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The History of the London Water Industry, 1580–1820

Beginning in 1580, a number of competing London companies sold water directly to consumers through a large network of wooden mains in the expanding metropolis. This new water industry flourished throughout the 1600s, eventually expanding to serve tens of thousands of homes. By the late eighteenth century, more than 80 percent of the city’s houses had water connections—making London the best-served metropolis in the world while demonstrating that it was legally, commercially, and technologically possible to run an infrastructure network within the largest city on earth.

In this richly detailed book, historian Leslie Tomory shows how new technologies imported from the Continent, including waterwheel-driven piston pumps, spurred the rapid growth of London’s water industry. The business was further sustained by an explosion in consumer demand, particularly in the city’s wealthy West End. Meanwhile, several key local innovations reshaped the industry by enlarging the size of the supply network. By 1800, the success of London’s water industry made it a model for other cities in Europe and beyond as they began to build their own water networks. The city’s water infrastructure even inspired builders of other large-scale urban projects, including gas and sewage supply networks.

The History of the London Water Industry, 1580–1820 explores the technological, cultural, and mercantile factors that created and sustained this remarkable industry. Tomory examines how the joint-stock form became popular with water companies, providing a stable legal structure that allowed for expansion. He also explains how the roots of the London water industry’s divergence from the Continent and even from other British cities was rooted both in the size of London as a market and in the late seventeenth-century consumer revolution. This fascinating and unique study of essential utilities in the early modern period will interest business historians and historians of science and technology alike.

About the Author

Leslie Tomory is a research affiliate at McGill University. He is the author of Progressive Enlightenment: The Origins of the Gaslight Industry, 1780–1820.

Endorsements

"A well-researched technological, urban, and social history that takes a holistic approach to the London water industry."

- Robin Pearson, University of Hull, author of Insuring the Industrial Revolution: Fire Insurance in Great Britain, 1700–1850

Reviews

"For me, Tomory’s book is relevant to the current water debate: is water a human right that is foundational to other human rights including access to food and sanitation, for example, or is water a commodity like chocolate or coal that should be fully monetized? Examining London’s water industry provides insights into how for-profit water companies worked (and might still work in some cases) and certain inherent problems associated with limiting public access to water, including disease, that led to government takeovers and buyouts of water suppliers in many parts of the world, including London, in the nineteenth century."

- Metascience

"The History of the London Water Industry is a well-written book that will reward anyone interested in the development of urban infrastructure, London’s growth as a world city, or the broader innovations surrounding Britain’s industrial revolution."

- Business History Review
Johns Hopkins University Press
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