nrseal - The New River #2

The debate between the builders of the New River and the later, more famous waterways engineer, James Brindley, continues to be a part of debate. Was one or the other the more original concept in terms of waterways construction? In some respects neither were really original although the New River was more original than Brindley. Waterways have been around for thousands of years and the methods of channeling, lining, maintaining, and controlling waterways has not really changed very much apart from the more modern materials used today.

In what way did the New River outclass Brindley’s achievements? As I demonstrated in the first post back in September, the New River was doing several things before Brindley ‘invented’ any of this stuff for his canal network. However some of the advocates of Britain’s waterways history would dearly like to keep the New River out of the equation. The ultimate truth is Britain’s transport systems are nothing new really. It was the Chinese who invented canals at least five hundred years BC (as well as the modern lock during the 10th Century) whilst Agricola recorded the use of railways in Germany as early as 1556. In England railways were certainly in use before the New River was built, such as the line at Wollaton built between 1603-4.

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One of the New River Company’s boundary markers.

Thus the ‘canal era’ and ‘railway age’ were simply phases in which mass construction of transport systems was undertaken to complement the then burgeoning industries in Britain. It was simply the marriage of these systems that had been in use long before the so-called ‘canal’ and ‘railway’ ages – with the newer industries that enabled a rapid progress of development. And it was this that enabled Brindley and many others such as Telford, Trevithick, and Stephenson to really build on a large scale newer forms of these early transport systems – whether they were canals, railways or even roads. And the main purpose of all these was to serve the numerous new industries popping up everywhere in Britain – aka the industrial revolution.

The one big difference in terms of the New River is it was not built to enhance industrial development in any way or any form. It wasn’t built to further some mining operation or permit some iron works to perform at a vastly better rate. It wasn’t built to solve any sort of mining or transport issue. The New River had an unique objective and that was to resolve a social problem. This was the supply of fresh water to London and a way and means of keeping the City’s inhabitants healthy.

Water to the capital has always been a problem – even in the 21st Century it still is a problem because Thames Water has to keep upgrading the capital’s supply systems to keep up with current needs. It is recognised world-wide that people need water for good health, without, there are going to be numerous health problems. This property of water was certainly noticeable long before the New River itself was built. In medieval London attempts were made to build conduits – pipes out of oak trees to tap springs or local rivers such as the Tyburn in an attempt to distribute cleaner water. Then the New River came. Whilst all these did their job it wasn’t enough to ward of the worst excesses of diseases and plagues and although the New River did go a long way to help Londoners have better health, it would be two hundred or more years before the fullest benefits of the New River were felt.

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Dereliction at New River Head, 2002. The site was eventually put into use for the Thames Water Ring.

Thus the objectives of the New River would be realised much further into the future than anyone had dreamed. If one looks at industries whether they are those now or those in the past, they had expectations they would be operating at their fullest within a few short years and be generating both maximum product output and the greatest profit margins possible that could be made. Although the New River is recognised as one of the oldest in the world, again its not an industry in the proper sense and so its quite difficult to compare it to other industries.

The big irony however is the New River conceived the supply of water on an industrial scale. Some will claim the New River was designed to make a profit. I’m not so sure about that. The amount of effort expended and the huge loss of money incurred in building the New River rather negates the notion of any profit making venture. As Bernard Rudden pointed out in his excellent book The New River – A Legal History, barely anyone was going to make a profit from it. Beside anyone could take water from the New River if they wanted without so much as a charge payable to the company – although a law was eventually passed to try and prevent such instances. There are hardly any industries to be found where people could take the product in question, walk the company’s lands, fish in their waters, mess about on their property and generally have a merry time.

Clearly the New River was an altruistic venture. It enabled lives to be better, healthier, and it enabled leisure to grow, such as fishing, boating, country walks, and many hostelries dedicated to eating, drinking, and entertainment were established upon the banks of the New River. It provided a necessary social function. The Proprietors of the Company of the New River brought from Amwell and Chadwell to London did eventually see a profit several decades later, it was only a small one.

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Seal of the Company of the New River brought from Amwell and Chadwell to London.

In terms of construction the New River had practically a clean slate to begin with. Its surveyors were walking, running even, all over Middlesex and Hertfordshire, scratching their heads trying to figure out how to bring a waterway, nigh on absolutely level over a distance of nearly forty miles, but they knew they had to do it because the city’s wells and rivers were badly polluted and fresh water was hard to come by. It wasn’t something that had been done before, at least not in this country. The New River’s builders however knew if it was pulled off the one and only ultimate benefit of their work was London’s populace would be much healthier.

