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Water and the Making of the Modern City

John Broich

Publication Year: 2013

As people crowded into British cities in the nineteenth century, industrial and biological waste byproducts and then epidemic followed. Britons died by the thousands in recurring plagues. Figures like Edwin Chadwick and John Snow pleaded for measures that could save lives and preserve the social fabric. The solution that prevailed was the novel idea that British towns must build public water supplies, replacing private companies. But the idea was not an obvious or inevitable one. Those who promoted new waterworks argued that they could use water to realize a new kind of British society—a productive social machine, a new moral community, and a modern civilization. They did not merely cite the dangers of epidemic or scarcity. Despite many debates and conflicts, this vision won out—in town after town, from Birmingham to Liverpool to Edinburgh, authorities gained new powers to execute municipal water systems. But in London local government responded to environmental pressures with a plan intended to help remake the metropolis into a collectivist society. The Conservative national government, in turn, sought to impose a water administration over the region that would achieve its own competing political and social goals. The contestants over London’s water supply matched divergent strategies for administering London’s water with contending visions of modern society. And the matter was never pedestrian. The struggle over these visions was joined by some of the most colorful figures of the late Victorian period, including John Burns, Lord Salisbury, Bernard Shaw, and Sidney and Beatrice Webb. As Broich demonstrates, the debate over how to supply London with water came to a head when the climate itself forced the endgame near the end of the nineteenth century. At that decisive moment, the Conservative party succeeded in dictating the relationship between water, power, and society in London for many decades to come.

Published by: University of Pittsburgh Press

Series: History of the Urban Environment


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pp. 4-4


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pp. 5-6


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pp. 7-8

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pp. 9-13

In 1844, the engineer James Smith explored the alleys and courts of Leeds, stepping through and around the cast-off filth of the poorest of the city’s 170,000 inhabitants. He encountered heaps of waste that lingered for six months and the stench of drains that lacked any flushing water for unknown spans of time.1 Meanwhile, Dr. William Kay scouted ...

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Chapter 1. Water and the Making of the Modern British City

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pp. 17-46

The general picture of water supply in Britain before 1800 is varied, consisting of individual private sources, community sources, and small-scale commercial sources operated by single entrepreneurs or small groups more or less satisfying the needs ...

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Chapter 2. Great Expectations: The First Efforts to Reform London with Water

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pp. 47-80

The present arrangements of water supply are defective in ‘plenty, purity, pressure, and price,’” wrote one commentator regarding London in 1849.1 Another added, “We ought, by this time, to have learned that the very foundation of moral training in a London tenement is a pipe of wholesome water from the top to the bottom of the house.”2 For London’s would-be reformers, just as it was for the campaigners of Glasgow, Manchester, and Liverpool, social re-...

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Chapter 3. “Communism in Water”: A Strategy for Harnessing Water to Reshape Late Victorian London Society

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pp. 81-97

On the eve of the twentieth century, London’s government attempted a radical program of urban reformation. Its plan comprised a re-theorization of the city itself—a new concept of the relationship between people, the environment, urban technologies, and local government. London’s reformers believed that, as it was, the metropolis was a concentrated but disjointed and chaotic amalgamation of souls. Until then, the role of government had been to wade into ...

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Chapter 4. From Engineering Modernization to Engineering Collectivization

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pp. 98-136

...no society exists outside of nature, and nature is rarely beyond social influence. This relationship is most prominent in the city. In the city, humans rearrange nature—the face of the landscape, bodies of water, vegetation—for the purpose of facilitating productivity and supporting a large collection of humans. Urban inhabitants tend to think that in cities they are more free from the forces of nature than are their counterparts in the countryside, but that is ...

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Chapter 5. An Alternative Vision of the Modern City, an Alternative Government of Water

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pp. 137-162

From the mid-1890s into the new century, the Salisbury government clearly understood that to control the flow of water was to control the flow of power. In their dealings with the London County Council’s attempts to take over water service in the capital, the Conservatives who controlled Britain’s government proved themselves deft practitioners of the craft of water politics. They obstructed the LCC’s bills seeking power to purchase London’s water ...

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pp. 163-172

This story opens at a moment of change, on the eve of a period when the rapidly expanding urban environment forced a transformation in the nature of British urban government. In the growing industrial towns of the first half of the nineteenth century, industrial waste and the concentration of large populations created acute environmental ...


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pp. 173-222


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pp. 223-232

E-ISBN-13: 9780822978664
E-ISBN-10: 0822978660
Print-ISBN-13: 9780822944270
Print-ISBN-10: 0822944278

Page Count: 240
Illustrations: 5 line drawings
Publication Year: 2013

Series Title: History of the Urban Environment
Series Editor Byline: Martin V. Melosi and Joel A. Tarr, Editors See more Books in this Series

OCLC Number: 859687385
MUSE Marc Record: Download for London

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Subject Headings

  • Water resources development -- England -- London -- History.
  • Water-supply -- England -- London -- History.
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