approximately 200,000 houses in and around the densely populated City (the original square mile of fortified London). During the century, soldiers and expatriates returned home after the war with France, people migrated from Ireland and rural England, and the mortality rate fell. In 1851 the population had risen to over 2.3 million and the number of houses to 300,000. By 1900, London had a population of over 4.5 million; the area supplied by London’s water companies – known as Water London – had a population of 6.3 million and covered 620 square miles.7 Population growth was not evenly spread, however. During the first 50 years, population density in the City remained stable (with population remaining about 128,000) and grew rapidly in neighboring parishes. By the second half of the century, population density in the City fell, while it rose rapidly in the suburbs as trains allowed people to live further from their work and London absorbed many peripheral villages. In response to these population and territory increases water companies made continual investments – laying pipes to extend their networks and increasing reservoir capacity – that meant people did not have to rely on London’s deteriorating wells.

During the nineteenth century, water and sanitation technologies changed quite dramatically from one still found in urban areas of many developing countries to the core of Greater London’s current water and sanitation system. In 1800, most households received unfiltered water delivered intermittently at a low pressure and many relied on communal pumps.8 Households had private cesspools and much non-human waste still flowed into open street drains, though within central London most sewers running through residential streets were covered by the early 1800s (Sunderland 1999: 354-5). By 1900, water companies delivered potable water continuously and at a high-pressure to almost the entire metropolitan population, London’s sewerage network was complete, and wastewater ran through underground drainage pipes. Much of the nineteenth century debate over water and sanitation can be traced to the difficulties of shifting from one set of technologies to the other.

Before 1800, the primary service supplied by water companies was the transportation of large quantities of water directly to consumers’ homes and businesses.  Taking advantage of economies of scale, piped water offered high-volume consumers an alternative to water carrier delivery or to collecting water themselves. Population growth and rising middle class income in the late 1700s and early 1800s raised the demand for piped water, particularly for high-pressure service that would enable households to receive water directly to the top floors of their homes. More households and businesses demanded a connection to one of the companies’ networks, while existing customers demanded increasing quantities of water and new service attributes. Customers who installed water closets (flush toilets) and baths demanded larger quantities of water, and many expressed a preference for continuous service.9

Entrepreneurs responded to the growing demand for water in two ways: entry and innovation. Seven new companies entered the London water market between 1805 and 1822 – the West Middlesex, East London, Kent, Pocock’s, and Grand Junction companies north of the river Thames; the Vauxhall and Southwark companies south of the Thames – resulting in eleven water companies supplying London in 1822. Entrants built new infrastructure or took over and expanded existing networks. Incumbents and entrants invested in new technology. Water companies employed engineers to design powerful pumps that would allow them to offer ‘high’ service and installed iron pipes able to withstand greater pressure than wooden pipes. After 1822, some companies merged or took over smaller rivals with eight companies surviving to the end of the century to have their assets purchased by the Metropolitan Water Board.

At the same time, government officials made changes in sanitation technology. In 1815, households were allowed to dispose of waste from cesspools and house drains through London’s sewers for the first time (Halliday, 1999: xii). In 1848, the Metropolitan Commission of Sewers, faced with calls to do something following the cholera epidemic of 1832-33 and convinced that the vapors from household cesspools were a primary source of the disease, mandated household connection to the sewers. This change in policy increased sewage pollution of the Thames, most companies’ source of water.

Contemporary advocates of sewerage, who believed in a miasma theory of cholera, implemented policies that replaced the local external costs of cesspools with the more public costs of dumping untreated sewage in rivers. Everyone was acting in a period of uncertainty. With hindsight, we know that the theory of miasma accepted by Edwin Chadwick, 10 William Farr, 11 and John Simon,12 amongst others, was incorrect. Knowing that John Snow’s theory of cholera transmission proved correct calls for a re-assessment of the actions undertaken by London’s water companies and government bodies.

  1. Water Pollution and Entrepreneurial Response

In 1800, London’s four main water companies in terms of customers supplied were the London Bridge Water Works Company, the New River Company, the Chelsea Company, and the York Buildings Company, all operating north of the river Thames. The London Bridge and New River Companies were London’s oldest companies, established in 1582 and 1613, respectively. The London Bridge Company drew water from the Thames south of the City, while the New River Company built the New River to bring water to London from Hertfordshire. The York Buildings Company entered London’s water market in 1691 and the Chelsea Company in 1722, both drawing water from the Thames. A few smaller companies supplied areas that would later become part of London as the metropolis grew during the nineteenth century.

