A Water Famine In East London

July 2018 is shaping up to become one of the hottest months in living memory. We are basking in, seemingly, endless sunshine. The tubes are like furnaces, and everybody is carrying bottles of water with them wherever they go.

But, just imagine if, with the current heatwave and drought-inducing conditions, what it would be like if our access to water was limited to just a few gallons for a few hours a day.

Well, that very scenario faced the people of East London in July 1895. when a hot and sunny spell led to the River Lea, from which a fair proportion of the East End’s water supply was drawn, almost drying up.

The East London Water Company reacted to the drought by turning off the water supply in large sections of the East End of London for up to twenty-two hours a day; and, in consequence, by the end of July, 1895, the newspapers were full of reports about the “East End Water Famine.”

Their actions not only led to people desperately trying to secure sufficient water for their daily needs but also, in some of the more overcrowded courts and alleys in the East End of London, people’s health began to suffer as a result of the fact that the drains and sewers were inadequately flushed.

In short, the stench must have been unbearable.

People gathered in one of the East End Alley.
A Typically overcrowded East End Alley.


The Morning Post, on Friday, 26th July, 1895, carried the following brief report on the problem of the lack of water in the East End, and of the likely effects it would have on the health of the residents:-

“For a considerable time past the supply of water to the inhabitants of the East-end of London has been very inadequate, not only for domestic purposes, but for public and sanitary purposes as well.

This has especially been the case in some of the most thickly populated parts of the district, and it is asserted that many cases of illness which have occurred are directly attributable to imperfectly-flushed drains.

The death rate from diarrhoea has also been abnormal, even for this period of the year, and, in the opinion of medical men, the probability is that not one-half of the cases of that disease would have occurred but for the scarcity of water.”


The Graphic, on Saturday, 27th July, 1895, reported that, although rain had now fallen, the effects of the water shortage of the previous two weeks had had dire consequences on the people of the area:-

“The scarcity of water in the East End of London has reached a stage which is really serious.

Already the district coroner of Mile End has had to hold an inquiry into the deaths of three children from illness distinctly attributable to the foul state of the local drains, and it impossible to guess how many more deaths and how much more sickness might not be traced to the same cause.

Evidence was given by one of the jurors that in one street no water at all was procurable, and that in one court six families were dependent for their house supply on a single tap, turned on for only two hours a day.

The break in the weather and the fairly heavy rainfall of the last week will, no doubt, help to swell the water companies’ resources, but, for all that, they have no right to look upon the past condition of affairs as abnormal.

A water supply which falls short after a few weeks of dry weather is really a source of constant danger, and the time for a serious consideration of London’s supply has certainly arrived.

It is a question which can afford to wait no longer, for who can say what may be the pestilential result of a drought a little more complete and more prolonged than that through which we have just passed.”

A view into one of the alleyways of East London.
Another of The Slum Alleys.


The next day, Reynolds’s Newspaper, on Sunday, 28th July, 1895, carried a much fuller report on the effects of the drought, and made mention of some of the measure being taken by the local people to tackle the water company’s refusal to provide sufficient water to the residents:-

“The Whitechapel District Board on Monday night discussed the water famine in East London.

Mr. Collins called attention to the fact that in Spitalfields the water was turned off twenty-two out of the twenty-four hours. Did the company possess such a power?

The Clerk said he did not think they possessed the power to shut off the water to such an extent.

Subsequently, a letter was read from the company stating that there was no cause for alarm if the people would only use the means of storage in their possession.

Mr. Collins looked on the matter as serious and pointed out that the company themselves authorized the removal of the cisterns in East London.

The stoppage meant danger to health, and the action of the company was almost a crime.

All through last week men were offering a penny a pail for water and could not get it.

Mr. Johnson said that he looked on the letter of the Company as an impudent one. Their statement that thirty gallons a day were sufficient was absurd. He moved that an urgent remonstrance be sent to the London County Council.

Dr. Loane, the medical officer, said that the district had not been having sufficient water to keep it in a sanitary condition.

The motion was carried.


The Limehouse District Board has joined in the general condemnation of the action of the East London Water Company, and, in addition, passed some significant resolutions.

