HL Deb 29 July 1881 vol 264 cc109-13

THE BISHOP OF LONDON, in rising to present a Petition from the National Health Society; and to ask, Whether any measures have been taken, or are in preparation, by Her Majesty's Government for improving the water supply of the Metropolis? said, that this question was one that very much affected the welfare of the Metropolis, and the Petition which he had presented expressed dissatisfaction at the continued delay in reference to legislation upon this subject. The injuries to health arose, in a great degree, from the intermittent supply of water over a great part of the Metropolis, by which water was wasted, spoiled by storage in dirty cisterns, and the basement of houses soaked and made unhealthy; and the Petitioners expressly drew attention to the excess of fires and consequent loss of life being a proved excess of two-thirds beyond the insurable rate in towns where there was a constant supply of water. He sympathized very much with the Petitioners, inasmuch as, from his experience as a London clergyman, he believed that an insufficient supply of water, such as existed in many parts of London, was injurious to the cleanliness, and, consequently, to the temperance, the morals, and, in the last resort, the religion of the population. The working classes living in the West of London were particularly ill-supplied. In the East of London a continuous supply of water was much more common than it was at the West End. Their Lordships were probably not aware of what the habitations of the labouring classes were, especially in the Western part of London. In Westminster, Soho, and partially St. Pancras, labouring men and their families inhabited, for the most part, single rooms in houses of considerable size, that were built at the end of the 17th or the beginning of the 18th century, and were originally occupied by gentlemen; and the rent was about 5s. for each room. He had visited whole streets of such houses, going from house to house, and his experience was that water was only supplied to them for an hour or half an hour daily, and collected in a water butt in the basement, from which a large portion of it escaped, rendering the underground portion of the buildings damp and unhealthy. The families living in the different flats were obliged to carry all their water upstairs, and when a woman with a family and a baby had to go into the basement and fetch up every drop of water that was required, they might be sure that she would do with as little as possible. It was distressing to see how a family coming up from the country gradually deteriorated in their habits of cleanliness. Then, it was hardly necessary to say, a dirty room was but a poor counterbalance to the temptations of the public-house, and the water in a cistern which might not have been cleaned out for years was not a very inviting draught. All these facts were well known. Committee after Committee and Commission after Commission had sat on the subject; and it was agreed on all hands that the first step towards an improvement in the quality and in the distribution of water in the Metropolis was to consolidate the various agencies of supply. It was only some supreme power that could effect the necessary improvements by obtaining water from better sources, and supplying it in sufficient quantities. By giving a continuous supply, a great waste of water would be got rid of, and this should lead to a great reduction in the cost of supply. There would be a great saving also from the better means of extinguishing fires. No doubt, when negotiations were entered into with the Water Companies, the scheme prepared by the late Mr. Smith showed that a very large sum of money would be required for the purchase of the existing works, and the Vestries became alarmed; the subject was reconsidered, and then it was decided against. Though, however, the cost would be very great, it should be borne in mind that the longer the scheme was deferred the greater would be the cost of carrying it out. In the last 10 years the population had increased by 560,000 in the districts affected by the Metropolitan water supply. The erection of houses was still enormously increasing. In Hammersmith and Fulham, for instance, it was computed that two houses were completed every day, and South of the Thames four were completed every day. According to the Registrar General, the chief increase in the population occurred in the outer circle of the town, the increase in that circumference having amounted to 50 per cent, while in the inner circle it had only been 10 per cent. This increase of the population, of course, necessitated an additional supply of water day by day, with additional machinery, mains, pipes, cisterns, &c. Now, the new works undertaken by the Water Companies were being erected upon exactly the same principles as those prevailing long ago, so that the defects of the old systems were being continued upon a vast scale. When, therefore, the matter should be taken in hand by the Government, not only would the cost have largely increased, but all the work lately done by the Companies would have to be undertaken de novo. All these circumstances pointed to the necessity of avoiding further delay. It was admitted that the valuable property of the Water Companies must be bought at a fair price. To ascertain what price should be given recourse might be had to arbitration. This initial step, he might add, could be taken without the intervention of an Act of Parliament. If the Government could assure the House that steps had been taken, or were about to be taken, to improve the water supply of the Metropolis, the announcement would be received with very great thankfulness and satisfaction by the large population of London, who were suffering through the present arrangements of our water supply in health, comfort, and morality.


said, he could assure the right rev. Prelate that the Government fully recognized the enormous importance of this question. It had been the intention of the Go- vernment to introduce into Parliament this Session a Bill dealing with the question on the basis of the recommendations of the Select Committee of the House of Commons, which sat last year; but the state of Public Business had made it impossible for the Government to do so. Their Lordships would understand that in dealing with a matter of this kind, in which large pecuniary interests were involved, it would scarcely be prudent to proceed unless with some reasonable prospect of a successful and final issue. The Government hoped and expected to deal with the matter next year.


said, he agreed with the right rev. Prelate that delay was most undesirable, and was of opinion that some of the recommendations of the Committee who had investigated the subject were of a nature to cause delay, should the Government determine to act upon them. He would urge the Government to proceed with this matter, as a large number of houses were constantly being erected, the population growing rapidly; and the costs resulting from the separate and independent action of the Water Companies in constructing mains and reservoirs would be much larger than if the works were done by one body under a uniform system. He thought that the Local Government Board, who could command the services of thoroughly competent engineers, might advantageously take the initiative, and begin at once to prepare for legislation. He could confirm what had been said as to the unsatisfactory water-butt and cistern arrangements in very many houses which were let out in tenements, and there could be no doubt whatever that it was most desirable that there should be a constant supply of water. By various Acts of Parliament the Companies, if required, were bound to furnish a constant supply; but, owing to the want of unanimity and co-operation among householders, the cases were very rare where a constant supply was obtained. The question was one of the highest importance, both as regarded sanitary matters, fire, and intemperance, which was largely increased by the want of pure water.


said, he desired to point out that if any nuisance existed in consequence of a short supply of water, the sanitary authorities of the district could take cognizance of it. In many cases the owners of houses did not take proper care that the occupiers obtained a supply of water. The Companies were bound to supply water, and if they did not the sanitary authorities should interfere and compel them to do so. The condition of the cisterns was also a matter for the sanitary authorities, and did not concern the Water Companies, who were frequently blamed indiscriminately for things for which they were not responsible.