The rising demand for water in the early 1800s coincided with two technology related developments. Firstly, pumping technology had improved significantly during the 1700s partly through adoption and experimentation by London’s water companies. According to W. Dickinson, “the fact, far too little recognized hitherto, will emerge that London has had a notable share in the development of the steam engine” (1954: 59). By ‘London’, Dickinson primarily means London’s water companies. Secondly, improvements in the manufacture and design of iron pipes and joints, combined with a fall in the price of iron, made it cost effective for companies to substitute iron pipes for wood throughout their networks (Dickinson, 1954: 118-119; Graham-Leigh, 2000: 18, 28). Changes in market demand and technology encouraged entry, with new companies initially operating outside existing companies’ supply areas but soon competing directly with them for customers.13 In addition to competing by offering a better commodity, London’s water companies also competed on price until the price competition started to constrain their investment.

Increasing availability of water and, for some households the lower price, had implications for sanitation and wastewater removal. In 1800, a typical London household relied on a cesspool below or near their home to dispose of human waste. London’s system of public sewers was designed primarily for rainwater and drainage; private connection to public sewers was illegal. London’s City Corporation and other Sewer Commissions in the metropolis imposed fines on offenders with a view to preventing pollution of public waterways.14 The re-invention of the water closet as an alternative to cesspools coincided with greater availability of piped water.15 This made flushing a lower-cost option than carting cesspool waste out of town and pressure for private connection to the sewers increased.16

In 1815, London’s eight Sewer Commissions decided to allow private sewer connections conditional on households paying their own construction and maintenance costs. The private cost for sewer connection could be quite high, partly due to vestries’ requirement that construction be undertaken by an official bricklayer (Jones 1929: 103).  Because households had to pay for sewer connections, the demand for water closets started fairly slowly; by the 1830s and 40s demand for water closets increased more rapidly. As the volume of wastewater flushed into London’s sewers increased, so did the quantity of human waste joining the animal and industrial wastes polluting the rivers Thames and Lea.17

Despite the pollution, London’s Sewer Commissions remained strong advocates of sewerage and, in 1834, immediately following London’s first Asiatic cholera epidemic, saw their responsibility not explicitly as the protection of public health but “to effect the mechanical transmission of the superfluous fluids to the Thames” (Fletcher 1844: 164). The result was an increase in the negative externalities imposed on anyone relying on the Thames for their water. To be fair to the Sewer Commissions, their harshest contemporary critic, Edwin Chadwick, was also a strong advocate of sewerage: he criticized the Commissions for their inefficiency in sewer construction and their inadequate flushing of the sewers.18 The period was also one of competing theories regarding the spread of disease. The theory that cholera could be transmitted via fecal pollution of water had not yet been advanced in the literature although some people did believe that sewers could spread cholera (Sunderland, 1999: 371).

By the mid-1820s, London water quality became a serious issue. More recent research has shown that after 1815 the quality of water in the Thames started to deteriorate (Wood 1982: 17-21). For those companies that obtained their water from the Thames, the quality of water they distributed also fell. By the mid-1820s, companies and consumers could clearly observe this deterioration in quality and critics started to condemn the companies for delivering impure water.

Aware of complaints about deteriorating water quality and at risk of losing customers, the Chelsea Company responded rapidly. A solution was needed, but was neither obvious nor readily available. The Company’s engineer, James Simpson, started to experiment with filtration technologies in 1825. Water filtration was still in its infancy. In 1806 and 1808, two water companies in Glasgow, Scotland, had built filtration plants with only limited success (Matthews 1835: 147).19 Robert Thom, another Scot, developed a sand filtration system for Greenock around the same time as James Simpson.20 In January 1827, the Chelsea Company directors were persuaded by the efficacy of Simpson’s system and shifted all the company’s R&D funding towards filtration. Simpson increased the scale of his experiments, traveled to Glasgow to talk to other engineers, and devoted himself full time to the development of filtration beds. In January 1829, the Chelsea Water Works Company opened London’s first sand filtration plant (Matthews 1835: 84). James Simpson was later employed by the Lambeth Company and completed their first filtration works in 1841 (Luckin 1986: 36). James Simpson’s innovation should not be downplayed. Although Simpson was not the only one developing sand filtration at this time, the process introduced for the Chelsea Company “remains the basis of water filtration to this day though it was sixty years before Pasteur’s work revealed that the sand provided a biological as well as a physical barrier to impurities” (Halliday 1999: 25). 21

