In December 1848 Robert Rawlinson, Superintendent Inspector of the General Board of Health, began hearing evidence into the health of the people of Portsmouth and whether this warranted a Local Board of Health, one of the principal provisions of the Public Health Act of 1847. Crucial to the debate was the extent to which the supply of water, or lack of it, contributed to the adverse wellbeing of the population. At this time there was only one private company supplying piped water to the town but as it reached only a third of the houses had to be supplemented by more traditional means of obtaining supplies at wells or using water carriers. Rawlinson concluded that "A constant and cheap supply of water under pressure, laid on to every house and yard..." was a minimum requirement. It was a sad comment on a process that had begun a hundred years earlier.
In 1741, the first Act of Parliament to provide a piped water supply for Portsmouth was obtained by the Lord of the Manor of Farlington, Colonel Thomas Smith who died shortly afterwards. It's powers passed to Peter Taylor (later MP for Portsmouth) who began digging into Portsdown Hill near Crookhorn seeking water springs. He seems to have tunnelled through most of the hill without encountering water and after that, ran out of money. There were no further attempts to supply water to Portsmouth for over 50 years.
Despite the expansion of the dockyard during the early years of the Napoleonic wars there is no evidence that there was ever an absolute shortage of water but by 1808 it was generally agreed that a constant reliable supply would be helpful and that interested two groups of potential promoters. The first successfully raised £32,000 by September 1808 for a project to supply the town from White Swan Field Springs [a site opposite the White Swan Public House on Guildhall Walk], and launched the Portsea Island Waterworks Company in May 1809. Although it was the cheapest option, the source proved to be unreliable and of doubtful quality, features that would have encouraged the second group of investors who obtained Colonel Smith's Act of 1841 intending to pipe water from Farlington Marshes.
The Farlington group began building later than their rivals and because they were so much further from the centre of town expected to be some years behind in the actual supply of water. They purchased a 34-horsepower Boulton and Watt steam engine to power the supply from their engine house on the marshes and 28 miles of cast iron pipes from Butterley Iron Works to deliver the water to it's customers. The water from a series of springs was initially held in collecting basins from where it was pumped to a reservoir higher up Portsdown Hill and thence to the town under the force of gravity.
Both groups pressed ahead in parallel but it was inevitably the Portsea Island Company that was the first to go into service on 29th April 1811, but the Farlington Company was not far behind, it's first delivery arriving on 3rd October 1811. The two companies were capable of delivering around 1.8 million gallons of water a day, a slighly larger amount coming from Farlington, this despite the fact that the estimated need at the time was only 660,000 gallons a day. Supply continued to outstrip demand every year until 1851 but despite the excess capacity both companies limited their supply to a few hours per day. The competition for customers had begun.
The Portsea Company took the lead by offering to lay lead pipe connecting each house to the mains at no charge and supply water at prices dependent on the rateable value of the property - 16 shillings a year for those rated at £9 and under to 38 shillings for those at £39. In practice the charges fell below these figures and although the Farlington Company initially attempted to match them, neither could sustain it for long. As it happened, price did not prove to be the deciding factor, rather it was the presence of sand in the water from the Portsea Company that threatened the loyalty of their customers. In the worst instance of this the brewers Pike Spicer and Co. lost a entire brew to the sandy water.
The problem proved to be the lack of settling tanks which would have allowed the sand brought up by the springs to fall out of suspension before being pumped on to the customers. To build these tanks the company would have to raise more cash which was not going to go down well with those who had already provided the investment but seen no return on them. The settling tanks were nevertheless eventually built so enabling commercial rivalry to continue on more even terms, but it was the Farlington Company that were the first to pay a dividend in 1814 whilst there is no record that Portsea ever followed suit.
In 1815, the final defeat of Napolean heralded a steep decline in the prosperity of Portsmouth with large numbers of men laid off from the dockyard. Unsurprisingly, the income generated by the water companies diminished significantly causing the price factor to become more important than quality. The Portsea company suffered another major blow when, after the opening of the Portsmouth and Arundel canal across the centre of Portsea Island, salt water found its way into the company's wells. Meanwhile the operations at Farlington were consolidated with the company able to sit back, making moderate profits and waiting for better times to return. It wasn't long before the idea of merging the two companies was mooted.
In 1828 Parliament granted powers to wind up the Portsea company if it failed to meet it's obligations which in due course it did. The new owners of the company were George Grant, banker, Edward Casher, wine merchant and Andrew Nance, innkeeper. Both Edward Casher and Andrew Nance served as Mayors of Portsmouth in the 1840s and 50s. The new enterprise was known as the United Portsmouth, Portsea and Farlington Waterworks Company and both Casher and Nance received £5,125 plus one sixth of the shares of the new company each.
The supply of water from Farlington was gradually increased as the Portsea works ran down but a catastophe at Farlington in November 1840 put the works there out of action. The Farlington Works had been sited on the very low land of the marshes protected by a sea wall that had been neglected over the years and eventually collapsed. Several unsuccessful attempts were made to stop the ingress of sea water and to make matters worse the remaining supply from the Portsea works ceased when the boilers there exploded. It wasn't until late August 1841 that a degree of normality returned. From that low point matters turned round very quickly as changes in operational procedures allowed the company to repay all debts within just three years. By 1846 it was paying dividends of 4% which probably paved the way for Edward Casher and Andrew Nance to seize control of the company.
By the middle of the 1840s a fear of French invasion fuelled a rapid expansion in the dockyard and the consequent rise in employment. The time also saw a boom in house construction and though this represented a wonderful opportunity to expand the water supply business the United Company did little to exploit it, distributing it's profits to the shareholders instead. It was at this point that Robert Rawlinson arrived in Portsmouth to hear evidence for his report to the General Board of Health.
The supply of water was high on Rawlinson's list of recommendations but the United Company were unwilling to extend their service to many of the most needy areas of Portsea Island, mainly because the investors were doing very nicely as it was and they feared a near certain loss of income. The only way of resolving this issue was to apply to Parliament for an Act that would enforce an improvement to the water supply. Benjamin Bramble, a builder and Alderman, Dr. W.C. Engledue, founder of the Royal Portsmouth Hospital and Richard Ford, a young solicitor and Councillor took it upon themselves to force the act through Parliament. They were assisted by a report written by engineer Henry St. John Diaper who recommended that the Borough Council purchase the United Company and supply the water itself.
The Borough of Portsmouth Waterworks Act was passed in July 1857 giving the Borough powers to raise capital and take over the service which they duly did on 21st December 1858. At the time, the United Company were supplying no more than one third of the houses in the town but within fifteen years the new Waterworks Company was providing water to almost every house in the borough.
"Portsmouth's Water Supply 1800-1860" by Mary Hallett, Portsmouth Paper No. 12