The Welshman who gave London clean water

Monday 29 November 2010, 10:21

Phil Carradice Phil Carradice

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On 10 December 1631 Sir Hugh Middleton, a truly unsung Welsh hero, died quietly at his home in London. He came from Galch Hill outside Denbigh in North Wales.

River Thames

Sir Hugh Middleton ensured that the people of London finally got decent drinking water.

Sir Hugh was the sixth son of Richard Middleton, MP for the Denbigh Boroughs and governor of Denbigh Castle, and spent his childhood in the beautiful Clywd countryside.

He was born in 1560, right in the middle of Queen Elizabeth's traumatic and glorious reign, an age when Britain first achieved world, as opposed to European, significance.

His name is often spelled Myddelton, such variations in spelling being quite common at the time - no less a person than William Shakespeare even spelled his name in at least half a dozen different ways.

Hugh Middleton, in the fashion of most younger sons, had to leave home to make his way in the world and he decided to try his hand in London.

There he was apprenticed to a goldsmith - presumably his father paid the necessary fees for indentures - and in time became so successful that he was appointed Royal Jeweller to Elizabeth's successor, King James I.

As a successful businessman Hugh Middleton moved easily between London and Denbigh, becoming an Alderman and, eventually, succeeding his father as MP for the Welsh town.

He was not just a goldsmith: his interests and business concerns stretched into many diverse areas. He also traded as a cloth maker, a banker, a mine owner and as an engineer. It was in this last capacity that Middleton really made his name.

London had been, for many years, a stinking and filthy community where the infrastructure was incapable of dealing with or supporting the thousands who flocked to the city every year.

The lack of clean water - for drinking and for washing - was a major problem. The Thames was, literally, a floating sewer. Small wonder that disease was rife and that the plague visited almost every year.

Hugh Middleton became the driving force behind the plan to create a clean water supply for London. It was not his idea and he only became involved once the original designers found themselves in financial difficulties. However, once he was part of the project Middleton drove it forward with an almost raging intensity.

The plan was to construct something called New River, a culvert that would bring water from the River Lea at Ware to what was soon being described as New River Head in London.

This "new river" was dug out and constructed between 1608 and 1613, being 38 miles in length and used by people who lived on its route as well as householders in the city.

The project took both time and money. Much of this was provided by Hugh Middleton although the king - who had always been a supporter of the scheme - was also induced to lend a financial hand in 1612.

New River was finally completed and officially opened on 23 September 1613, giving Londoners their first clean water for dozens, perhaps even hundreds, of years.

Hugh Middleton was a true Renaissance Man. He was interested in art and literature and also, as well as his traditional business interests in London and his community work in Denbigh, he developed and ran lead and silver mines in Ceredigion.

He also found time to sire 10 sons and six daughters, their survival into adulthood - always a perilous process in the 17th century - undoubtedly being helped by the clean water supply that their father had created.

Sir Hugh Middleton was created Baronet in 1622, a clear sign of the position he held and his significance in Stuart England. He died on 10 December 1631 and was buried in London.

There is a memorial to Sir Hugh on Islington Green and several streets have been named after him in the capital - and in the small Hertfordshire town of Ware.

Yet surely the greatest memorial to this Welshman of drive and vision has to be the fact that, thanks to his efforts, the people of London finally got decent drinking water.

The system he created kept the capital supplied until the middle years of the 19th century. A far sighted man indeed.

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