A more recent entrant to London’s water market, the Grand Junction Company, received a large share of water company criticism. Incorporated in 1811 to supply water to Paddington and adjacent areas to the west of the City, the Grand Junction Company had a difficult beginning. The company took over powers obtained by the Grand Junction Canal Company in 1798 with a view to supplying water from the rivers Brent and Colne, via the Grand Junction canal, through stone pipes which they believed would be superior to iron pipes. Stone pipes proved unsuitable as they failed under pressure; in 1813, the company decided to switch to iron pipes and abandon stone. (Graham-Leigh, 2000:40- 41). The company had marketed itself as offering higher quality water and continuous supply superior to the intermittent supply available from competitors. During 1814-16, however, the company suffered unexpected periods of pollution of the Grand Junction canal resulting in a decision to abandon the river Brent as a source of water.22 In September 1820, the Grand Junction Company switched to drawing water from the Thames at Chelsea forcing it to renege on initial promises to provide continuous service and higher quality water to all customers (Richards and Payne, 1899: 19). These failures were all important in terms of a dynamic process of discovery: stone pipes were tested and shown to be inferior to iron; the rivers Brent and Colne were found to be inferior to the Thames as sources of water; and continuous supply was shown to be difficult to provide with existing technologies. Such experimental failure is a necessary part of entrepreneurial failure that provides information to all market participants. By attempting to provide continuous service to all customers, the Grand Junction Company highlighted what could be possible and would become standard practice by the end of the century.

Despite the Chelsea Company’s introduction of sand filtration, most companies did not follow suit. The emphasis was on a physical barrier that removed water contaminants and the advantages of filtration over settling reservoirs and screen filters were still being debated. During the 1830s and early 1840s, most of London’s water companies invested in screen filters, settling reservoirs, and moving their intake upriver, as ways to improve the quality of water from existing sources. By the mid-to-late 1840s, however, other companies decided to invest in sand filtration to satisfy the demands of their customers for improved quality. The Kent Company did so in 1845. The Lambeth Company committed to invest in 1848 and by 1851 had completed a filtration plant at their new site at Long Ditton. By formally committing the Company to filter water before distribution, the Lambeth Company’s Act of 1848 was the first Act to incorporate a water filtration clause.4

Early Parliamentary Investigation of London’s Water Supply

Between the years 1815 and 1818, after a brief period of competition north of the Thames, the New River, Chelsea, Grand Junction, and West Middlesex companies reached agreements to limit their supply areas and no longer compete directly. This allowed them to raise prices to pre-competition levels (Graham-Leigh 2000: 52-61, Tynan 2002: 355-6). Rivalrous competition had initially been important for entrepreneurial network expansion, but price competition reduced revenue and had started to undermine companies’ ability for further investment. Unsurprisingly, the price increase outraged many customers. Customers of the West Middlesex and Grand Junction companies were particularly outraged, leading many of them to form the Anti-Water Monopoly Association to petition Parliament with a view to transferring the private companies’ assets to local vestry control (Mukhopadhyay, 1981: 5). In response, the House of Commons established a committee of enquiry in 1821. The committee found the water supply of London superior to that of any city in Europe, but agreed that the companies were acting as monopolies by limiting supply areas in a way unintended by Parliament. It recommended a four year trial limit on prices and the establishment of ‘referees’ to hear customer complaints. Since these recommendations were weaker than critics had hoped for and were not supported by the companies, they were not acted upon (Clifford 1885: 137-143).

