Free Like Conduit Water?


Let’s Dig Up the New River

September 2013: North London's New River is four hundred years old this month. For much of its length it is buried beneath our streets and parks...


For centuries people swam, bathed and played in the River...
Think of the fun we could have! Boating from Wood Green to Angel... Sunbathing on the banks in Green Lanes...
Skinny-dipping in Palmers Green...?

North London’s New River was opened in 1613, in an attempt to alleviate, but also to cash in on, the shortage of water in the City of London. The New River Company, a private enterprise, had the river dug, selling shares and making a profit from the supply of water to the growing City of London. This was one of the first capitalist ventures into both the creation of infrastructure, and the providing of staples like water for profit.
One of the first PFIs you might say. The Company was an important fore-runner of huge corporations that today dominate the global economy, not only selling the earth’s resources to us, and wrecking the planet in the process, but also robbing us of the fruits of our daily labours... There are numberless statues and roads remembering Hugh Myddelton, the entrepreneur who organised the financing of the New River - but hard-working navvies dug the New River: who remembers them?

Water, like all the riches of the earth and the fruits of our labour, should be shared freely by all, for need and joy, not profit and loss.
As a token towards the abolition of all wage slavery, profits, fences, borders and corporations, we demand: the immediate opening up of the New River as a waterway and pleasure park!


Since the nineteenth century, large sections of the New River have gradually been re-routed underground, covered over by the growth of suburban streets. Much of its length is still open, more was opened up in the last few decades by pressure, and can be walked. Much more flows through pipes, or even runs above ground but is fenced off. In some places the River runs beneath a green pathway down the middle of wide streets, or dives and resurfaces, flitting between secrets conduits and a landscaped narrow green promenades... Some sections are now cut off from the stream entirely, sterile or stagnant ponds.

Thames Water, successor to the New River Company, a huge enterprise, extorting an unhealthy dividend from what should be free to all; they allow us to walk some sections of the path, not as a ‘right of way’, but as a PR gesture. When we know that all paths, like water and all other necessities, belong to us all.

Capitalism, a powerful engine driving England’s developing industrial society, played a big part in the development of the New River. Without a doubt the risks taken by capitalists objectively allowed some of London’s most important and useful features to be built. Others were built despite capital and property interests, pushed through by enlightened or foresighted local authorities, or philanthropists and private charitable institutions. Undeniable social progress, over the last few centuries, came about for a myriad web of reasons, including the drive for profit, genuine ideologies of humanitarianism and compassion, or of political conviction of the rights of working people, or a fear of the potential of the poor rising in revolt.

But capital’s needs, the drive for profit, can only produce social progress as long as it’s profitable, as long as it coincides with hard cash... It’s also easy to see how we have benefitted from some developments, long term; but for the people who lived through the actual ‘progressing’ sometimes it made their lives rapidly worse. London’s water bearers were gradually force out of existence by the New River; but on a wider scale, the industrial Revolution in England was instrumental in the destruction of myriad ways of life, forced people into factories, or workhouses, drove down life expectancy for decades, and robbed working people of security and all the fruits of their labour bar a pittance. Progress in Britain also came at the expense of mass slavery for Africans, pillage and plunder of resources all over the world, the near-destruction of whole races and species of animals.

We have to go beyond ‘progress’ based on wealth and profits, to a world where all of us have free access to resources, more than just to survive, but to flourish and prosper.
For centuries, people have opposed the rise of we broadly call capitalism, this way of life where our only relations are supposed to be mediated by cash, the selling our our time, our bodies, our minds, in return for enough to live on, or a bit more, if times are booming... Many opposed the digging of the New River, at the time, because they felt that water shouldn’t be controlled by private companies. Early medieval Londoners had a saying - “free as conduit water”: necessities should be open to all. For two hundred years the poor of London couldn’t even afford the New River water.

Despite all attempts to reduce us to just counters in a cold cash economy, we refuse. In every era, people constantly break the banks, subvert restrictions, and create connections with each other, based on human relations and shared pleasure, not greed and barriers. Since its opening, people undermined the New River’s control of water, tapping the river illegally for free, fishing, swimming and washing themselves and clothes, and making merry by its banks.

In the current climate of ‘austerity’, disillusion is widespread, cynicism about the possibility of a freer way of life pretty general, and hope for the future thin on the ground. As belts get tightened (mostly around the necks of those with little or nothing), some of us are, however, still afloat and battling the rapids. We have long fought the forces that push all of us towards dealing only with each other through money, competition, getting ahead, the forces that rob us of our time and pay us a grudging fraction of what we earn for them... Against that we build human relations, the needs of people, our creativity, the potential we have to live totally differently to the daily grind.

