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The New River is not a very appropriate name since is neither new nor a river! It dates from Tudor times when London became unable to supply its growing population with sufficient fresh water. Edmund Colthurst had the idea of digging a channel to bring spring water from Ware in Hertfordshire. This was 20 miles away but because it is not easy for water to travel uphill it was decided to follow the 100' contour which doubled the route to 40 miles. It was 10' wide, 4' deep and run largely through open countryside. Over 200 labourers were paid the equivalent of 4p per day to dig the channel. Colthurst began the project but it needed someone with more money and influence to see it through. So it was taken over by Hugh Myddleton, an MP and a Goldsmith. Even so it took longer and cost more than expected and, almost bankrupt, Myddleton had to go to the king for help who put up money in return for a share of the profits. The story has a happy ending in that the people of London got their fresh water in 1613 and by the time Myddleton died in 1631 he was a knight, a baronet and a prosperous man. He has a statue on Islington Green and places in the area are named after him.

The New River was an open watercourse until the 1850s/60s when there were a number of cholera outbreaks and new public health measures were introduced. As a result of this a new waterworks was constructed at Stoke Newington and sections of the river nearest the City were enclosed in pipes. By the end of WWII these lower sections were no longer needed and they have since been made into a landscaped park with ornamental waterways.

The covered reservoir in Claremont Square dates from 1709 and extended the distribution area by drawing water from New River Head by windmill, horse gin and then steam engine.

At the site of New River Head there were originally pools used for fishing and duck shooting. With the construction of the New River a central reservoir was built from which the water was distributed via cisterns and elm pipes. A Water House was built to house the sluice controls and company offices. This was all taken over by the Metropolitan Water Board in the early 20th century. They drained the pond, had the Water House demolished and a new HQ was built by 1920 and extended in 1934-5. The MWB became Thames Water in 1974. This moved out to Reading in 1987 after which the building was converted to apartments. The outer pools which had been converted to filter beds in the Victorian period had been drained by 1946. The New River remains a source of London's water but is suplemented by the London Tunnel Ring Main.

The New River - a booklet by Mary Cosh (ISBN 0 9507532 3 8 ) has lots more information with pictures and a map. Of particular interest is an engraving of New River Head showing Smeaton's Engine House, built in 1767 and extended in 1812, as this building (minus its chimney) is still recognisable. Also alongside is a low circular building with a conical roof which is the stump of an early 18th century windmill used to pump water to the Claremont Square reservoir.

Thames Water have produced a booklet with maps 'The New River Path' covering the whole route from Hertford. This walk matches the Heritage section. Features of New River Head can be viewed from Nautilus House Garden (accessable via Myddleton Passage)

In the Middle Ages this was the estate of the Augustinian Canons of St Bartholomews. William Bolton, the last prior, built the 7 storey tower in the early 1500s as part of a manor house. After the Dissolution of the Monasteries the property was used by a number of court favourites. In 1570 it was bought by John Spencer, a Lord Mayor and cloth merchant, who made extensions and alteration including installing some oak panelling. After Spencer died in 1610 it was leased to a sucession of noblemen. When the last of these died in 1685 it was let out as apartments (Oliver Goldsmith was a tenant 1762-4). In the 1770s John Dawes, a stockbroker, demolished some of the monastic buildings and built Canonbury House and Canonbury Place (numbers 1-5). From 1887 - 1940 it served as a club and then a youth centre for the estate.The tower was restored in 1952 and was leased to the Tavistock Repertory Company until March 2003.

In 1684 Dick Sadler opened a pleasure garden at the site of a medicinal spring where acrobats were employed to entertain the visitors. A wooden 'Musick House' was constructed which was replaced in 1765 by a stone version by Thomas Rosoman. Before its closure in 1878 this served as a music hall, skating rink, boxing booth and theatre. Its replacement staged music hall, theatre and later film shows. After closure in 1915 it was not replaced until 1931 when under the direction of Lilian Baylis it became home to the Royal Ballet and English National Opera. This was demolished in 1996 and the present building opened in October 1998. A full history is on the Sadler's Wells website [
click here]. Backstage tours of the new theatre are available to individuals and groups (charge). Contact the ticket office on 020 7863 8000 for availability and bookings. The cafe is open to the public.

The former boardroom of the MWB HQ has a magnificent carved oak interior of the 1690s. The Union Chapel of 1877 on Compton Terrace by James Cubitt is Grade II* listed and has a vast octagonal interior seating over 1600.

There is a Historical Publications book 'London's New River' by Robert Ward
Thames Water produced a free guide to the New River Walk [
more info] 2010

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