31st July 1976. Battle for Clean Water.

‘It is vain to say where nothing is discovered there is nothing wrong’: William Lambe a campaigner for cleaning up the River Thames, the main source of London’s water supply.

We take water for granted, but the vital importance of the supply was brought home in 1976 when there was a great chance that Britain would run out of water, after the hottest and driest spell in memory.

Conditions were so bad that Today in 1976 when the Lord’s Test Match was stopped due to rain it was greeted with applause.

In the early 19thc it wasn’t the lack of water which constituted the problem, but its quality much of which, in London, came from the River Thames.

The bone of contention was the disagreement concerning what passed for scientific investigation, of the properties of the water.

On one side was Dr William Lambe who in 1828 asserted that, ‘the ordinary water a great many habitually drank was deadly… and was laden with organic matter in a state of decomposition…[and] had an injurious effect on the health’. (1)

He went on, ‘sometimes decaying organic matter is perceptible-noticeably foul, and in this case the common feeling of disgust induces men to reject it as unfit for human use…

…but all too frequently contamination was not only imperceptible to senses undetected by water analysts who exclusively and scandalously concentrated on the mineral spa waters of the rich, ignoring the water that everyone drank’. 

That was the nub of the argument and would have continued to rest with learned societies disagreeing behind a smoke-screen only of concern to the academic.

However when they are exposed to the light in a court room or public inquiry as with the 1828 Inquiry on London’s Water and The Royal Commission on Water Supply, conditions are set to change.

Then in December 1850 The Times reported on the current concern about water pollution in London which was increasingly becoming a battle not between politicians, but between the mineral chemists and those concerned with organic pollutants.

The newspaper’s Leader on the outbreak of the water controversy highlighted the dichotomy in scientific thinking, but made light of the degree that it had become before a select Committee which brought: ‘a long-necked phial from all the ponds within 50 miles with analysis by Professor Brande and contrary analysis by Michael Faraday…recriminations will be rife of animal and vegetative material and mineral pollution…’

Lambe, believer in common sense and epidemiology, was the harbinger in many ways of John Snow who proved that the source of water pollution came from contaminated wells, by closing a pump in Soho. 

(1) Dr Lambe a Fellow and Censor of the Royal College of Physicians, graduate and Fellow of St John’s, Cambridge where he was 4th Wrangler 1786.

Ref: pmm.nasa.gov/ed.

Ref: An investigation of the properties of Thames Water, Butcher & Underwood, London. 1828. P.52.

Ref: cdlib.org/ucpressebooks/view No 3 3 London Water Dress Rehearsal of 1828

Ref: Saturday Review. 10 Oct. 1868.

Ref: pmm.nasa.gov/ed/water-cycle.


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About colindunkerley

My name is Colin Dunkerley who having spent two years in the Royal Army Pay Corps ploughed many a barren industrial furrow until drawn to the 'chalk-face' as a teacher, now retired. I have spent the last 15 years researching all aspects of life in Britain since Roman times.

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