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The History of Water

Water is as old as the Planet Earth itself, but the way people have used water has changed through time. Here you can find about the history of water use and how it has changed in the United Kingdom and the wider world.

Old well

A long history

When the Earth was being formed, two hydrogen atoms combined with one oxygen atom to form H2O, or water.

Water is all around us. Nearly 80% of the surface of the Earth is water. The water we use today is the same water the dinosaurs used millions of years ago!

In the olden days, people did not have running water in their homes. Some had to walk miles every day to find clean water. That's why lots of our towns are built beside lochs and rivers, or where people could dig wells.

Water supply in the United Kingdom

Below is a time line showing some of the most important dates in the history of water supply in the United Kingdom

Franciscan Friars lay a pipeline into Cambridge from a spring 1km outside the town. Religious communities acquired a good reputation for water supply management in the 12th, 13th and 14th centuries.

The mayor of London asked the Abbot of Westminster to help provide fresh water for the 55,000 people of the city.

A system of lead pipes was laid under the streets of Hull. Householders paid for pumps to extract the water.

Peter Morris (a Dutchman) installed an ingenious pump below London Bridge. It was driven by a waterwheel and forced water up a tower over 100 feet high into a big tank, or cistern. The water was then strained through a mesh and fed through large wooden pipes and small lead pipes to houses in London. Five wheels had been built by 1582.


Sir Francis Drake helped Plymouth Corporation persuade Parliament to build a water system to bring water 25km across the moors to the town. Water was stored in cisterns to be used without charge. The supply served for 300 years.

Britain's first flushing toilet called a water closet was designed by Queen Elizabeth's godson.

Oxford used covered gullies to collect spring water from Hinksey Hill. The gullies lead to a 20,000 gallon (90,000 litre) tank protected by a stone house.

In York, water from the River Ouse was pumped by wind power into a tank on the top of Lendal Tower. This provided water inside the walls of the city.

Alexander Cumming re-invented the Water Closet.

James Prosser improved it.

Joseph Bramah perfected the modern flushing toilet.

Richard Gillespie devised a filter system for Glasgow's Cranston Hill waterworks using a layer of sand and gravel.

Robert Thom in Scotland and James Simpson in England perfected mechanical and sand filtration at the same time.

Aberdeen collected water from near the Bridge of Dee by building a tunnel alongside the river which drained off filtered water from the river bed.

John Roe helped solve the problem of blocked drains by building an egg-shaped sewer.

Polluting drinking water was made a criminal offence.

An aqueduct and pipeline was built to bring water to Bristol from sources 25km away.

Manchester built five reservoirs in the Langdendale Valley 15km from town.

The General Board of Health recommended building new sewers in every town.

Leicester was the first town to set up sewage works to treat waste water.

Glasgow's Loch Katrine works were opened providing the city with a supply of 230 million litres per day. At the time, the Corporation was warned about the dangers of lead pipe corrosion by soft acid waters.

Aberdeen extended its River Dee tunnel system to supply 28 million litres per day.

Joseph Balgazette designed the first interceptor sewers to carry London's sewage down the banks of the Thames to be dumped into the estuary.

New laws allowed town councils and local authorities to take water companies into public ownership.

The "Native Guano Co." at Hastings and Leamington dried and pressed sewage to sell as manure.

Liverpool built Britain's first all-stone dam on the River Vyrnwy in Powys.

Water was checked for bacteria for the first time.

Bacterial sludge beds were first designed for treating sewage.

Birmingham was given 18,000 hectares (45,000 acres) of Wales to build three reservoirs in the Elan Valley. These were opened in 1904.

Manchester enlarged the Lake Thirlmere reservoir in the Lake District.


By the 1930s the routine way to treat water was to:

  • Screen it to catch branches, solids and dead animals

  • Treat it with aluminium sulphate to remove solids

  • Chlorinate it against bacterial infections

The Water Act reorganised the water industry and encouraged more efficiency.

The Water Resources Act created 29 River Authorities to look after the river systems and control the use of water.

The Central Scotland Water Development Board was set up to supply more water for sale to Local Authorities.

The Water Bill for England and Wales created 10 Regional Water Authorities.

The nine new Scottish Regional Councils and the Islands Councils were set up to control public water supply, sewerage and sewage disposal.

Kielder Reservoir was opened. It was one of the biggest lakes in Europe.

The water needs of England and Wales rose from 110,000 million litres per day to 164,000 million litres per day.

The Water Act of 1989 allowed Local Authorities in England and Wales to sell off the water companies.

Three new Scottish water authorities were created - East, West and North of Scotland Water. They took over water and waste water services from the former Scottish Regional Councils.


Scottish Water was formed to improve the water industry in Scotland for the benefit of its 5 million customers. It replaced the three former water authorities.

Water supplies in the wider world

Water is vital to life. It has played an important part in the history of all great countries and civilizations.

The Indus Civilisation, which produced the first cities of Mohnjo-Daro and Harappa around 2500 BC, also built the first sewers. They even had manhole covers so they could be cleaned and unblocked.

Jerusalem in the times of King Hezekiah in the 7th century BC was supplied by man-made underground water tunnel which led from a protected spring outside the walls.

The Roman Empire was famous for building raised canals called aqueducts to bring water to its cities. Every day the people of Rome used more than one thousand million litres of water for all uses including fountains and baths. Few homes had piped water though. This was drawn from public fountains or wells. People carried their waste to sewage disposal points, which led to the Great Sewer or Cloaca Maxima.

The Inca Empire provided homes for about 12 million people - over twice the size of modern Scotland. To keep people healthy, a stone channel ran down each street in the main city Cuzco carrying fresh water from the mountains, ready to flush away sewage.

The Ashanti Kingdom in 18th century West Africa was very clean. Buildings in the capital Kumasi had sewage pipes, which were cleaned daily with boiling water. And even remote villages had public toilets.