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The unexpected history of cholera, Hackney Marshes and the Middlesex Filter Beds.
Out on the north-west tip of Hackney Marshes, caught between the River Lee and its more navigable bypass the Hackney Cut, lie the remains of the Middlesex Filter Beds.
Built in 1852 by the East London Waterworks Company, the filter beds were a response to the repeated cholera epidemics that had held Europe their grip since the 1830s. In 1849, London suffered its worst ever outbreak, resulting in 14,000 deaths, leading physician John Snow to help establish the Epidemiological Society of London the following year to investigate epidemic disease.
His work identified cholera as a water-borne infection, countering the popular belief that it was carried by foul-smelling air or miasma. It wasn't until 1854, when Snow proved that a single contaminated water pump in London's Soho was the source of a local outbreak that his ideas achieved widespread credibility.
Six beds radiating from a central well
Built on the site of a much earlier reservoir, possibly dating back to the 15th century, the new Middlesex Filter Beds took water from upriver at Walthamstow (where it was cleaner), filtered it through layers of sand and gravel, and the perforated concrete base of the bed, then pumped the clean water via a reservoir to homes across North East London.
Originally consisting of just six beds radiating from a central well, the facility quickly grew to 25 with the addition of the Essex Filter Beds on the east bank of the river as the expanding Victorian suburbs saw demand boom. At its height, it was producing an average of 42.5 gallons of drinking water every day. Having water piped directly to your home ceased to be something solely for the privileged few and became seen as a public necessity.
The Middlesex and Essex beds were superseded in 1969 by the Coppermills Water Treatment Works in Walthamstow, nearer to the reservoirs. The Middlesex site began to revert to nature until Lee Valley Regional Park Authority took over its management in 1988, creating a public wildlife haven.
Reminders of an industrial incarnation
Today, the sunken Middlesex beds lie in various stages of reforestation, from wet marsh to woodland of poplar and willow, all carefully managed to ensure ecological variety is maintained. The next-door Essex beds are now the popular WaterWorks Centre, with wildlife trails, bushcraft workshops and one of the largest birdwatching hides in London.
Its isolated location makes the Middlesex Filter Beds a peaceful, timeless place, outside the urban jostle of neighbouring Clapton. Instead of traffic from the nearly Lea Bridge Road, there’s the roar of the weir – a legacy from the days when there were several flour mills on the site – and faint shouts from the famous Hackney Marshes football pitches. The sluice gate cranks and cast-iron sand hoppers that remain along the central concrete culvert and around the vast circular well head are reminders of its 120-year industrial history.
East London’s Stonehenge
Amid the rustling reeds, wetland flowers such as pinky rosebay willowherb, cuckooflower, purple loosestrife and bright-yellow coltsfoot add swathes of colour in season. On the river, coots and moorhens nest. More than 60 species of bird have been recorded, including reed bunting, woodpeckers, finches, snipe and sparrowhawks, as well as toads, dragonflies and butterflies.
The huge granite blocks that once formed the foundations of one of the old engine houses have been recycled as an outdoor sculpture, 'Nature's Throne', by east London artist Paula Haughney, carved in relief and arranged into a stone circle. Locals consider it their very own Stonehenge.
Middlesex Filer Beds are located along the River Lee Navigation, off Lea Bridge Road, London E10
Words: Jessica Cargill Thompson
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