And so it comes to mind the instigators of the New River had no clue what it would look like or even the enormous construction costs that would accrue. When Edmund Colthurst made his first plans for the New River it seems he had perhaps been thinking of a route at a somewhat lower level and so perhaps in his mind far less of an effort to build. In collaboration with Hugh Myddleton, the source of the New River was taken further away from London to begin at Chadwell springs and it seems this was done so the waterway could finish at the perfect spot in London where most of the city could then be supplied with its waters  and that happened to be the fields right next to Sadler’s Wells theatre in Islington. It meant the waterway had to be built at a higher level and its course far longer than originally envisaged.

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The waterway as we know it wasn’t conceived until at least 1609 when the line from Chadwell to New River Head was mooted.

We do know Colthurst had surveyed the first possible routes for the New River. He found the project well beyond his capabilities and had to seek further support and money in order to bring the idea to fruition. When Hugh Myddleton came in on the project, attention was turned to one Edward Wright whom everyone thought could reasonably survey and calculate an almost level route between Chadwell and Sadler’s Wells. It’s amazing to think anyone could find an alignment between two places which in those days was so far apart. Anyone today being given the task of delivering an absolutely level route between two places nearly 30 miles apart with the most basic surveying instruments, the countryside being quite hilly, no maps, no Google, no cheating, would be quite stumped.

In fact it seems Wright himself might not have been up to the task, for in 1611 Myddleton gave the job of surveying to Edward Pond (assisted for a time by another guy by the name of Blagrave.) One little discussed matter re this change of surveyors may have been that Wright was by this time (1610) concerned with his own personal ‘new river’ project. This was for an artificial waterway in Cambridge (known too as the New River but more officially Hobson’s Conduit or Hobson’s River.) It may be for this reason Myddleton felt he had to find another person who could devote considerable time to the surveying and construction of the much bigger New River project.

I should think it took somewhere in the order of a couple of years just to survey the New River. It wasn’t surveyed in a couple of months as some accounts seem to imply. Its possible the River Lea itself actually gave a little bit of help on the first section built from the water’s source by decree of providing a quite even and broad flood plain upon which the new waterway could be constructed. The real problems for the construction of the New River would begin south of Broxbourne where the course then faced the task of going across valleys instead of along their contours, and instead of a simple broad flood plain, the route presented huge problems including having to dig through all manner of soils and different types of rocky ground.


Edward Colthurst had of course surveyed an early route for the New River (recall the map from Amwell to Tibbolis in the first post?) However he soon realised it wasnt any sort of easy undertaking and the reason for the delay in building it was that he found both tunnels and aqueducts would be necessary to maintain the route down towards London.

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The Bush Hill (or Salmons Brook) aqueduct. The Clarendon Arch superseded the original structure.

Ultimately the first half of the route avoided these by taking much longer detours than had been envisaged. As the waterway got nearer to London, where it became more difficult to adopt these long and sinuous courses, they were instead replaced with aqueducts. These originally were built on wooden stilts or brick piers carrying a tunnel within which the river flowed and were popularly known as ‘the boarded river.’ These huge structures were things the public had never seen before in their lives.

Any tunnels were probably last on the long list of necessities for the waterway’s builders, but eventually they had to undertake the construction of a tunnel of almost a third of a mile in length in order to get the water flowing to London. More on this later.

As aqueducts go the first of these was across the Salmon Brook and this was clearly in use on the very first day the New River began operation, this being early in 1613. It too was the biggest of the early aqueducts. This was 660 feet long and the channel was lined with lead! Eighty brick piers were used to support the structure. Much of this ‘boarded river’ has been made in the history of the New River, in fact the celebrated engraving showing the opening of the New River Head in September 1613, entitled Sir Hugh Myddleton’s Glory, shows the Salmon Brook aqueduct in the distance! What’s surprising is no-one has ever discussed it – perhaps hardly anyone has realised what the depiction really was! Let’s take a closer look…

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Section of ‘Sir Hugh Myddleton’s Glory’ showing the stupendous Bush Hill Aqueduct in the distance.

Notice how people are exclaiming, pointing to the new aqueduct, no one had ever seen anything like it before. It was in sorts like a spaceship. The entire episode puts very much in the pale the later disbelief that people had expressed when James Brindley said he was going to build a bridge (aqueduct if you prefer) for boats to float on and people were making fun of the concept, such as John Smeaton who apparently said one “had heard of castles in the air but had never before seen where any of them was to be built.” Well it had already been done and it wasn’t even Brindley who owned that momentous achievement.


