The New River Head is one of the most important historical sites in our area, and it is currently under pressure from property developers who, having already turned most of the site into gated residential communities, propose to do the same to the oldest and most interesting buildings which might otherwise be accessible to the public and provide a source of and education and entertainment for local people and visitors. This webpage outlines the history of the New River head and charts current developments as they occur.
The Friends of the New River Head
The Amwell Society was asked by the Islington Buildings Preservation Trust to set up a society, the Friends of the New River Head, which had its inaugural meeting on 29th August 2012. Membership of the Friends is open to anyone who supports the preservation of the New River Head as a site of historic importance to which the public should have access. It will act as a campaigning and support group. Its purpose is outlined in the document “Why the Friends of the New River Head” (PDF, opens in new window). Anyone wishing to join should e-mail Darian Mitchell on email@example.com
March 2014 – New River Head, Planning Appeal
Turnhold’s appeal was heard in November and December 2013 and January 2014. It was spread over such a long period because of the necessity for site visits and it being the Christmas period. The inspector produced his report at the beginning of March. He dismissed the first two appeals which concerned the provision of the houses, but upheld the third and fourth which proposed the office space and toilet in the engine house and the exhibition space in the windmill base. The inspector recognised the historical significance of the site and the importance of its industrial character which made him consider a residential use to be inappropriate, but did not give a lot of weight to the new council planning brief for the site
Where this leaves the aspiration for a heritage centre and community use is not clear. The Islington Buildings Preservation Trust, the Heritage of London Trust and Islington Council have met to discuss a plan of action. We will have to wait and see what use, if any, Turnhold will make of the limited permission they have been allowed for the development of the site, They may of course put in a further planning application.
- Planning Brief September 2013, short version
- E3 NRH Appendix 3 – Planning Brief 2013 for adoption – final.pdf
On 12th June Turnhold lodged an appeal against this decision. Initially the appeal was due to be decided on the basis of written representations, but on 3rd July the appeal procedure was changed to a hearing the date of which has yet to be announced. The deadline for comments is 14th August.
In the meantime Islington Council launched a consultation process concerning a new planning brief for the New River Head Key Site ( ie the historic buildings which had not been developed.)
The original Islington Council planning briefs for the site of the New River Head were created in 1991 and 1999 on the two occasions when the site was developed into a mainly residential area. These were now considered to be potentially out of date as there have been changes in national and local policy. Also, following the recent appeals against the council’s decision to refuse planning permission for further residential development on what is the most historically interesting part of the site, the pump house and the windmill base, the Council believed it was necessary to reaffirm the original brief if it was still to hold good, and were asking the community what they thought in 2013.
The draft planning brief restates the original aspiration to recognise the pump house and the windmill base and the coal stores as a heritage asset and to use them for offices, meeting spaces and an educational facility such as a museum without harming the buildings historic value. The brief then links these plans with the Council’s current policies.
The planning application submitted by the Heritage of London Trust in the autumn of 2012 was withdrawn on the advice of Islington Council’s conservation officer. They have decided not to submit a new one at present.
There was a long period of inactivity, but in March 2013 Turnhold submitted three new planning applications.
The first applied for the conversion of the south stores building into three 3 bedroomed houses; the demolition of the existing lean-to and its replacement with a larger structure; alterations to the windows and doorways; the replacement of roof lights and the creation of gardens. It also applied for the conversion of the north stores building into one studio flat, two commercial units and a cycle/refuse store. Again this involved alterations to the windows and doors, the installation of roof lights and the creation of a garden. This application also included the conversion of the windmill base into a commercial unit, and the creation of two new gated pedestrian access points from Amwell Street and Myddelton Passage.
The second applied to use the first floor of the engine house as an office and the insertion of a WC. It also repeated the items in the previous application for the creation of a new pedestrian access and the use of part of the north stores building as a cycle store.
