The historical Lea Bridge depot will close at the end of March, bringing to an end more than 300 years of history with London’s water supply.
Thames Water’s Victorian-era warehouse buildings and single-storey workshops in Waltham Forest are set to be demolished to make way for a hi-tech school complex.
Only the arts and craft-inspired Red House, accommodating a team of planners and engineers, an octagonal sluice building and the old Middlesex filter beds – now a nature reserve – will remain of what was once one of the jewels in the crown of the East London Waterworks Company.
Records show that the River Lea, and this site, has played some part in providing London’s water supply since the early 1600s and possibly earlier when it was a major river crossing and an industrial area in its own right thanks to the manufacturing industries who used the water flow to power a series of mills.
But the site’s real importance can be traced back to 1707 when the Lea Bridge (or Hackney) Waterworks was founded, becoming part of the East London Waterworks Company (ELWC) in 1807.
At the start of the 18th century, water piped directly into homes was a luxury reserved for the wealthiest of London’s elite and Lea Bridge supplied this service to the then prosperous suburbs of Hackney and Clapton.
As demand for clean, piped water grew, and the quality of the Thames and the Lea declined – leading to catastrophic cholera outbreaks – the ELWC was forced to respond in the 19th century with a succession of technological innovations typical of the era, including waterwheels, steam-driven pumps, pipes, filtering technology and reservoirs.
By the later years of the century, as Sir Joseph Bazalgette’s sewerage infrastructure began to have an impact on hygiene, the Lea Bridge waterworks became central in helping to meet the technical demands of London’s rapid eastwards expansion and the creation of a modern water distribution system.
It hosted increasingly sophisticated water treatment facilities, along with pioneering scientific examination and testing and by the end of the 19th century its achievement can be measured by the fact that a continuous supply of potable water to every house in London was effectively taken for granted – a remarkable achievement in such a relatively short period of time.
By 1904, the works were in the hands of the Metropolitan Water Board which instituted a new era in London’s water supply. This concentration of water companies across the capital marked a decline in Lea Bridge’s importance and, after three new reservoirs were built during World War II, the writing was on the wall.
In 1972, having supplied water for more than 260 years, the waterworks closed and its responsibilities and importance assumed by the new complex at Coppermills in nearby Walthamstow.