Virtual Beating the Bounds: 🏊‍♀️Stop 6

We’re continuing our virtual version of Beating the Bounds on Leyton Marshes, compiled for those that couldn’t take part in person on Rogation Sunday.

After completing the last stop on Leyton Marsh we’ve crossed the Lea Bridge Road, have re-joined the Aqueduct Path and are now at 🏊‍♀️Stop 6. Here’s the clue:

There’s little to be seen beyond the fence.
A flat expanse of concrete’s all you see.
We have a plan – the prospects are immense –
To make a park beside the River Lea.

Bucolic image of Lea Bridge by Thomas Hosmer Shepherd 1834

Until the early 19th century, this area on the south side of the Lea Bridge Road and east of the River Lea was part of rural Leyton Marshes. Significant changes befell the Lea Bridge area in the 19th century with the advent of industrialisation and the construction of railways and waterworks to serve the growing population.

🏊‍♀️The East London Waterworks

From 1829 onwards the area situated between Leyton Marsh and Hackney Marshes homed the East London Waterworks, a complex of 25 filter beds served by an aqueduct bringing water from the Walthamstow reservoirs further north. This water filtration plant provided a water supply to Londoners for nearly 150 years.

Historic Layout of the East London Waterworks

The East London Water Works Co. was established in 1806 to supply water to the East London areas of Shoreditch, Dalston and West Ham. In 1829 the source of water was moved further up the River Lea, to Lea Bridge, as a result of the pollution caused by population growth further south.

East London Waterworks Company Stamps

1 Share worth £100 purchased in the East London Waterworks Company, London, 01.04.1831

In 1866 during a cholera pandemic outbreak, where almost 6,000 Londoners perished, the East London Water works Co. was found guilty of supplying contaminated water from the River Lea and stored in open reservoirs.  Initially the company denied involvement in the outbreak and the East London Water Company’s company engineer, Charles Greaves, stated in The Medical Times and Gazette that the water pumped and distributed from Lea was perfectly safe to drink and use. It was not until the company’s admission to violations of the Metropolitan Water Act several months later, including the pumping of polluted water when demand for supply was high, that stricter public control of water companies was demanded.

Painting depicting the cholera outbreak in East London in 1866

Following the Metropolis Water Act in 1902, nine private water companies including the East London Water Works Co. came into public ownership when the Metropolitan Water Board was established. Until the 1970s the East London Waterworks at Lea Bridge continued to provide clean water to the people of London.

In 1973 the Metropolitan Water Board and the Thames Conservancy were taken over by the Thames Water Authority, under the terms of the Water Act 1973.

Mann, Cyril; Metropolitan Water Board Works, Lea Bridge Road, Walthamstow, 1967; William Morris Gallery

In the 1980s, the Waterworks was split up and the ‘Essex Number One Beds’ were retained by Thames Water for an operational site. Originally, Thames Water obtained planning permission to fill in the beds to create a temporary pipe store. From that starting point, Thames Water went on to occupy the site for a succession of uses including the project with Clancy Docwra to replace the East London water mains. 

The historic filter beds were divided into three sections

Sadly, Thames Water demolished the old engine houses although there are some wonderful old buildings surviving adjacent to the Lea Bridge Weir, including the Octagonal Turbine House, also known as the Sluice House.

Octagonal Turbine House, built 1895 (c) Heather Gardiner

The Lee Valley Regional Park Authority took control of the sites known as the Middlesex Filter Beds and the Waterworks Nature Reserve (also known as Essex 2 Filter Beds), now important sites for wildlife.

Waterworks Nature Reserve
Blue tit at the Waterworks Nature Reserve by Susan Huckle, available as a greeting card on our Shop page

The Thames Water Authority was privatised by Thatcher’s government and became Thames Water Utilities Limited. This privatised company was listed on the London Stock Exchange in 1989.

In 2012 an impressive application was made to create a Lea Bridge Conservation Area. Despite the rich history and the presence of one listed building within the area, English Heritage mysteriously rejected a listing for the East London Waterworks as an area of national and architectural significance. The refusal of an appeal of this decision leaves the area with no existing heritage protection.

Inside the Engineer’s House by Millfields Blog

In 2013, the late Katy Andrews (New Lammas Lands Defence Committee), organised a visit to the former East London Waterworks, at that time still managed by Thames Water as a depot. Despite being MOL, the site has been completely fenced off from public access for decades, so photographs from this visit by millfieldsblog provide a rare insight into what lies within the site and the Victorian buildings that remain.

In 2016, the land was sold by Thames Water to the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, to build two free schools. Planning permission was refused in 2019, mainly as the development was considered inappropriate on Metropolitan Open Land (the legal equivalent of Green Belt).

Image of proposed free schools on site of former Thames Water Depot

Save Lea Marshes, supported by Council for the Protection of Rural England (London), felt that this was a good opportunity to re-join the marshes and following local consultations founded a new organisation – the East London Waterworks Park with the idea of restoring the land and historic buildings on site with a focus on wild swimming, community, scientific and arts workshops – we envision a truly ecological project run for and by local people. 

Should this plan come to fruition, the site would be fully restored to public access after nearly two hundred years!

Masterplan of the proposed East London Waterworks Park (c) PiM.studio Architects

The project has just successfully crowdfunded for its first phase of preparation for further research to prepare for its ownership bid.  It will be a new park for London, a new place for wildlife and offer new opportunities for local people.  You can sign the petition to support the project here.

Looking across to Lea Bridge Weir, the Sluice House (right) and the Engineer’s House (left) on the East London Waterworks Park site https://www.instagram.com/waterloversoflondon/

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