But a change in society to us doesn’t just mean a bland change in economic relations; we also dream of altering the physical space around us - for use, yes, but also for beauty. The places we live, the space we inhabit, the environments around us where we work and play, are there to transform. We love to walk the banks of the canal from Limehouse to Brentford, the banks of the smaller streams that feed the Thames, the Thames banks themselves. For decades we’ve watched these banks change, to some extent opened for all to wander, but lined also with the increasing developments designed overwhelmingly for the rich. We walk the Thames now, yes, from Deptford to London Bridge, but at the sufferance and under the eye of the yuppie towers and ever-multiplying high-rise penthouse playgrounds. It seems a city increasingly beyond our control, rented to us part-time at extortionate rates - because they need us to run the place, make it work; but more and more they see us like the rats that carried the plague.

All this we want to change - all of existence should be free, creative, shared and open to all... Not hipster bars by trendy New Riversides, fake edge for rich kids playing at living in Hackney (until they can turn it into another reprint of whatever suburb they crawled out of)... but a freely running stream for freely dancing folk. All of life "free as conduit water."

It’s not just landscaped paths we want... wildness is being bred out of the city, green spaces being built on unless they’re protected, or fought for... But the half-wildernesses and empty spaces, demolished buildings left to tumble, the Bricklayers Arms or Beckton after they were knocked down, and before the new estates, were claimed by people and opened up as unofficial playgrounds... In some ways this made for wilder and more fun spaces. The banks of South London’s Wandle, for instance, were more fun to wander when the path was half-wild, half overgrown factories falling down, part-reclaimed by weeds, parts where you had to scramble and trespass. The ordered council walks are probably better for baby-buggies though, and open space is a playground for dodgier elements too, who have to co-exist with kids... So it’s a toss-up, always, a negotiation about who gets to use space, who it’s for... It’s hard to consensus use of space.

We would like to see the New River open throughout its length, not only dug up, but navigable. We want to drift by dinghy or home made raft, from Wood Green to Angel, stop off and picnic drink by its banks, go skinny-dipping where the River crosses Salmons Brook.
Obviously for this to happen would means the re-instating of the River at points where roads now run... In some places where gardens or allotments grow... Some people living and working, growing there might object. Perhaps the New New River we foresee would only some about in a radically different North London, where roads and cars would be less important, in a social system where work could be transformed too, where time wasn’t driving us always to some other place for the purposes of earning enough to get by...

We have wandered almost every mile of the rivers of London, those on the surface and those stretches lost or buried. For some reason waters and waterways call to us, pull us along their ever-onward meandering. Maybe its cause we’re two-thirds water ourselves; though ways that are lost always have a special urge for some humans. For years a vision of a new London, teeming with canals and opened up lost rivers, new waterways and other paths, has haunted us. Snatches of the New River have been part of the inspiration for this - the stretch from St Paul’s Road to Canonbury Road, or round the Stoke Newington Reservoirs. You can walk there, and think: London should be filled with paths like this, in every area there should be hidden paths and secret ways, dark water and willows barely weeping, kids fishing for the one fat carp that has ate the rest. They are in some ways an answer and a rebuttal of the ever-growing M25ising of the city, as interesting and alternative space is ironed out, everything that is not for profit is slowly dried out and drained of its moisture. We have fought that process for years, a war that continues. Currently we’re losing.

Beyond that, we have stood on Holborn Viaduct and day-dreamt a Fleet river estuary re-flooded, with boats wandering up as far as the Apple tree pub, to share a pint with some Mount Pleasant postal-workers. Or going further - the streets of the City flooded for ever, with the banks and transnational corporations long fled, new canals linking their abandoned sky-scrapers, squatted and turned into vertical playgrounds for kids (whole floors hollowed out for adventure slides and zip-wires), allotments on the 33rd floor of the Gherkin, open to the wind and weather. All of London one vast waterway, not even as stinking as Venice in the Summer (OK, so we’ll have some gong-ferming to do). The new waterways in fact could be the arteries and veins of new social networks.

But if this vision seems a long way off, remember the thousands who always reclaimed the New River in defiance of the Company. Who says we can’t dig up the hidden stretches ourselves, even if no great social change seems like it’s round the corner? Gates are there to be opened and fences climbed.

past tense, September 2013


past tense have just published 'Free Like Conduit Water', an updated and expanded version of our old pamphlet on the New River. It discusses the moral economy of water distribution in medieval London, how the New River altered this in the interests of embryonic capitalism, and how the River became contested between the Company and the people who lived near its banks, who subverted it for their own uses... It also includes a long walk down the River's length in London, and relates it to the radical history and present of some of the areas it passes through.

'Free Like Conduit Water' is available for £5 plus £1.50 P&P from
past tense, c/o 56a Info Shop, 56 Crampton Street, London SE17 3AE,
(cheques payable to 'past tense publications'), or from our publications page