Rosemary Bennett

It has to be said of Hertford Borough Corporation that it was quick to provide the town with amenities that would improve the standard of living of its inhabitants. There are four primary utilities and in chronological order the installation of these were 1) Water 2) Gas – those who could not afford to have gas installed in their homes could at least benefit from street lighting. 3) The Disposal of sewage which previously had been deposited in the town’s rivers and 4) Electricity. Only the provision of electricity was somewhat belated and as the earliest electrical benefit was lighting probably it was no doubt deemed less important as gas lighting was already available. It was the need for power that necessitated the erection of the electricity works.


In 1708 George Osmond, a plumber from London’s Fetter Lane, erected the town’s first water works on a plot of land on the edge of Hartham (at the rear of present day Folly Island). The agreement with Hertford Corporation was that Osmond would provided the finance in return for a 99 year lease at a nominal rent and retaining the profits.

The works had a breast water wheel with a set of three throw surface pumps – it looked rather like a windmill – and the water was taken directly from the River Lea to a lead cistern at the level of the old cross on the oat market in the Parish of All Saints’. Any disruption to barges1 using the river incurred a 5/- fine. Osmond was responsible for laying mains and maintaining the river to its junction with the river Beane at the far end of Hartham Common. The earliest water pipes were hollowed out tree trunks which were replaced in 1816 with iron pipes, manufactured by George Derby, a Hertford millwright and engineer.

Clearly Osmond over stretched his finances for he died in London’s notorious Newgate Debtors’ Prison. By then the Corporation had repossessed the works after leasing them for a short period to a Richard Hall. As the town grew so did the demand for water. There were many complaints from the miller of Dicker Mill that the reduction in water levels impeded the mill’s efficiency and complaints were also received from the Trustees of the River Lea. The problem was settled by an Act of Parliament which dictated posts be embedded in the river to indicate the lowest possible level the water could drop. In 1856, another act permitted the Corporation to extract up to 100,000 gallons every day and more if that amount was less than 25 gallons per head of the population. In 1900, the ‘Old Waterworks’ were replaced by a pumping station with an 81ft ‘tube well’ which enabled water to be pumped to the higher levels of town. Surplus water would be pumped to a reservoir on Port Hill.

This reservoir, together with a another pumping station built on the River Beane on Hartham, had been erected in 1862 at a cost of £3,000. The reservoir was rebuilt and covered over in 1878 at a further cost of £3,3000. Later in 1888, the Corporation accepted a 99 year lease of a disused flour mill on the River Beane at Molewood. The owner gave permission for the mill to be demolished and a new pumping station built on the site. The annual rent was £20 with the Corporation undertaking to maintain the ‘river banks, floodgates, tumbling bays, sluices and the Horseshoe Falls’. This pumping station also supplied the Port Hill Reservoir.

When Hertford’s boundaries were extended in 1894, the Corporation acquired the 21 year lease of the Bengeo waterworks and mains for £33 per annum. These waterworks, which had a storage capacity of 200,000 gallons, had been erected in 1878 and the water was taken from the River Beane at Waterford. In 1896, when The New River Company tried to obtain permission to sink wells higher up the Lea, Mimram, Beane and Rib valleys, Hertford Corporation successfully blocked the taking of water from Hertford’s rivers to supply London.

The Bengeo water tower and works, just off The Avenue, were leased from the Ware Park Estate until the Corporation purchased them in 1903. Also in 1907 an Act of Parliament successfully stopped the New River Company from supplying water to any part of Hertford without first consulting and obtaining consent from Hertford Corporation.

1 These barges were narrower versions of the Thames sailing barge built to meet the requirements of the rivers they were plying – they were not narrow boats.


Gas lighting was introduced in 1825 when a branch of the International Gas Company was established in Mead Lane. A statute passed in 1828 gave the Corporation powers to raise the necessary funding provided the amount needed was not more than two shillings in the pound on each property, whether owned or rented. A joint stock company – ‘The Hertford Gas Light and Coke Company Ltd’ – was formed and £13,000 capital was raised by issuing thirteen thousand £1 shares. In 1864, due to increased demand, ‘The Hertford Gas Act’ extended the installation to include the surrounding parishes of St. John, All Saints, St. Andrews, the Liberties of Brickendon and Little Amwell together with the Parishes of Bengeo and Hertingfordbury. The ‘Gasworks Clauses Act, 1871’ only marginally altered this agreement.

