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  • “A Requirement of the Age Supplied”: Thomas Atkins & Son and the Business of Water Filtering
  • James Gregory (bio)

Other things being equal, of two nations at war with each other the one that manages to supply the soldiers of its army with wholesome food to eat and pure water to drink, will always conquer. What Tommy Atkins wants is “bulk on his inside,” and he wants it pure.

(“After-Thoughts” 169) [End Page 216]

So observed a Chicago medical journal in 1898. Tommy Atkins was the representative British soldier’s nickname in the nineteenth century; his equipment for Victoria’s “little wars” in Africa and elsewhere included a “pocket” moulded-carbon water filter produced by Thomas Atkins & Son. Captain Walter Ludlow wrote in Zululand and Cetewayo (1882) that had “each man been provided with one of Atkin’s [sic] pocket filters, there would not have been half the sickness among the troops” (97), and Pearson’s Magazine noted in 1903 the “curious coincidence” that the regulation army water filter was known as the “Atkins” (Fitzgerald 249). Pure water was not only a precious commodity for the British armed forces but also valued by civilian travellers abroad. Of course, water filters were also used and valued in the British domestic sphere, in which access to clean water for drinking and washing was a major concern. While there are only fleeting references to commercially produced water filters, such as the Atkins filter, in Victorian literature (in, for example, Charles Reade’s A Terrible Temptation [129]), these items and their makers warrant closer examination than they have received to date.1

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Fig. 1.

Glazed earthenware water filter manufactured by Atkins of Fleet Street.

Illustration by author.

Atkins was a gas engineer, a supporter of Owenite socialism from the 1840s, and a leading manufacturer of domestic filters. As Atkins told a meeting of engineers at the Royal Society of Arts, he had studied the question of water filtration for about a decade before he acquired Charles Harrison’s filtration business in 1860 (“Discussion”). The filters he made and sold were available as glass decanters or in earthenware or stoneware vessels; figure 1 shows an example produced by his son Frank Atkins.2 This short essay about [End Page 217] Victorian-era water filters draws on my ongoing research on Atkins and his associates in order to explore the design, marketing, and use of these easily overlooked but far from insignificant objects.

A notice in the London newspaper the Morning Advertiser on 22 July 1862 proposed that “next to the standing problems of perpetual motion, there is probably no other object of human ingenuity upon which so many efforts have been expended.” As this comment indicates, developing filter technology involved much scientific investigation. Nineteenth-century discourse on water drinking expressed and spread fear about the invisible dangers of contamination even in water that appeared “perfectly limpid . . . beautifully transparent and sparkling” (Morning Advertiser). Although the efficacy of their products is difficult to assess, Atkins and his commercial rivals claimed their inventions filtered out impurities and purified water, securing users a safe supply for drinking.

Primitive ways of filtering water included using hollowed-out porous stone, and sanitary reformers proposed cheap alternatives to the expensive equipment used by the middle class. During an outbreak of cholera in 1866, one metropolitan newspaper described a “poor man’s filter,” a flowerpot plugged with sponge and containing layers of powdered charcoal, sand, pebbles, coarse gravel, and stones (London Standard). Commercial filters came in various forms and made use of filtering materials that included loose charcoal, wood shavings, iron filings, and asbestos. Atkins’s filter employed finely powdered animal charcoal to which “Norway tar, mixed with a combination of other combustible ingredients, equally finely powdered” was added. Mixed with liquid pitch and kneaded into a paste, the filtering medium was moulded into blocks of varying sizes. These were then subjected to such intense heat that what was left, still in the same shape, was pure carbon “radiated with innumerable extremely fine pores and interstices, from which the combustible ingredients have been burnt out” (Vigilans, Hints to Sanitary Legislators, qtd. in Gori 50).



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pp. 216-221
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