The Mercenary River

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What to expect

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. The Mercenary River tells the story of that struggle from the middle ages to the present day.

Based on new research, it tells 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, and the book also chronicles our changing relationship with water and the way we use it.

Amongst many stories, Nick Higham’s compelling narrative uncovers the murky tale of how the most powerful steam engine in the world was first brought to London; the extraordinary story of how one Victorian London water company deliberately cut off 2,000 households, even though it knew they had no alternative source of supply; the details of a financial scandal which brought two of the water companies close to collapse in the 1870s; and finally asks whether today’s 21st century water companies are an improvement on their Victorian predecessors.

(P) 2022 Headline Publishing Group Ltd

Critics Review

  • A thoroughly original and gripping book; from the elm-wood pipes of Tudor London, via dragon-like early steam engines, from pioneering reformers to outrageous scoundrels, and finally to the lives of modern Londoners, perplexed as to why Thames Water has yet again had to close a road, to replace cast-iron Victorian pipework with blue tubes, this is a lucid, hugely readable account of the struggle to supply clean water to one of the world’s first megacities. The conflicts between private profit and public interest, which go back to Jacobean times, carry on today. Anyone interested in the real London needs to read this.

    Andrew Marr
  • The first biography of liquid London is a pacey yet scholarly tale of greed versus altruism. Nick Higham breaks new ground in analysing the history of that most fundamental metropolitan element – its water supply.

    Sarah Wise
  • An enthralling guide to London’s most neglected and under-exploited asset. Its day must surely come.

    Simon Jenkins
  • London has been called the city of rivers, but for more than a century the capital’s watery powers have been built over and then disregarded. In this multi-faceted work, Higham swims through the centuries to show how integral water has been to the creation of an industrial powerhouse, and how the historic struggle between private enterprise and public good continues to float the market. A masterful achievement.

    Judith Flanders
  • A painstakingly researched account of how contemporary incompetence and private-interest greed in the water industry is reflected in a long and fascinating history of adventuring, double-dealing, political corruption and short-termism set against the efforts of visionary engineers and prophets. Beyond that, a story told with cracking momentum. And great respect for the charms of our lost and culverted rivers.

    Iain Sinclair
  • The Mercenary River is a gruesome yet fascinating tale of how London came to be supplied with water.

    Daily Telegraph

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