The ‘boarded river’ at Salmon Brook was replaced in 1682 by an embankment and what is termed the Clarendon Arch. This is so named because the Earl of Clarendon was at the time Governor of the New River Company. The arch is the oldest surviving structure still in use on the New River.

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The Clarendon Arch originally afforded the ‘boarded river’ a better crossing over the Salmons Brook.

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View from the top of the Clarendon Arch with its stone tablet visible.

Text on the board at Clarendon Arch:

The Arch, which can be viewed from the bottom of the steps, is the upstream end of a barrel vaulted tunnel which carries the Salmons Brook below Bush Hill. The Brook’s source is near Hadley Wood on the Hertfordshire boundary from where it flows eastwards below the New River, on the opposite side of Bush Hill, and finally meets the River Lea at Edmonton.

Originally the Brook was spanned separately by both a bridge and the ‘Bush Hill Frame’. This ‘Frame’, constructed between 1608 and 1613, was a 660 foot lead lined wooden aqueduct that carried the New River in a 6 foot wide an a 5 foot deep trough. The construction was supported on wooden arches some 24 feet above the Brook and known locally as ‘Myddleton’s boarded river’.

In 1682 the bridge was replaced by an arch which was named after the then Governor of the New River Company, the Earl of Clarendon. This work is commemorated by the carved ornamental keystone, with the inscription “This arch was rebuilt in the yeare 1682, Honourable Earle of Clarendon being Gov.” The arch as again rebuilt in 1725 and is now a statutory listed Grade II structure.

In 1786 the ‘Bush Hill Frame’ was replaced by the present clay embankment that carries the New River, this feature is clearly evident by the New River Path on the opposite side of Bush Hill. These embankment works were commemorated by the adjacent plinth with inset stone table which bears the inscription “This Bank of Earth was raised and formed to support the channel of the New River. And the Frame of Timber and Lead which served that purpose 173 years was removed and taken away. MDCCLXXXVI. Peter Holford Esquire Governor.”

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The information board at the Clarendon Arch from which the above text is taken.

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The Clarendon Arch is sited between Bush Hill, Grange Park and Winchmore Hill stations.


The other substantial structure was that which stretched right across the valley which once consisted of the Hackney Brook, now the Blackstock Road area just south of Finsbury Park. It was built in 1618. Today its impossible to tell there was a valley because of so much build up but nevertheless long embankments on either side led to the ‘boarded river’ as it was called, a 462 foot long aqueduct that soared seventeen feet (or twenty three feet according to Stow) in height.
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Brief description of the substantial aqueduct that formerly existed to the south of Finsbury Park.

In terms of aqueducts, the New River also decided to accommodate the passage of people. Their same ‘boarded river’ near Finsbury Park too crossed what was known in those far off days as Gypsy Lane. The present Mountgrove Road in N4 is where this lane was once found. This ‘boarded river’ lasted until 1776, when it was demolished and the water instead fully embanked. One of the local roads at least until 1835 evoked reminders of this former aqueduct for it was known as Boarded River Lane. I’m not sure where that was exactly, it may have been part of one of the local roads such as Wilberforce or Queens.

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At this spot just off Blackstock Road, the New River’s aqueduct crossed the Hackney Brook at a height of over seventeen feet.

If one looks at the area today, its practically impossible to visualise a stupendous aqueduct (or even the former embankments) having even existed. There is no valley to be seen either. Clearly the area has been reshaped, the valley filled in, the land itself has been considerably levelled to make it all the more nicer for the new houses being built here in the late 19th century. The only evidence of a valley that existed is the hill at Blackstock Road, which has even been downgraded, as well as the slight dip that Green Lane passes on the section alongside Clissold Park.

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Screencap of the site where the Eel Pie House once stood beside the New River. Source: Google Streets.

The one substantial hostelry on this section, the Eel Pie House was for many years a popular attraction. This stood about where Somerfield Road near Finsbury Park is truncated into two parts. For many years there was a country lane leading off Blackstock Road (about where Sainsbury’s is sited) to the Eel Pie House, and on the south side of this lane were some pleasure gardens. The entire length of the elevated section was perhaps just over 600metres (nearly 2000 feet) with the ‘boarded river’ occupying the central section between Mountgrove and Wilberforce Roads. It crossed the Hackney Brook at a height of about seventeen feet just east of the junction of Brownswood and Blackstock Roads.