A separate arrangement was made with the Corporation to supply gas to forty street lamps and to light public buildings. Pavements were laid and a rate of 2/- in the pound levied to cover the costs of employing watchmen. The gas works were later taken over by the Tottenham and District Gas Company and finally by Eastern Gas. In 1958 the Mead Lane Gas works were closed however the site is currently undergoing ‘remediation’ and a small office/industrial unit nearby is home to the North London Gas Alliance. The road giving access to the gas works was named Gas House Lane and cottages were subsequently built along it. When Margaret Thatcher was Prime Minister, an act was passed giving the residents of a street permission to change its name provided the new name was approved by the majority of those living there and permission was obtained from the local council. Thus Gas house Lane became Marshgate Drive after the small industrial estate at the end of the street. The change was approved by the Borough Council as it meant the various companies on the estate “would not have to change their letterheads.”


To quote from Baker and Fenning 2 “The sanitary arrangements of Hertford in former times, like those of other towns, were of a primitive nature”. Many houses drained directly into cesspools while sewage from others was either deposited directly into the rivers or reached them via a network of open ditches cutting across town. In the 1830-40s an average of 117 people died in Hertford each year and in 1849 thirty-eight children and five members of staff from Christ’s Hospital School died from cholera. The blame was attributed to an open sewer which went from the Gaol (where Baker Street Car Park is now) down the side of ‘Christ’s Hospital, along the line of present day Villiers Street, before emptying into the River Lea. In 1848 William Ranger was appointed by the General Board of Health to investigate sewage, drainage and water supply with the intention of applying The Public Health Act. He disclosed a very unfavourable state of affairs reporting that there was insufficient water for the town’s 4,500 inhabitants and outbreaks of typhoid fever, cholera and malaria were frequent.

The first national Public Health Act was passed by the House of Commons but for some inexplicable reason Hertford was deleted from the list before the Bill went to the House of Lords. Hertford was not included until the Public Health Act of 1875.

However, as the New River Company was extracting copious quantities from the River Lea to supply London, it became imperative that something be done to prevent the river from becoming polluted. “The New River Company’s (Hertford Sewerage Diversion) Act 1854” enabled the Company, at its own expense, to carry out a system of drainage to intercept and prevent sewage being discharged into the river. The result was the building of the Sewage Purification Works at the end of Mead Lane. Sewage effluent was discharged into the Manifold Ditch and then into the River Lea below the New River Company’s intake of water. The cost to the New River Company was approximately £26,000. In 1857, a further act authorised the New River Company to construct additional sewers and drains. In 1868 ‘The Lee3 Conservancy Act’ was passed which established an elected body of Conservators to be responsible for preserving and maintaining the flow of water into the Lea and its tributaries. A year later responsibility for the sewage beds was transferred to Hertford Corporation with the New River Company contributing £600 annually towards running costs.

In 1874, Hertford Corporation leased the works to the London Phosphate Company and four years later a similar lease was granted to the Rivers Purification Company. However constant complaints were received from the Lee Conservancy that effluent from the sewage works was contaminating the river. This led to a two week trial with Mr. Justice Williams who found in the Corporation’s favour for he concluded that as the best methods of treatment had been used the Corporation could not be held responsible for the accumulation of mud in the river above Ware. In 1899, the sewage beds were leased to the East London Waterworks Company for the nominal annual sum of £1 and the Corporation then paid £700 per annum for an indemnity against all liabilities in the respect of sewage treatment. Management of the works then passed to the Metropolitan Water Board until 1910 after which Hertford Corporation regained control. The Metropolitan Water Board had already proposed a plan to extend and improve the Sewage Works at an estimated cost of £34,000 but Hertford Corporation refused to get involved and in September, 1911 the lease was surrendered.