By 1827, customers had become more concerned about water quality. An 1827 pamphlet, “The Dolphin,” by Mr. J. Wright condemned the Grand Junction Water Company for locating its intake so close to a major sewer outlet (Clifford 1885: 143).  [Sanjeev: This is clearly a government created problem: they are the ones who were putting out sewage into the Thames]

Although moving close to the Chelsea Company’s intake,23 the Grand Junction faced particular criticism because it had initially promised such high quality water from the Grand Junction canal. In response, a Royal Commission was established in June 1827 to look into the Thames as a source of water. The Commission reported in 1828 and recommended that Parliament consider other sources of water supply. The Commission’s report had brought forth many proposals for schemes – most impractical and costly – to bring pure water to London.24 In 1828, Parliament established a House of Commons select committee to consider these alternative sources of supply; in 1834, Parliament established a second committee; and a third in 1840. None of these committees could conclude that an alternative source of supply would justify the cost (Clifford 1885: 148- 151).25

Critics of private water supply could point to the Royal Commission’s report in 1828 as evidence of relatively rapid government action regarding London water quality compared to the opening of the Chelsea Water Company’s filtration plant in January 1829.  While this static perspective seems to support the superiority of government action, it is inaccurate because it does not take into account the time involved in constructing water works or preparing a government report. It fails to acknowledge that the Chelsea Company started research into filtration in 1825 before Parliament committed to formally investigate concerns about water quality; construction of the first successful sand filtration plant was well underway when the Royal Commission was established in June 1827. [Sanjeev: Private enterprise solutions preceded any societal concerns] Since the Chelsea Company was already building at the time of the Commission’s investigations, the timing does not provide support for market failure to respond to the problem of water quality. It also ignores the scientific uncertainty regarding disease transmission facing private and public actors. Parliamentary committees, local government bodies and the water companies were all trying to respond to water quality and sanitation problems for which no one had a clear solution.

The same applies to the 1852 London Water Act’s requirement that all companies move their intakes and invest in filtration. As Bolton (1888:18) notes, “in 1847, the Lambeth Company took the initiative by preparing to remove its intake to Thames Ditton.” The Kent, Chelsea, Lambeth, and Southwark & Vauxhall companies had all started their investment in water filtration before 1852. It is also worth remembering that the focus by Parliament-appointed committees on alternative sources of water was never implemented, even after purchase of the water companies in 1904, while the pipe and filtration technologies developed by the Chelsea and other companies remain in use today.

  1. Cholera: Uncertainty, Error and Discovery

Cholera played a signal role in debates about London water supply and sanitation during most of the 1800s. Asiatic cholera arrived in observable waves, spread fast, and killed many people in a short period of time. During an epidemic year, deaths from cholera could outweigh deaths from other causes in cities struck by the disease. The fear of an impending cholera outbreak did much to heighten public anxiety and to intensify demand for a solution.26

Londoners experienced four cholera epidemics: in 1832-33, 1848-49, 1853-54 and 1865-6. The death rate from cholera rose in the second epidemic compared to the first – about twice as many people in London died from cholera in 1848-49 as had died in 1832-33 – but fell during the next two (table 1). Between the first and the second epidemic, many households installed a water closet and connected to London’s sewers to remove the fumes from their cesspools that were believed to be spreading disease. The sewer connection rate increased even more rapidly after 1848 and by 1866 the water closet (either in-house or out) was an almost universal feature of London homes.

By 1848, all of the companies operating north of the river Thames had either invested in sand filtration or moved their intake upriver and constructed large settling reservoirs. Not all of the companies moved their intake sufficiently far up-river to avoid all sewage pollution, but their moves almost certainly helped reduce the severity of the epidemic.27 In the 1848-49 epidemic, the only districts suffering cholera death rates above 1% (100 per 10,000 population) were south of the Thames.28 Households in these districts received water from either the Southwark & Vauxhall or Lambeth companies. The Lambeth Company had started building its filtration plant at Long Ditton in 1848, but it was not operational until 1851. The Southwark & Vauxhall Company had built a filtration plant when they moved their intake from London Bridge to Battersea in 1845, but it was not considered effective and pollution of the Thames at Battersea in 1848 was greater than at London Bridge in 1832. By 1853-54, the Lambeth Company had completed its sand filtration plant and moved its intake up-river. As a consequence, cholera rates were far lower in those districts supplied by the Lambeth Company than in those supplied by the Southwark & Vauxhall. It is largely because of the differences in technology resulting from competition between the water companies that John Snow was able to test his theory. Snow discovered that cholera rates were higher in the Southwark & Vauxhall’s supply area than in the Lambeth’s area proving to his own satisfaction that the cholera germ could be transmitted orally via a fecal-water route rather than arising from miasmas (Snow 1855).

