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  • London: Water and the Making of the Modern City by John Broich
  • Leslie Tomory (bio)
London: Water and the Making of the Modern City. By John Broich. Pittsburgh, PA: University of Pittsburgh Press, 2013. Pp. 232. $32.

At the beginning of the nineteenth century, private water companies supplied most cities in Britain. Municipal provision was rare. This would change profoundly, however, as municipalities acquired private companies in almost all major cities throughout the country. By 1900, urban water supply was largely in public hands. The glaring exception to this pattern was the capital city, London. It is this anomaly that John Broich sets out to explain. From the outset he makes clear that the issue was fundamentally one of politics, and so poses the question in a novel way: how did London water supply become so politically charged that rival factions battled over the nature of its governance for years?

The first chapter describes how water supply became a symbol and a crucial component of the modernization of British cities. The reform of municipal governance that began in the 1830s eliminated the old local corporations and replaced them with elected town councils, with the exception of London. At the same time, a sense of crisis was dawning as cholera epidemics swept the country and Edwin Chadwick and his fellow reformers pressed for public action to improve the environmental health of towns. Reformers repeatedly condemned for-profit water companies for their failure to provide adequate clean water, and a royal commission in the 1840s recommended that towns seize control of water supply. Over the next couple of decades, the momentum for municipal water supply grew. Governments generally eschewed regulation in favor of public ownership because water supply became a centerpiece of the municipal reform movement. It served as an example of “moral government” in transforming the urban environment. Once in control, towns set about increasing supply. Tory politicians often opposed these schemes largely by complaining of their enormous costs. [End Page 264]

London faced the same pressure for the reform as other cities. Indeed, the reform movement often was centered in London. It was, however, different in many ways. Many parliamentary acts did not apply to the metropolis as local political pressure created exceptions, often filled by special London-only laws. In addition, many new water companies had been founded after 1800, leading to a period of intense competition and allowing some to argue that commercial self-interest would ensure the best supply. The movement for “moral government,” however, led to the creation of the Metropolitan Board of Works (MBW) in 1855 to deal with the more pressing sewerage problem that had turned the Thames into a vast open gutter. Lacking the power and legitimacy of a town council, the MBW failed to move on to water supply.

When the London County Council (LCC) replaced the MBW in 1889, it turned to the goal of municipalizing water supply with vigor. As the council was filled with members of the Fabian socialist movement, water supply was to be a vehicle for launching a revolution in local government toward a communitarian society, too long delayed by the central government’s unwillingness to reform London’s political structures. The Fabians’ desires soon collided with the Parliament’s, as it was then controlled by the Tories. Proposals to draw water from Welsh valleys were repeatedly defeated. Drought in the 1890s finally prompted the long-sought change to municipal ownership, but the national Conservatives parried the LCC’s moves by creating supra-municipal regional boards to run water, gas, and other services, diluting the LCC voting power by giving the less politically radical surrounding areas and towns disproportionate voting rights.

Given its relative brevity and the chronological focus, this book is really the history of the LCC’s struggle with Parliament from the 1880s to the creation of the Metropolitan Water Board in 1903. For this period, the book is an effective history. Its date range, however, means that some of its claims about the deficiencies of private water companies are overstated. They certainly had very serious failures in the early nineteenth century, but Broich too readily accepts contemporary complaints about the companies. Some...


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pp. 264-265
Launched on MUSE
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