Seething Wells Water – River Thames’ Hidden Heritage

Opening announcement

The 1850s saw major reform in the sanitation of London, one of which was the building of the great sewers by Joseph Bazalgette from 1858. Of equal importance and earlier in the decade, the government passed the Metropolis Water Act of 1852, which required all water companies to draw their water from above the tidal Thames. The Lambeth Waterworks Company anticipated this by building their water works at Seething Wells, Surbiton to the south-west of London and close to Kingston University, which were completed and opened in 1852, the same year as the Act was passed. Another company – the Chelsea Waterworks Company – joined the Lambeth Waterworks Company here. The two establishments existed side by side until they were both incorporated into the Metropolitan Water Board in 1903

seetrhing wells map

Source: Dickinson HW. Water Supply of Greater London, 1954.  Surrey, Sheet 12: Ordnance Survey 1:10,560: Epoch 1, 1871.

In 1856, Chelsea Waterwork (in yellow) moved to Seething Wells. The company had two filter beds (in orange) and two settling reservoirs (in green) situated next to the River Thames.  Chelsea followed the Lambeth Waterworks (in red) which had moved its location earlier in 1853.  The Lambeth company had a series of filter beds (in purple) which drew water from the River Thames

The waterworks are a significant part of a Conservation Area and have been considered by English Heritage to be of national significance on account of their relative completeness and their association with one of the foremost Victorian engineers, James Simpson (English Heritage Monuments Protection Programme). The settling and filter beds are themselves the last remnants of the much larger waterworks complex and provide an appropriate setting and context for the other surviving buildings and structures, many of which are listed.

seetrhing wells1

Seething Wells from the air, 1930s. Source: Kingston Museum and Heritage Service

Historical significance – national

The waterworks at Seething Wells, with their innovative slow sand filtration technology, were a response to the demand for clean water in London. In the middle of the 19th century London was over-populated and ridden with slums. The infrastructure was insufficient. The water companies drew their water from the Thames; London sewage, rubbish and even dead animals were dumped in the Thames. Drinking water was cloudy, full of debris and excrement. Cholera epidemics regularly broke out, killing thousands of people. By the 1830s there was public, political and commercial demand for clean water.  Water engineering pioneer, James Simpson, proposed drawing cleaner water from the Thames, above Teddington Lock, filtering it and pumping it to London. He convinced first the Lambeth Water company and then Chelsea to invest huge amounts in moving to Seething Wells. Lambeth’s first rudimentary filter beds were followed by Chelsea’s more complex operation with improved processes and technology. Both companies were fully operational by 1856.

At the same time Dr John Snow was practicing in London and had had personal experience of cholera, treating patients in the 1830s and in the 1848 outbreak in Broad Street, Soho. He was convinced that cholera was transmitted through water and not air, as the medical profession believed. To prove his theory, he carried out a “Grand Experiment” in Lambeth where the Lambeth Water Company was supplying water from Seething Wells to properties adjacent to where Vauxhall Water Company was supplying (dirty) water taken directly from the Thames in Battersea. He employed an innovative statistical approach, mapping households to cases of cholera and revealed that people were 14 times more likely to contract cholera if they drank water from the Southwick and Vauxhall Company than the Lambeth water from Seething Wells. He reported this in his book, On the Mode of Communication of Cholera and to a parliamentary committee in 1855. His evidence convinced major players that cholera was transmitted though water and further investigation was carried out to provide proof. It was a significant development in the understanding and defeat of cholera and represented the beginnings of epidemiology.

J Snow Cholera

On the Mode of Communication of Cholera presented to a parliamentary committee in 1855.


Historical significance – local

When the beds were first being built, Surbiton was a small rural area with a tiny population. 10 years later, it was a thriving local commercial centre. The water by Hampton Court was believed to possess medicinal properties. In 1794 it was described as “efficacious in the gravel (for kidney stones), excellent for drinking and washing…” For many centuries the Hampton Court area had a reputation of good health, as it was reported that it escaped epidemics, of sweating sickness, plague, small pox and scarlet fever which raged in neighbouring areas. This was ascribed to the protection of the river.

The beds were built by navvies from all over the country. The Surrey Comet records in 1854 there were up to 800 men working on the beds, buildings and pipes. Their birthplaces recorded on the 1851 Census show they came from far and wide – Dorset, Stoke, Runcorn, and as far away as Anglesey. They lived in crowded conditions, sometimes over 10 to a household, for example, on Brighton Terrace.  The water works became a notable employer with work that was both skilled and unskilled; many jobs were well paid and sought after and the works would have been a major factor in the development of Surbiton’s economy and culture. By the end of the 19th century, Surbiton had become a highly sought after place to live and work, and prided itself on the famously healthy lifestyles of the residents.

seetrhing wells 3

Archaeological significance

Today there is an increasing awareness that industrial archaeology is being lost during the development of the post-industrial society. This archaeology is valuable at many levels, and the Seething Wells site is important because of the technology, which was used to benefit the public health of the people within the city by providing a clean water supply and the technological advances which engineers were making in building both underground and overground structures.  The reservoirs and settling and filter beds at Seething Wells help show the complete process of water treatment and supply that took place there during the Victorian period. Surviving features represent the complete process from the delivery, storage and burning of coal, through settling, filtering, storing and then pumping clean water to London. These include:

  • Tunnels transporting coal and water under the Portsmouth Road
  • Wharves, crane bases and sluice gates
  • Coal stores, boiler and pumping houses
  • The actual filter beds, with the sands, shells, gravels and pipes that were laid down by Simpson

Individually, the elements may not be considered particularly important but taken as a whole, this site and its physical connections with the rest of the Chelsea and Lambeth estate on the other side of the Portsmouth Road, makes the water works unique; English Heritage point out there are diminishing numbers of filter beds, and consequently very few if any comparable examples of the complete process that survive. These structures uniquely represent the development of James Simpson’s innovative thinking and live experiments over time.  The development of water filtration technology in that short period of time is also visible. The first beds built in 1848 at Seething Wells were for the Lambeth Water Company, whose beds and pump house still exist in Thames Ditton. The Chelsea beds, begun in 1852, included improved processes and innovative technology.

seetrhing wells2

There is, therefore, a unique record of the progress of the technology on a single continuous site in that short stretch along the Portsmouth Road from the present Thames Water beds (the original beds for Lambeth) and the Nuffield Health centre, to the Chelsea beds and the University site. Further developments and improvements throughout the later 19th and into the mid 20th centuries are also recorded in the surviving archaeology.  As much of the overall water works have now gone, it is critical that these 7 surviving beds remain, to enable the full story to be told.

In terms of its size and comprehensiveness there is no other industrial site like this in the borough of Kingston, or indeed London. As there are few similar undeveloped archaeological sites on this scale, its lack of use over the past 20 years makes it a rare survivor of the 19th century’s desire for cleaner cities and better public health.


Seething Wells Waterworks – Historical and Archaeological Significance,  Howard Benge and Simon Tyrrell


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