Not only had they had their attention called to the question by explanatory letters from the company, but the Board of Works committee had been considering the question and had recommended that the company be asked to turn the water on, not only in the morning, but for at least one hour in the evening, and that negotiations be opened with the Thames Conservancy in order that the Board might use Thames water for road watering.

Mr. Knight thought it heartrending that there should be sufficient water to put down on the roads while poor people were unable to get any at all.

Mr. Donovan thought strong action should be taken. The company had broken up the roads in a number of instances without giving the Board notice, and he moved that they be prosecuted.

Mr. Smith said that they had now been practically without water for nine weeks.

The fact was that the company, by undertaking to supply 500,000 people in Essex, could not fulfil their responsibilities. He should advise the Board to communicate at once with the Local Government Board.

The Committee’s recommendations were carried.

Subsequently, the Medical Officer reported that the death-rate had reached the astonishing figure of 33.9 per 1000 people, and admitted that a continuance of the water scarcity would induce fever and diarrhoea.


On Tuesday evening, Dr. E. King Houchin held an inquiry at the Mile End Vestry Hall with reference to the death of Catherine Butterley, aged nine months, the daughter of an engineer’s labourer, of 6, Grove-place, Grove-street, St. George’s, East.

Catherine Butterley, the mother, stated that the child was seized with diarrhoea and vomiting on the previous Thursday. Next day Dr. Rygate prescribed for the child, but death ensued on Saturday.

By a Juror: The water supply was very short just now, and, in consequence, the drains could not be properly flushed. Very bad smells arose from the drains. There were six cottages in the court, and there was a water -closet right opposite each door. There was only just room to pass between the water-closet and the doors of the cottages. There were no cisterns in the cottages, and only one tap in the court to supply the six families.

The water was turned on two hours a day and all the people had to save water in various types of utensil to last them for the other twenty-two hours.

Dr James Hugh Heaney stated that the cause of death was acute diarrhoea.


Another inquiry was held at the same place with reference to the death of Thomas Knifton, aged ten months, the son of a general dealer, of 131, Ernest-street, Mile End.

In this case also the child was seized with diarrhoea on Sunday last, and died the next day.

The mother complained of the scanty supply of water.

Thera was no cistern in the house, and she had had to beg water from some of her neighbours whose back premises abutted on hers and who were receiving a better supply.

A Juror: “The fact of there being no cistern shows that she would not have enough water to flush the drains, and that in itself would create bad smells.”

A Juror: “We cannot get any water down the whole street, and the drains are most foul.”

The Coroner: “It certainly will be a most serious matter if this sort of thing goes on. There are about two gallons of water in the closet cistern with this constant supply system, and when that is used the cistern is not filled again under the present circumstances. I hope the Press will take notice of these matters, as something ought to be done at once”. (hear, hear.)

Dr. Whitehouse stated that death was due to exhaustion from diarrhoea.

In each case, a verdict of “Natural death” was returned.


The East London Water Works Company were summoned at the Thames Police Court yesterday for not supplying Mr. F. Tucker, 18, White Horse-street, Stepney, with water sufficient for his domestic use, he being an inhabitant and having paid his rates for such supply, and also for not keeping water laid on at such a pressure as would make the water reach the top storey of the highest house in the district.

Mr. Grain appeared in support of the summonses and Mr. George Kebbell represented the company.

Mr. Kebbell said that he understood the case could not be fully gone into that afternoon, but mentioned that when it was gone into the old point about payment in advance of the rate would arise.

Mr. Grain admitted that the rate was not paid on May 23rd but it had since been, and the summons stated on “divers days after.”

Mr. Mend said the case would be fully gone into on the next session, and adjourned the summons.


The increased death-rate in the Hackney district is attributed to the exceedingly scanty supply of water, and at a meeting of the Vestry, it was unanimously decided to requisition the Board of Trade to immediately institute an inquiry into the circumstances attending the failure of the East London Water Company to give an adequate and sufficient supply of water to the district.


The sufferers from the water famine in the East-end of London have every reason to be thankful to Mr. Frank Brien, the popular member of the Mile End Board of Guardians.

Not only did Mr. Brien, on his own initiative, bring the disgraceful conduct of the water company before the Thames Police Court, but he addressed the Press and organized a deputation to the directors of the company, with the result of securing a supplemental supply.

This is the type of man we need so much to look after the trickery and shortcomings of easy-going and money-making monopolists.”