North East Wales

Sir Hugh Myddleton: Ruthin man who gave London clean drinking water

Sir Hugh Myddleton
Image caption Sir Hugh Myddleton was a businessman and self-taught engineer

A son of Ruthin, whose engineering feat helped save hundreds of lives in London 400 years ago, has been honoured in his home town.

Sir Hugh Myddleton is still remembered in the names of streets and buildings across the English capital.

In September 1613, the self-taught civil engineer brought clean drinking water to London through a new river to the heart of the city.

On Friday a procession took place through Ruthin to mark his achievement.

In the early 17th Century, London's population had exploded and sanitation was a serious problem.

Almost 35 miles long and taking five years to construct, Myddleton's artificial New River diverted clean water from the River Lea in Hertfordshire to Clerkenwell in the city of London.

It had an almost instantaneous benefit.

By 1614, deaths, which can now be attributed to water-borne infections, had halved on the previous year.

On Friday, the Worshipful Company of Water Conservators marked the 400th anniversary by marching in their full regalia through Ruthin town centre to St Peter's Church.

Bishop of St Asaph, the Right Reverend Dr Gregory K Cameron gave thanks for Sir Hugh's life and work.

The service also saw a modern day Ruthin engineer, Ivor Richards, officially installed as the 25th Master of the Worshipful Company.

Myddleton in his day enjoyed the grateful thanks of both the citizens of London and the king.

He was created Myddleton Baronet of Rhuthyn by James I.

"He was undoubtedly amongst the finest civil engineers there have ever been, and why he's not as famous as Bazalgette or Brunel I have no idea, because arguably he's had as big an impact on British life as both of them," said Mr Richards.

Image caption Ivor Richards was installed as the 25th Master of the WCWC on the HQS Wellington, City of London

"The New River travelled at a gradient of just five inches per mile, which people told him was impossible and used systems of culverts and aqueducts which hadn't been seen in Britain since Roman times."

Sir Hugh was born in 1560, the sixth son of Richard Myddleton, an MP and governor of Denbigh Castle. As a younger child he left for London to seek his fortune.

He embarked on an entrepreneurial career which took in textiles, mining, engineering, jewellery, and even politics - succeeding his father as the Denbigh Boroughs MP.

Myddleton became a wealthy man through lead, silver and gold mining in Carmarthenshire.

He was first summoned to King James's court as royal jeweller around the time of The Gunpowder Plot.

Mr Richards said: "It was his skill as a jeweller which got him into court, his skill as a mining engineer which gave him the idea for the New River, but it was his skill as a raconteur which earned him the vital backing of the king, at a time when he didn't know who to trust."

The idea for the artificial river began with another engineer Edmund Colthurst but it was taken up by Myddleton after it floundered following an early start to construction.

"Colthurst had tried to do something similar a few years earlier, but hadn't been able to overcome either the expense or the technical problems," said Mr Richards.

"Not only did Sir Hugh have an ingenious plan, he was also able to persuade King James to invest 50% of the capital; backing which swept away all objections from land owners along the route.

"Sir Hugh wasn't just a Jack of all trades, he truly was a master of all trades."

He died aged 71 in London in 1631 and is buried in Cheapside, close to what was then the terminus of The New River.

Although it has been shortened and now ends at Stoke Newington, around two million Londoners still depend on it for their drinking water.

The Worshipful Company of Water Conservators (WCWC), which organised the tribute, promotes the importance of clean water and its science.

"It's an honour to follow in his footsteps but I couldn't mention myself in the same breath as Sir Hugh for an instant," added Mr Richards the company's new master.

Image caption Born in Ruthin, Sir Hugh has been described as one of history's "finest civil engineers"

Related Internet links

The BBC is not responsible for the content of external Internet sites