The timing of the 1848-49 cholera epidemic – London’s worst in both absolute number of deaths and deaths per capita – is significant for another reason: it immediately followed the Metropolitan Sewer Commission’s 1848 decision to make household sewer connection compulsory. In 1847, Parliament created the Metropolitan Sewers Commission to consolidate London’s eight Sewer Commissions and to hasten the construction of a sewerage system. The Metropolitan Commission immediately compelled the connection of all private cesspools to the public sewers and required all new houses to include a sewer connection. This move rapidly increased pollution of the Thames, lowering the quality of many water companies’ major input, something they had no power to prevent.29

In 1852, the Metropolis Water Act was implemented as the first government Act specifically to address water quality. The Act required all companies drawing water from the rivers Thames or Lea to move their intakes above the tidal part of the river and to invest in sand filtration. The Chelsea, Grand Junction and East London companies had already moved their intakes, but the Act required them to move their intakes again. The Act also required the Southwark & Vauxhall and West Middlesex companies to move their intakes above Teddington Lock. The Lambeth Company had moved sufficiently far up river in 1851. In response to the 1852 Act, the Grand Junction, Southwark & Vauxhall, West Middlesex, and New River companies built new filtration plants along the lines of the successful filtration works of the Chelsea, Lambeth, and Kent companies.

Debate leading up to the 1852 Act raises the possibility that public opinion, as expressed through Parliamentary debate and legislation, may have sped up the process of investment in water quality improvements. The 1852 Act required laggard water companies to follow the innovators, possibly faster than they might otherwise have done but even this is uncertain. An 1848 editorial in The Lancet, written before the Lambeth Company moved its intake, suggests that the laggard companies would have soon moved their intakes voluntarily: the author conjectures that should the Lambeth Company’s move up-river be approved, “it would be the signal for the removal of all the other waterworks … out of the sphere of the impurities” (The Lancet, 1848). The Act of 1852 does not indicate a failure of private water supply or a superiority of regulation. It was water company entrepreneurs and scientists who successfully identified solutions to London’s water quality problems so, at best, the legislative process sped up quality improvements for some consumers.

Static analyses of London’s water companies fail to take seriously the uncertainty amongst scientists and policy makers regarding water quality and pollution during the nineteenth century. In 1832, doctors and scientists understood very little about the nature or transmission of cholera. Even worse, much of what they thought they knew was wrong (Halliday 1999: 125-141).30 Even after the 1853-4 epidemic, by far the majority of doctors, public health officials and clergy continued to support the miasmatic theory, though they now saw sewage polluted water as one of the many predisposing factors.31, 32

Changing water and sanitation technologies takes time, particularly when a new system requires large-scale investment and integrated network infrastructures. Often the process of investment can take different paths before a fully integrated system is complete.

Understanding that cholera can be spread via sewage contaminated water suggests that the path taken in London might not have been the best available: it is difficult to view a process involving the pollution of public water sources with cholera-contaminated sewage as other than an error. With hindsight, this path chosen by London’s Sewer Commissions and the Metropolitan Sewer Commission appears particularly bad even if understandable at the time given contemporary knowledge and pressure from homeowners installing flush toilets. [Sanjeev: we see government failure not market failure, here] Public authorities’ decision to compel house connections to public sewers four years before requiring water filtration provides some evidence of government failure worse than the failure by some private companies to invest in filtration earlier.33 A more positive lesson is the importance of potential and reputational competition between companies and, possibly, between the companies and Parliament in stimulating entrepreneurial discovery and correcting erroneous decisions.34

Only in 1856, with Parliament’s creation of the Metropolitan Board of Works, did the decisions of London’s sewer authority take an anti-pollution direction.  The Metropolitan Board was specifically created to address the problem of river pollution and given a mandate to ensure the separation of waste from water flowing into the Thames (Halliday 1999: 68). The Board proposed a system of intercepting sewers to transport sewage five miles below London before disposing of it into the Thames.  In 1858, the year of the Great Stink, Disraeli authorized the Board to start work immediately.35 As with most large-scale projects, the intercepting sewers took longer to construct and cost the public a much larger amount than estimated.36   The intercepting sewer system was initially predicted to take three years to construct and the official opening took place in April 1865, but the work was not completed until 1875.37 Sewage pollution of the Thames within London finally ended in the late 1880s, making the time it took to achieve the Metropolitan Board’s mission over 30 years, with Londoners living under the specter of cholera (Halliday 1999: 106).

