Soane’s Life and Times: 1812-1813. Part IV: Supplying the City

2013 marks a significant date for Sir John Soane’s Museum, as it heralds the 200th anniversary since Sir John and his family took up residence at No.13 Lincoln’s Inn Fields.  Over the coming months we are looking forward to celebrating this important milestone in the Museum’s history by exploring aspects of Soane’s life during 1812-13.  A fascinating and glittering period, the year that Soane established his now world famous house museum was also one of political, economic and social turmoil both in Britain and abroad.  We are grateful to Gisela Gledhill, author of Soane’s Life & Times 1812-13 (and edited by Philippa Stockley), to allow us to feature her work in this way.

Print of the revolutionary Bramah water closet
The Bramah Water Closet, patented in 1778, became the leader in the field of sanitary plumbing, and remained so for a century. Soane had three installed at No.13 Lincoln’s Inn Fields in 1812-13

Supplying the City

London’s services developed rapidly to meet the needs of its growing population. Public demand for connection to water and sewer networks in the new residential areas led to a significant improvement in water supply and drainage. The Thames and Lea had for many years been the main sources of water, in conjunction with natural springs and wells. Private companies sourced water from the Lea and from springs in the Lea valley and distributed it to the City and areas to the north, including Lincoln’s Inn Fields, through wooden pipes (later replaced by larger iron ones), which it leased for an annual payment. By 1809, there were eight main water companies supplying different parts of London. Water quality posed a major health risk, especially from the Thames, which risked contamination from 130 sewers, slaughter houses and a range of industries discharging into the river between Chelsea Hospital and London Bridge.  Contamination remained a serious problem even after filter beds were introduced and the intake moved further upstream, resulting in recurring outbreaks of cholera. Sewage was discharged into cesspools that had to be emptied by night-soil men. When piped water became available at a reasonable price, the disposal of sewage via drains became prevalent. From around 1810, water closets started to replace privies and were a feature in middle-class houses by the mid-19th century.

Travelling the country

In the early 19th century people got about by mail coach, private carriage, on horseback or on foot. Soane travelled long distances by mail coach (often overnight) to visit his clients, and used a chaise or private carriage for shorter journeys. Mail coaches often carried his plans and designs to country-house clients. He regularly walked to and from the Bank of England, Chelsea Hospital and Dulwich.

Satirical print of The Game Chicken, with an actor driving horses seated on an adapted chamber pot.  Image courtesy of the British Museum
The Game Chicken, satirical print published by William Holland in 1811. The contemporary actor, Robert 'Romeo' Coates, drives clumsy horses in a grotesque curricle depicted as a chamber-pot. Courtesy of the British Museum

The birth of the canal

Expansion of industry in the Midlands and the need for markets for its goods stimulated the development of inland waterways, a cheaper and more efficient means of transport than roads. A new network of canals linked the Midlands and the North to London. William Praed, Soane’s banker, was a key promoter of the 93-mile-long Grand Junction Canal, running from the Midlands to the Paddington Basin in London. Praed had founded the Grand Junction Canal Company in 1793 with Soane as a subscriber. Completed in 1801, in 1810 it amalgamated with the Leicestershire & Northamptonshire Union Canal to form the Grand Union Canal. A link to the Thames at Limehouse and to the London docks was established by the Regent’s Canal Company, which John Nash promoted in 1812. The Regent’s Canal, running from Paddington to the Thames in the east, was completed in 1820.

Centre for shopping

Shopping in the early 1800s was centred on the residential parts of the City: Cheapside, Cornhill, Ludgate Circus and St Paul’s Churchyard (for booksellers and publishers) and in the Strand. Expansion to the west saw shops in Pall Mall, New Bond Street, Oxford Street, Regent Street and beyond. There were thriving markets in Covent Garden (fruit, flowers and vegetables), Smithfields (livestock), Leadenhall and Borough (both food).  Eliza Soane regularly went to Covent Garden to buy provisions, especially in the early years of marriage when she had only one servant. She went the day before her death in 1815 to purchase a dessert for dinner.

Print view of Covent Garden market.  Image courtesy of British Museum

A Bird Eye View of Covent Garden Market, print by John Bluck after Augustus Charles Pugin and Thomas Rowlandson, published by Ackermann, c. 1811. Courtesy of the British Museum

Posted on 26 September 2013 in Soane's Life and Times: 1812-1813
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