Not a drop to drink

I had a bit of a serendipitous find the other day. I had decided, more-or-less on a whim, to go for a long walk on Monday. Good old bank holidays. I eventually decided to do what I’d been meaning to do for a while, and walk from Islington to Shoreditch. I’m familiar with both and their immediate surrounds, but I’d never “linked” the two.

Due to bloody engineering works, the bane of the random traveller’s life, I took the Victoria Line to Highbury & Islington and began my walk there. On the left you may see the abandoned station entrance. The present station entrance is of little interest to anyone. Incidentally, back in Yr. Humble Chronicler’s acting days, I used to use this station regularly to get to the King’s Head Theatre in Islington, where me show was on. Nothing to do with the entry, just thought I’d share.

I took a walk down towards Canonbury and in doing so, came across something I’ve been meaning to look for for months, but never got around to. I’m talking about this:

This is the New River. It’s not particularly new these days, nor has it ever technically been a river. It’s an artificial watercourse.

See, even in the seventeenth century, the expansion of London made it difficult to supply everyone with fresh water that was not contaminated with various nasties. So in 1606, an Act of Parliament was passed authorising the construction of a new river – the New River. I’m sure they thought long and hard about that name.

The river ran from Ware in Hertfordshire, taking a somewhat circuitous route due to the necessity of running downhill all the way, to reservoirs at Clerkenwell. It was eventually opened in 1613. The project was started by Edmund Colthurst, who ran into money troubles in 1609. Hugh Myddleton took over, only to run into money troubles himself and approach the extravagant King James I for a top-up. James agreed, on the condition that he receive a share of the profits.

Here is a fish I saw.

The venture was a success, so much so that it remains a significant part of London’s water supply up to the present day, having been taken over by the Metropolitan Water Board in 1904. After the Second World War, it was decided to take the Clerkenwell reservoirs out of use, but the river was instead diverted into the main water supply at Stoke Newington.

Probably the strangest use of the river was to flood the stage at Sadler’s Wells Theatre in order to stage “aqua drama.” This is not to be confused with what happens when you try to do the plumbing for yourself (“I mean, how hard can it be, right?”) but instead was a novel form of show set at sea. A notable production, The Siege of Gibraltar, featured 117 miniature ships with firing cannons, as well as child actors to represent drowning Spanish sailors. It’s just not the same with CGI.

Aqua drama at Sadlers Wells, circa 1808.



Filed under 19th century, Arts, Buildings and architecture, Geography, History, Islington, London, Notable Londoners, Sports and Recreation, Stuart London, Theatre

3 responses to “Not a drop to drink

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