The Metropolitan Water Board paid Hertford Corporation compensation for all ‘the loss and injury that might be sustained’ and it also conveyed to the Corporation 12 acres of freehold land adjoining the works in Mead Lane together with £25,000 plus £4,572.3.10 to cover the interest. It also paid £600 annually towards maintenance. By 1914 the method used to treat the sewage was out of date and it was decided to replace the old system with the ‘Activated Sludge Process’. The cost was estimated to be about £20,000 but this did not include subsidiary works. However the outbreak of war in 1914 intervened and the project was shelved. The plant was finally installed in 1922 to plans designed by the Borough Surveyor, Mr. Jevons. Costs however had risen to £32,000. The system was deemed a success and the “Corporation was then advised that the process was one which could turn out satisfactory effluent at all times and would be equal in every way to the process which had already been sanctioned by the Ministry of Health.

After the1914-1918 war, the Rural Sanitary Authority requested that the Molewood District be linked to the main Hertford Sewer. The Sanitary Authority would pay an annual rent to cover the cost of laying the sewers and the cost of providing “water for flushing purposes”. The agreed costs were £1 each for the first 40 houses to be connected, 41 to 61 houses would cost 17/6 per house, 62 to 100 15/- per house, and above 100 the cost was to be 12/6. When the agreement was made the houses numbered 58 and the population numbered 290.


Despite the 1882 and 1888 Electric Lighting Acts Hertford Corporation was rather slow to take advantage of them even though the acts were worded to give Local Authorities control and virtual monopoly within their district. Even so the Corporation did not act until a private company showed interest in supplying the town. The Corporation then applied to the Board of Trade for a Provisional Order. This stipulated the mains were to be laid within two years. However there was a great deal of opposition as the area it was allowed to operate went considerably beyond the Borough’s boundaries. A revised scheme was approved by the Board of Trade and Royal Assent given and once again Hertingfordbury was included. The Corporation formulated a scheme that met the approval of higher authorities but was fiercely opposed by some Corporation members. The plan was eventually adopted but only by the casting vote of the Mayor. The Local Government Board was approached for a £6,000 loan but as opposition persisted it intimated that it would revoke its consent and apply to other companies and select whichever one was prepared to undertake the work.

The Corporation’s proposals met with fierce opposition in the municipal election held later in the year. The result was for it to negotiate with a number of electric light companies and in 1900 a contract was placed with the North Metropolitan Electric Power Distribution Company Ltd. A clause was included permitting the Corporation to purchase the works provided a two year warning of its intention was given. The ‘North Met’ was incorporated by an Act of Parliament and obtained an order to provide electricity in bulk. A generating station, erected in Mead Lane was ready to start supplying in 1902. The plant cost £14, 560 18s 8. to build and output was limited to 460 volts.

The workforce worked a 56 hour week; the fitter/driver earned 34/-; stoker 30/-, clerk 25/- and lamp-lighter 8/- . All were paid 6d an hour for overtime. Hertford was supplied with power as well as light and a number of small generating stations were built in the area. Later the Company agreed with the Corporation that it should erect and maintain a number of street lamps and that electricity should replace gas in the town’s public buildings. Electricity was used to dispose of the town’s refuse from 1910 and the works closed in 1926.


2 The primary sources of information is an unpublished work by Alfred Baker, Town Clerk of Hertford and the Rev. W. D. Fenning, a House Master at Haileybury. It was intended to be an updated version of Lewis Turnor’s ‘History of Hertford’, published in 1830. The second edition was to have been published in 1930 thus celebrating the book’s centenary but it was not completed and therefore never published. The original typescript is in the library of Hertford Museum. Other very useful papers connected with the topic have also come from the Museum’s extensive collection of paper ephemera. Information concerning the electricity works comes from a book, NORTHMET written by N.C. Friswell and published in 2000.

3 The spelling of the River Lea’s name has varied over the years. At one time it would seem that Lee was the more common version whereas today it is Lea with the former name being exclusive to the navigation. Also in the past although Lea was in general use Lee was used when it came to Acts of Parliament and other official documents.

This page was added on 16/03/2022.

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