Water companies’ investment in filtration and moving intakes up-river had contributed to the lower death rates in the 1853-54 and 1866 epidemics compared to 1848-49. By 1866, both water company investment in filtration and much of London’s intercepting sewer was complete. After the Metropolis Water Act of 1852, the East London Company had moved its intake upriver, invested in impounding reservoirs and sand filtration; it also built a 4-mile intercepting sewer to carry wastewater and sewage below its intake from the river Lea (Hogg et al. 1986: 19). 38   Unfortunately, this intercepting sewer was not sufficient to prevent pollution of the river Lea and, when cholera hit Europe in 1866, London’s east-end was not yet connected to the London’s intercepting sewer system. In 1866, the majority of London’s cholera deaths were concentrated in the East London Company’s supply region. It was this concentration of deaths in one water company’s supply area, where the prevention of sewage contamination was not yet complete, that finally persuaded William Farr that John Snow’s theory was superior to his own (Farr 1868). In response to the 1866 outbreak, the East London Company moved its river Lea intake further up-river, added additional supply from the river Thames, and built new filtration plants.

  1. Investment and Criticism after Cholera

Throughout the second half of the nineteenth century, the population of London continued to grow rapidly, particularly in the suburban periphery (where the population rose more than eight-fold). Water companies saw an increasing demand for new connections and an increase in the volume of water demanded by each household; they were continually investing in response (Luckin 1986: 177). The number of customers  supplied by the private companies increased substantially. For example, the New River Company supplied water to 52,000 households in 1800, 100,000 in 1848, and 178,000 by 1903. London’s younger companies expanded even faster, with the number of households receiving water from the East London Company rising from 11,000 to 224,000 between 1809 and 1903.39 Overall, the number of customers supplied by London’s eight water companies more than doubled between 1866 and 1903, rising from 440,000 to 970,000.40

Despite water quality improvements, increasing per-capita volumes, extension of service, and a switch to continuous service for an ever larger number of households, London’s water companies continued to face criticism by supporters of government water provision. Critics continued to raise the issue of water quality, although it was now a smaller issue than quantity and frequency. Fears of another cholera outbreak in London were occasionally raised in newspapers, particularly as other cities in Europe suffered during the 1892 outbreak. Typhoid also played a small role but, unlike in many American cities, it did not play a signal role in arguments for government ownership largely because the death rate from typhoid was lower in London than most British cities with municipal water supply (Shadwell 1899: 64).

Customer complaints were mostly a result of customers not receiving a connection or continuous service as fast as they would like and were generally short-lived. The wait for a connection was due either to the time required to lay new pipes or to a customer’s failure to install appropriate indoor fittings. Nevertheless, the water companies moved towards continuous supply. In 1885 about half the houses in London had constant supply (Clifford 1885: 172) and by 1899 most of London’s households did, with over 90 per cent of the East London, Chelsea, Grand Junction, Kent, and Southwark & Vauxhall companies receiving constant supply (Shadwell 1899: 90-91).41

Throughout the century, the water companies needed to seek approval to undertake additional investment or expand supply, either from Parliament or from another public body. Since the Lambeth Company’s request in 1847 to move its intake above Teddington Lock, for example, water companies had to obtain permission to abstract water from the Thames, first from the London Corporation and then, after 1857, from the Thames Conservancy Board. Payment from the companies to the Conservancy Board was added in 1866 in exchange for an increase in the companies’ abstraction rights (Shadwell 1899: 44-47). Fortunately for the companies and their customers, the Thames Conservancy Board approved requests to increase water abstraction rights fairly readily in return for increased payments. [Sanjeev: the government received good revenues for the public resource: the Thames]

During the second half of the century, government investigations into alternative sources of water supply under management by a public body were ongoing despite the generally positive impression of the companies reached by public inquiries (Clifford 1885: 159- 167). In 1867, a House of Commons committee inquiry into the 1852 Metropolis Water Act found Thames water supply more than satisfactory in quantity and quality. At the same time, a Royal Commission investigated an alternative supply of water from the high grounds of England and Wales. Reporting in 1869, it found the current supply was sufficient to meet the needs of the projected increase in population. The Commission did urge a move to continuous supply, resulting in the Metropolis Water Act of 1871 that required companies to switch to constant supply. The Act also authorized the Board of Trade to appoint a water examiner to test London water quality (Clifford 1885: 171).