Contemporary sources suggest the Finsbury Park loop had been swept away by the 1870s however maps show it existed until about 1883-4 which I think is more likely. Some sources confuse the Eel Pie House with the Sluice House which was where Wilberforce Road is now sited. Cross checking across a number of maps including those at Mapco and Old Maps UK indicates the later dates are more likely and the Eel Pie House existed until then. By this time the New River had been diverted into tunnels beneath Green Lanes and the Finsbury Park loop removed. The entire area had been completely flattened by 1886 and houses built.

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Turnford Aqueduct, one of only two examples on the New River to have a series of brick arches. This one also has a public footway beneath.

The company’s other river crossings range from quite modern versions of the ‘boarded river’ to proper substantial brick arched aqueducts or large embankments with culverts at the bottom. That over the Turkey Brook, known as the Forty Hill aqueduct, is a ‘boarded river’ consisting of brick piers, steel supports and sides, and a corrugated roof! Turnford Aqueduct is the only one that resembles the usual form of structure most commonly known, that of a viaduct with a waterway on top and is the only part of the New River the public can walk beneath. The most modern of them all is the huge aqueduct over the M25 to the north of Capel Manor, Enfield. Interestingly it is a covered aqueduct and the reason is without a doubt to keep traffic pollution away from the water.

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The New River’s modern version of its older ‘boarded rivers.’ This is the Docwra aqueduct.

There is one aqueduct that still exists although it is no longer in water. This is Flash Lane aqueduct at Whitewebbs, near Enfield, built in 1920. Its purpose was to reduce the length of the Forty Hall loop. This was eventually replaced by the Forty Hill or Docwra aqueduct of 1859, whose more modern structure is shown in the picture above. Diamond Geezer recently wrote an excellent post on the Flash Lane aqueduct.

As we discussed earlier clay puddling is much credited to James Brindley however the New River preceded his work. Much of the New River had to be rebuilt during the early months of 1613 because it was found its banks and embankments were not strong enough, they could hold water but were invariably eroded by the water flowing past. This is where clay became used on a much larger scale. Although Brindley advocated it in a slightly different way the technique is the same. Lay clay puddling upon a surface and then wetten it, smoothing it out, to make an impermeable membrane. With small waterways as the New River this was an easy enough job but it seems perhaps the early attempts were not enough and so more work had to be done in 1613 to make the waterway effectively sealed. Its not known who devised the idea of clay puddling, however there is some indication Edward Wright may have thought of it for a different waterway, the earlier mentioned Hobson’s River in Cambridge. Whether the idea had come from early work on the New River we do not know. There’s nothing to tell us which waterway – Hobson’s or the New River – was first with regards to any lining of the English waterways with clay.


Did we mention tunnels? Did the New River promoters have any built? Certainly! Although in large they managed to avoid tunnels, the construction of one big tunnel just could not be avoided because it was a built up area. The section from Astey’s Row to Colebrooke Row in Islington has been in tunnel ever since the New River was first built. Its a considerable tunnel and anything of that sort in those days was usually something that went down a mine. This very long tunnel must have been a considerable expense. It could have been avoided however that would have meant a lengthy detour and the purchase and demolition of many properties en route.

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The entrance to the ‘Dark Arch’ or Islington tunnel just off Essex Road.

Very little is known about the New River’s tunnel at Islington. The topmost section at Astey’s Row was where the Thatched House Tavern was and here began the tunnel. In later days it was marked by a sluice house. This underground section was locally known as ‘the coffin’ or the Dark Arch, whilst others describe it, somewhat more confusingly in regards to the later Regent’s Canal, as the Islington Tunnel. The tunnel was about 410 metres or about a third of a mile long and ventured deep below Lower Street, or as it is now, Essex Road. The southern portal was located to the side of the junction of St Peter’s Street and Colebrook Row, as shown in this Google Streets view.

Whilst the water originally flowed straight through the tunnel it seems at some point it was changed so that the water dropped into the tunnel by means of a sluice house and this explains the building that can be seen in the old view above. A sluice house certainly remained at this point until at least 1946 when the New River ceased operation along this section.

The location in question can be found just off Essex Road where some steps lead up to Astey’s Row gardens, here’s Google Streets’ view of the steps themselves.

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Similar viewpoint to the 1800′ view. Notice how the fence and the modern wall both follow the same alignment!

Crace’s Map (in the British Library) shows the New River’s tunnel very clearly. In later years the tunnel was extended by use of a covered way which meant the section of New River from its portal just west of St. Peters Street towards Duncan Terrace, and eventually City Road, was hidden from view. In due course the entire stretch from Canonbury Road to New River Head was built over, with the exception of a very short section in the open between City Road and Goswell Road.

