The history of drinking water in the UK

The Romans

The history of drinking water in the UK can be traced back to the Roman occupation, during which time the Romans built an extensive network of aqueducts and public wells to supply water to their settlements. However, it wasn’t until the Industrial Revolution in the 18th and 19th centuries that the provision of clean and safe drinking water became a significant concern in the UK.

The Industrial Revolution

During the Industrial Revolution, the population of the UK rapidly increased as people moved from the countryside to the cities in search of work. As a result, the demand for clean drinking water also increased. However, the water supply in the cities was often contaminated by industrial pollution, sewage, and other contaminants. This led to the spread of diseases such as cholera and typhoid, which caused high mortality rates among the population.

In response to this public health crisis, the government passed the 1848 Public Health Act, which required local authorities to provide clean and safe drinking water to their residents. This was followed by the 1866 Metropolitan Drinking Fountain and Cattle Trough Association Act, which provided funding for the construction of public drinking fountains and cattle troughs to provide access to clean water for both humans and animals.

As the demand for clean water continued to grow, private water companies began to emerge in the UK, with the first water company being established in London in 1743. These companies were responsible for the construction and maintenance of water supply systems, and they were regulated by local authorities. However, the quality of the water provided by these companies was often poor, and they were criticized for their lack of transparency and accountability.

In response to these criticisms, the government passed the 1872 Public Health (Water) Act, which established a national standard for the quality of drinking water and required water companies to provide annual reports on their water supply. This act also provided funding for the construction of water treatment plants, which helped to improve the quality of the water supplied by the private water companies.

The 20th century

During the 20th century, the UK government continued to take steps to improve the quality and accessibility of drinking water. The 1911 Water (Prevention of Pollution) Act strengthened the regulations on the quality of drinking water and provided funding for the construction of new water treatment plants. In addition, the government established the National Rivers Authority in 1989 to regulate and protect the water supply in England and Wales, with the same Water Act 1989 also providing the path for privatisation of the former UK water authorities. The Drinking Water Inspectorate was then established in 1990 as an independent body responsible for monitoring the quality of drinking water in England and Wales with the Consumer Council for Water then set up in  2005 to represent the interests of water consumers and provide advice and assistance to customers.


Overall, the history of drinking water in the UK is one of gradual progress and improvement. Starting with the Roman aqueducts and public wells, the provision of clean and safe drinking water became an essential concern in the UK during the Industrial Revolution, leading to the passing of a series of laws and the establishment of independent bodies to monitor and regulate the water supply. Despite the challenges, the UK portable water network continues to evolve and improve to meet the growing demand and high standards of water quality

20th January 2023
Tom McNamara


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