Seething Wells Water - Surbiton’s Hidden Heritage







Proof from Seething Wells



Dr. John Snow’s proof, the Mode of Communication and Seething Wells Water

In 1854 there was another cholera epidemic in London. By this time Dr. Snow was collecting data for his Grand Experiment: proof that cholera was carried by water. During the outbreak that year circumstances were right for him to do this. He compared households in south London who drew their water from two different companies. Some houses took water from the Southwark and Vauxhall Company, who drew their water from the Thames at Battersea, in the midst of the Thames soup. Other households received their water the Lambeth Water Company who drew their water from Seething Wells. Apart from the difference in water supply, the households were in the same area, down the same roads.  The residents had similar lifestyles and breathed the same air.  If there was a difference in two groups, then the cause must lie within the water.

Snow walked door to door asking which house was served by which water company.  Many tenants either wouldn’t or couldn’t answer where their water came from. Instead he took a sample of water from each house to establish the level of salt in the sample. The Battersea water, drawn from the tidal Thames, was salty; the Seething Wells water was not. 

The results of the Grand Experiment were published in the 2nd edition of John Snow’s famous work On the Mode of Communication of Cholera. In his paper Dr. John Snow states:

“According to a return which was made to Parliament, the Southwark and Vauxhall Company supplied 40,046 houses from January 1st to December 31st, 1853, and the Lambeth Company supplied 26,107 houses during the same period; consequently, as 286 fatal attacks of cholera took place, in the first four weeks of the epidemic, in houses supplied by the former Company, and only 14 in houses supplied by the latter, the proportion of fatal attacks to each 10,000 houses was as follows. Southwark and Vauxhall 71.  Lambeth 5. The cholera was therefore fourteen times as fatal at this period, amongst persons having the impure water of the Southwark and Vauxhall Company, as amongst those having the purer water from Thames Ditton.”

He had proof that cholera was spread through water, not air. On March 5, 1855 Dr. Snow gave evidence to a Parliamentary committee chaired by Sir Benjamin Hall:

162. [Mr. Wilkinson] “Did not you make particular inquiries at the houses which were supplied by two companies which take their supply of water from different places?”

Dr. Snow: ”Yes; the one is supplied from Battersea Fields, near Vauxhall Bridge, and the other from Thames Ditton.” (Seething Wells)

163. “Was there a very marked difference between them?”

Dr. Snow: ”There was. In the first four weeks of the epidemic the mortality was fourteen times as great amongst the customers of the Southwark and Vauxhall Company, getting their water in Battersea Fields as in the other, taking into account the number of houses supplied by each company.”

Eventually the private water companies were forced to introduce filtration systems and an Act of 1856 forbade them to draw supplies from the Thames below Teddington. Bazalgette became Chief engineer to the new Board of Works in 1855 and London built 1,300 miles of sewers taking waste water out of London in all directions.

Seething Wells Reservoir 1852