5 Things We’ve Learned About New River Head

Surprising discoveries for Heritage Treasures Day.

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  • Lindsey Glen, Director, and Olivia Ahmad, Artistic Director
  • Other

A year ago, for #HeritageTreasuresDay, we introduced New River Head, the hidden industrial heritage site that will be brought back into public use as the new Quentin Blake Centre for Illustration.

Over the past year we’ve been working with local residents, tour guides, historians and illustrators to gather and share the stories of this amazing place. Director Lindsey Glen and Artistic Director Olivia Ahmad share some surprising discoveries.

1. Clerkenwell was called ‘Cow Town’

Today, Islington is one of the most densely populated places in the UK. But when the New River Head site was established in 1613, it was surrounded by fields of grazing animals.

From the 16th to the 19th centuries, Islington was home to dairies, and cattle were brought to the area from all over the country to be sold at nearby Smithfield Market. This led to the area being known as ‘Cow Town’.

2. Animals play an important role in the New River Head story too

Pumping technologies were installed at New River Head from 1709 to enable water to move from the site to people in the City of London. Horses drove engines (known as ‘horse-gins’) that supplemented and then replaced wind power.

Even after steam engines were installed on the site from 1768, horses continued to play an important role, pulling cart-loads of coal.

Illustrator Sharpay (Chenyue) Yuan undertook our first Engine House Graduate Micro Residency in autumn 2021 and we’ll be sharing her work later this year. The New River Head horses feature prominently in Sharpay’s drawings documenting the site, as do the geese and ducks who populated the ponds that held London’s water supply.

In the gardens for the new Quentin Blake Centre, close attention will be paid to encouraging biodiversity. Birds, butterflies and insects have been thriving on the site while it’s been derelict and we’ll be encouraging them to stay by installing sensitive planting schemes and creating animal-friendly hiding places.

3. The original water pipes were made of wood

The New River Company began distributing water across the city from the round pond in 1613, well over a century before iron pipes became available. The only material available to them was wood, with elm proving the most durable.

A hole was bored through the centre of a tree trunk, with one end shaved down and inserted into the next trunk to form as close a seal as possible. A section of this pipework can now be seen at The London Museum of Water and Steam.

Our first Engine House Offsite residents, illustrators and 'speculative historians' Laura Copsey and Philip Crewe, have retold the story of the elm pipes, and the tradespeople who made them. We’ll be sharing more from their project later this year.

The last elm pipes were laid in 1797. Today London’s water supply travels through approximately 50 miles of concrete pipelines, with 8% still drawn from the New River.

4. New River Head and Sadler’s Wells Theatre have been neighbours for more than 400 years

Since 1683, New River Head’s closest neighbor has been Sadler’s Wells Theatre. The New River ran alongside the earliest iterations of the theatre, with patrons using its banks as a place of leisure.

New River Water even became part of performances: from 1804-1824, a tank beneath the stage was filled with water and used for ‘aqua drama’ performances based on historic naval battles that involved real boats and floating platforms.

5. Many parts of Clerkenwell were used as burial grounds

In collaboration with the Peel Institute community hub and London Metropolitan Archives, we’ve been sharing and capturing the memories of older Clerkenwell residents.

Bill Gilliam told us how workmen installing a drinking foundation in the playground at Hugh Myddelton Junior School’s (then in Bowling Green Lane) uncovered a huge number of skulls and bones, most likely belonging to victims of the Great Plague.

The next day the bones were roped off and no workmen were to be seen: they had been hospitalised with diphtheria and the pupils were all lined up for inoculation.

Bill recalls “I remember bright sunlight and much mucking around indicating we had no idea of the danger we were exposed to”. We will publish a map of Clerkenwell illustrations by Bill and other past and current residents later this year.

If you have stories or images about the site, please get in touch with us.

If you’d like to support the restoration of New River Head and help bring it back into public use, please contact Harry Hickmore, Head of Fundraising and Campaigns.

Thank you to our collaborators and contributors

Islington Guided Walks, especially Mark Moreton, Caroline Raby, David Sweetland and Felicity Wimsey
Islington Local History Centre
Islington Museum
Engine House Offsite Residents Laura Copsey and Philip Crewe
London Metropolitan Archives
London Museum of Water and Steam
Andrew Smith and Edwin Seabrook at the New River Head Metropolitan Water Board building
Open House London Festival
Paul Thornton and the Amwell Society
The Peel Institute
Engine House Graduate Micro Resident Sharpay (Chenyue) Yuan
Thames Water