By the 13th Century, London's population of forty thousand was crammed behind the city walls on the north side of the Thames River. Residents relied on natural wells, streams and rivers for their daily water. In the year 1237, the City decided to build a piping system that became knows as the Great Conduit. Water wheels were constructed beneath London Bridge and a reservoir was built at Tyburn from which Thames water was gravity fed to cisterns in the city. Pipes buried in the center of London's streets carried the water to private buildings.
While the poor continued to draw from the river, public cisterns and fountains, the wealthy paid a fee for the privilege of tapping into The Great Conduit. Wardens were appointed to prevent illegal usage and to maintain the system. But the reliance on elm and lead pipes was a major disadvantage. While elm wood didn't decay once soaked (London Bridge's pilings were made of elm) wood and lead pipes were no match for the Great Fire of 1666. (Click here to see what these wood pipes looked like, and here for a views of the lead ones.)
By the middle of the 16th Century, iron pipes had replaced the wood and lead ones. Before the turn of the century, Mr. Watt patented his steam engine. Steam power quickly replaced horsepower to lift water from the Thames and its tributaries.
Typical of the water companies of the time was Chelsea Waterworks. Established in 1723, it pumped water from the Thames north of what later became Victoria Station to supply the City of Westminster and Kensington Palace.
In 1725, two ponds in Green Park served as Chelsea Waterworks reservoirs. (Click here to view people promenading around one Green Park reservoir and fountain in 1824, and here for a view of Chelsea Waterworks from the reservoir.) Another was built in the circle of Walnut Tree Walk in Hyde Park. Another was construction in the park opposite Mount Street. (Click on the map to see location.) The Dolphin Foundation is said to sit on an old reservoir site.
The Abbey of Westminster once owned sole rights to the water of the springs and rivers of Hyde Park through a charter signed by Edward the Confessor. In 1830, Queen Caroline ordered the Westbourne River dammed to create the Serpentine. Chelsea Waterworks was paid hefty compensation for the loss of it water rights.
By 1856 there were nine water companies serving London. Click here for a map of their districts.
London Bridge: 1666-1825, Where Thames Smooth Waters Glide
Reservoir of the Chelsea Water-Works; Historical Recollections of Hyde Park by Thomas Smith; published 1836; p.26