Bills were introduced in 1878 to supplement London’s existing water supply and to purchase the metropolitan waterworks but neither were considered by either House of Parliament (Clifford 1885: 177-8).

With the creation of the London County Council (LCC) in 1889, London’s water companies acquired particularly effective critics.42 W.H. Dickinson, chairman of the LCC’s water committee, argued the case for LCC purchase of the water companies verbally and in print (e.g., Dickinson 1897). While the LCC was ultimately unsuccessful in gaining control of London’s water supply, its attempt to do so fueled the debate that resulted in takeover of London’s water companies by a newly created Metropolitan Water Board (Mukhopadhyay 1981). In response to the LCC’s queries, a Royal Commission was established in 1892 to determine whether the Thames and Lea were sufficient to meet the demands of a growing population in the areas currently relying on these rivers as a source (Shadwell 1899: 80). Chaired by Lord Balfour of Burleigh, the Balfour Commission reported in 1893 that current sources were sufficient in both quantity and quality for the foreseeable future, a finding that should have made it difficult for the LCC to bring the issue before Parliament again. Unfortunately extreme weather – an extreme frost followed by drought in 1895, drought in 1896, and severe drought in 1898 – caused problems for the East London Company that gave the LCC an opportunity to re-open the debate.

In early 1895, frost shattered many pipes leading to customers’ homes across east London resulting in excessive waste of water just as the country faced a summer drought. To reduce waste, the East London Company switched to providing intermittent supply while pipes were repaired during summer 1895 and more briefly during 1896 (Shadwell 1899: 99). For those customers with constant supply who had no cistern to provide a back-up this was a significant disruption. In response to customer complaints, a Local Government Board inquired into the East London Company’s actions but found them a necessary response. In 1898, another drought caused the company to again switch to intermittent supply and opened the way for new bills from the LCC to end private provision. Part of the blame for the switch to intermittent supply must lie with the LCC itself (Shadwell, 1899: 106-113). In 1893, the East London Company petitioned Parliament to expand its reservoir capacity but the LCC argued successfully against the bill. Had the bill passed, and the company been allowed to invest, the temporary inconvenience would likely have been prevented.43

While no major technological innovations were undertaken during the late 1800s, the companies continued to invest with the goal of improving their service, despite constant criticism, threat of takeover, and the LCC’s obstruction of their bills. The LCC’s efforts to prevent even fairly routine investments provide a particularly egregious instance of (local) government regulation preventing entrepreneurial action (Kirzner 1985: 141). [Sanjeev: This is a key issue – government actively preventing innovation]

Although additional regulation and the threat of government purchase did not prevent all entrepreneurial action – the water companies were innovative throughout the nineteenth century – fewer major innovations during the later part of the century suggests that it may have slowed it down.


Private companies’ failure to consider public health externalities is one argument that continues to be made in favor of public rather than private water supply. It was one argument used in the takeover of London’s eight water companies. Taking a static view and looking at water and sanitation in London at any time during the nineteenth century, it is possible to identify actions that the water companies could have taken to improve public health. Taking an Austrian process approach, however, shows that companies were continually investing to increase access to piped water and to improve water quality during a time when they and the government faced quite severe knowledge problems and uncertainty. For every regulation imposed on London’s water companies with a view to improving public health, at least one company had already implemented the improvement and the regulation imposed the innovations of the most entrepreneurial companies on the others. The market discovery process led to long lasting innovations, such as sand filtration, that remain the basis of current technology.

Government agencies made some early errors that imposed pollution externalities on the private companies so that companies suffered from pollution externalities more than they caused them. By providing the data that allowed John Snow to convince others of his theory of cholera transmission, competition between London’s water companies generated external benefits in the form of improved medical knowledge, in addition to investment in water quality and other product improvements. Competition improved knowledge faster than would have been the case with only a single municipal utility.

Further research is needed to determine whether the net impact of regulation was to hinder water quality and service improvements due to a negative impact on investment and innovation or to advance them by imposing on all companies those innovations undertaken by the most entrepreneurial.

ADDENDUM: further readings

BROICH, JOHN. “Great Expectations: The First Efforts to Reform London with Water.” London: Water and the Making of the Modern City, University of Pittsburgh Press, Pittsburgh, Pa, 2013, pp. 31–64. JSTOR,

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Sanjeev Sabhlok

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