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Comparing the 1800s and the 2018 view of the entrance to the New River’s long tunnel beneath Islington.

From records we can deduct that the tunnel at Islington was effectively finished by about late February 1613 and was put into use almost immediately, enabling the waters to flow all the way from Amwell to a point just past where St John Street is, almost right by Sadler’s Well theatre. The water then dropped into the old Ducking pond and the overflows procured via a series of ditches into the nearby Fleet River. This dispels any notion the New River began flowing to London by Michelmas Day 1613. It had been doing just that for probably seven months prior to that famous ceremony on 29th September 1613 though the flow may by no means have been continuous as many sections of the river between April and September 1613 had to be rebuilt more strongly.

The New River’s tunnel was the scene of a disaster in 1851. In January of that year the Commission of Sewers began the construction of a new sewerage tunnel from Church Street to Cross Street. This had to pass underneath the New River’s own tunnel, which was already twelve feet below the surface so great care was made not to affect this. The incomplete new sewer passed near the King’s Head Inn at 21 Lower Street, whose landlord, John Cox desired to have a drain into the new sewer. He employed workmen to dig a hole for the drain and then a short heading towards the new sewer. Unfortunately this header was right next to the New River’s tunnel. Water soon began percolating into the pub’s cellar. Both the New River Company and the Commission of Sewers were alerted and the breach duly sealed. The landlord was expressively prohibited from undertaking any further works.

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Old view of Colebrooke Row when the New River was an open watercourse.

Alas the landlord foolishly persuaded his workmen to continue their digging. They ventured to begin another header tunnel. Around seven feet of this newer tunnel had been built when the lead worker used a boring tool (called a ‘searcher’) to ascertain where he was going. This boring tool alas penetrated the New River’s tunnel and water immediately poured into the King’s Head tunnel. Of the six workmen in this tunnel, four barely made it out alive. A labourer and a bricklayer were drowned and the force of the water pushed their bodies through the yet incomplete new sewer into the main sewers, their bodies eventually ending up in the Thames. Such large quantities of water flowed through this new hole that the New River was practically emptied from here to New River Head. Repairs were urgently effected with the New River company’s men throwing large bags of clay into the breach, stopping it up until the seal was effective, and then the New River was refilled.

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Wood Green tunnel – north portal – can be found just of Myddleton Road, N22, near Bowes Park station.

The New River has other tunnels too but these were not built until later and their sole reason for being built was to cut off several long loops. The most substantial of these is at Wood Green. This was built, mostly cut and cover, to remove a lengthy section that once ventured almost as far as Edmonton. It opened in 1859 and was strengthened in the 1930s to accommodate the new Piccadilly Line which passes very close by.

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Southern portal of the Wood Green tunnel.This can be seen by Park Avenue, N22, near Alexandra Palace station.

Another tunnel on the New River is that through the hill at Harringay. Originally the river was further east before entering a long loop around the back of Haringey House. A section of the New River was later built through the hill at what is called the Harringay Ladder. The waterway enters the tunnel just south of Seymour Road and re-emerges to the west side of Wightman Road. The tunnel, 260 metres in length, cut off a substantial portion of the New River thus a further new channel had to be built from the north end to Hornsey station and the top end of Turnpike Lane. The total length of new channel (including the tunnel) is just over one kilometre. (See the first post in this series for more information on that alignment.)

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The north end of the Harringay tunnel. The houses are in Wightman Road.

The Harringay facility is more of a sump than a true tunnel and this is why, as shown in the above picture, the channel needs to be kept completely clear of debris before the water enters the sump itself.
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The southern end of the Harringay tunnel seen from Seymour Road, N8.

Similarly the company dispensed with some other loops by diverting the New River underground through huge pipes, generally 48 inches in diameter. These, deep below the general level of the waterway are essentially long sumps and two of these are still in use – that from Enfield to Bush Hill Park (this cuts off the entire Enfield Loop) and the other is at Bowes Park beneath the North Circular Road. The one other sump from Stoke Newington to Clissold Park, as well as the Essex Road tunnel at Islington, were taken out of use in 1946 when the section southwards to New River Head was closed. The only remains of this older underground diversion at Stoke Newington is a sluice house inside Clissold Park opposite the zebra crossing where Green Lanes and Riversdale Road meet.

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The former New River sluice house at the entrance to Clissold Park.

As my picture shows there is very little to be seen inside the sluice house. I expect as soon as the New River was taken out of commission from Stoke Newington to New River Head in 1946, any equipment was removed and reused elsewhere.

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A peep inside the sluice house through one of its windows.

To be continued.