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1828 Royal Commission

The Dolphin
Wood cut showing the position of the ‘Dolphin’ or intake source (1) in relation to the Ranelagh sewer (2). The image also shows the Grand Junction Waterworks steam engine (3) and Chelsea Hospital (4). From the 'Report of the Commissioners appointed by His Majesty to inquire into the state of the supply of water in the Metropolis' (1828). GSL Library collection.

The 1828 Royal Commission was the second Parliamentary investigation into the state of London’s water supply. The first, in 1821, was only concerned with the quantity of water supplied. Whilst it recommended some statutory control of water rates, nothing of note resulted. The committee did remark that “the present supply of water from London is very superior to that enjoyed by every other city in Europe”. [Dickinson (1954) p103] 

P M Roget
Peter Mark Roget, FGS. Archive ref: GSL/POR/56/121

The second investigation was triggered by the public outrage caused by the 1827 pamphletThe Dolphin or Grand Junction Nuisance proving that seven thousand families in Westminster and its suburbs are supplied with water, in a state, offensive to the sight, disgusting to the imagination, and destructive to health’, issued by the journalist John Wright. The dolphin of the title was the intake pipe of the Grand Junction Waterworks Company opposite one of the oldest sewers in London. Wright’s pamphlet detailed the detrimental effect it had on the health of its customers.

The three appointed Commissioners were Peter Mark Roget (1779-1869), William Thomas Brande (1788-1866) and Thomas Telford (1757-1834) who were all Fellows of the Geological Society. The scope of the 1828 Royal Commission was also limited but notably it was broadened out to ascertain information on the quality of the water being supplied by the private water companies. What they found was alarming. There was little in the way of purification or treatment of the water. 

For the most part, the only treatment was deposition, principally in the large reservoirs which many of the companies had constructed. But not only did the weather agitate the sediment, it did nothing for the chemical pollution from the factories and ships which lined the Thames nor the sewage in the vicinity of the pumping stations (like the Dolphin) which provided domestic water supply.

Representatives from the statutory companies gave evidence. The only other method of quality control seemed to be the employment of a walking watch. These individuals would try and prevent people from bathing or disposing of dead animals in the River in the vicinity of their pumping stations, but of course being localised it was ineffectual for polluting activities further up the river.

An example of the poor quality of the water in the Thames was that the Commissioners found that it had effectively destroyed the fish trade between Putney Bridge and Greenwich as it was difficult to preserve live fish or eels for any length of time in the water.

1828 Commissionpp68-69
1828 Commission pp70-71
Evidence from members of the fish trade on the poor quality of the water, from the 'Report of the Commissioners appointed by His Majesty to inquire into the state of the supply of water in the Metropolis' (1828). GSL Library collection. Click to enlarge.

Analysis of water

Monster Soup
William Heath’s ‘Monster soup’ (1828). Source: Wellcome Trust. This famous print satirises the state of the water in the Thames investigated by the 1828 Royal Commission. It depicts a well-to-do lady throwing her teacup away after glimpsing the grim reality of its contents. 

The wider availability of microscopes from the mid-19th century revolutionised science. For medicine the most notable outcome was germ theory which discovered that the causes of many diseases could be traced to specific microorganisms. Prior to this the analysis of water was far cruder as it focused on tangible pollutants detected solely by eye or chemical means.

John Bostock
John Bostock, FGS, in 1836. Archive ref: GSL/POR/53/8

Medicinal chemist and recent President of the Geological Society John Bostock (1773-1846) provided analysis for the 1828 Royal Commission. He was given 80 quart bottles of samples which had been taken across London’s water network. The final two samples provided were purported to have been “taken in the river, in the current of, and immediately at the mouth of the King’s Scholars’ Pond sewer” (River Tyburn) which provided water for the New River Company. He described it as being “in a state of extreme impurity, opake with filth and exhaling a highly-fetid odour”. After three days of letting it settle he found “a large quantity of black sediment has subsided from it, but it still remains perfectly opake and with no diminution of the fetid odour.” [Report of the Commissioners appointed by His Majesty to inquire into the state of the supply of water in the Metropolis (1828), p83.]

Bostock analysis
Extract of Bostock's analysis from the 'Report of the Commissioners appointed by His Majesty to inquire into the state of the supply of water in the Metropolis' (1828) GSL Library collection. Click to enlarge.

Ironically Bostock’s own domestic water supply also came from the New River Company. He similarly analysed a sample taken from his own cistern. The water was described as “very turbid and dark-coloured. By remaining some hours at rest, a quantity of earthy matter subsided, and left the water nearly transparent, but the dark colour still continued.” [Bostock (1829), p290] After removing the sediment from the sample by filtration he described it as being around 9/10 siliceous sand and the rest a black matter which contained animal down, vegetable fibres, bits of wood, coal fragments and small metallic particles which were probably sulphuret of iron. “The mass indeed consisted of all those substances which were casually introduced into the Thames, and which had not been decomposed by the fermentative process.” [Bostock (1829), p290]

Notably, Bostock recorded that most if not all of the extraneous matter found in the water samples could be removed through filtration using sand or a combination of sand and charcoal. Unfortunately the Commissioners had no powers to institute any recommendations and it was not until 1852 that minimum quality standards for water would be set. This included the requirement that water must be filtered. Bostock did not live to benefit from the new water standards as he had died of cholera in 1846.

The lack of a clean water supply was not unique to London as this image, reminiscent of William Heath’s Monster Soup (1828), demonstrates. It’s a microscopical analysis of the waters supplied by the Sheffield and Wakefield Water Works from 1878.

It shows various species of water fleas and other crustacea, some of which can carry infections such as tape worm, as well as algae and fungi. Click to enlarge.

From Dugald Campbell, ‘A Microscopical examination of certain waters….’, London: W Trounce (1874). Tracts: Prestwich P/ 5.

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