The third application repeated the previous one, but went into more detail. It applied for a new access point to Thames Water’s operational land, the formation of new pedestrian access points to the site with a potential link to the Nautilus Building gardens, the removal of existing gates, the installation of new ones in a different place and the installation of a new metal railing fence.
Fundamentally Turnhold’s new applications had the same shortfalls as their previous one. They were seeking to create a gated residential community, which as well as being damaging to the preservation of a heritage asset, is incompatible with the 1999 planning brief which earmarked the site for a heritage and educational centre with public access to the buildings and gardens. In their application Turnhold stated that they believed that the planning brief was too old to be seriously considered, but to ensure its current relevance the chief planning officer has put the brief before the planning committee for re-adoption.
On Wednesday 10th April 2013 the planning officers using delegated powers refused all three applications
In 2011 Thames Water, which appeared to have forgotten about the original agreement with Islington Council, sold the Engine House and Windmill base to a property developer who applied to convert the stores and Engine House into houses and flats. The first planning application was withdrawn, but a second one was submitted earlier this year. It was opposed by a number of individuals and societies including Hugh Myddelton, a descendent of the original entrepreneur who created the New River, because it contravened the 1999 planning brief and because it was detrimental to the historic character of the site as a whole, not just the individual buildings. The developer, Turnhold’s, application went to the planning committee and was turned down. Turnhold appealed to the Planning Inspectorate and the appeal was heard on August 29th 2012. The Inspector refused the appeal, agreeing with the planning committee that serious harm would be caused to a heritage asset, and the public benefit of the proposed development would not outweigh the harm.
In the meantime the Heritage of London Trust are working with Islington Building Preservation Trust to achieve the objectives of the planning brief, and will make the site their headquarters if they are successful. They have submitted a separate planning application for the development of the site as a heritage centre with offices and meeting spaces and we currently await the outcome of that application.
From the New River Company to Thames Water
The New River, an artificial waterway, was completed in 1613 by Sir Hugh Myddelton under the auspices of the New River Company. It originated in Amwell, Hertfordshire, and was built to supply fresh drinking water to the City of London. This was the first example of private capital being invested in public services in collaboration with the state. Sir Hugh ran out of money and King James I had to step in to see the works completed. The New River Head site and its environs were the original terminating point of this man made water course. The Round Pond, part of which still survives today in the Nautilus Building Gardens, was created to take the water discharged from the New River, but its capacity was soon exceeded and an Outer Pond was formed which became a favourite spot for anglers. As demand for the supply of fresh water increased throughout London, an upper pond was built in 1709 on the site of Claremont Square, which was on sufficiently high ground to supply water by gravity to the West End of London. In order to pump water from the Round Pond to the Upper Pond a windmill was erected, but it was not powerful enough, and over the next fifty years horses had to be used instead. In 1768 the windmill was replaced by a steam engine which was located in a purpose built engine house. Over the years the engines were replaced by newer models and the house extended. In 1794 two chimneys were built which were replaced by one tall chimney in 1818 which was in turn demolished in 1954 as steam gave way to electricity in 1950.The windmill base and the original engine house and all the subsequent alterations, together with 19th century coal stores, survive to this day.
In 1902 the Metropolitan Water Board was created to take over London’s private water supply companies, including the New River Company. In 1914 the Water Board decided to move its headquarters to the New River Head and required a new building. It filled in the Round Pond and demolished a building known as the Water House which in 1613 had been built on the edge of the Round Pond and used to house a cistern and stopcocks as well as providing accommodation for the Company’s engineers and surveyors. The 17th century Oak Room which had been part of the original building was re-located to the new headquarters. In 1973 the Metropolitan Water Board was abolished and Thames Water took over the responsibility for London’s water supply. In 1987 it moved its headquarters to Reading, and in 1989 Thames Water was privatised. Although most operational functions have been relocated, the site is still involved in the supply water to London.
In 1744 the New River Company purchased 44 acres of land around the New River Head. Some of this was used to develop the waterworks, as the demand for water increased and civil engineering advanced. The rest of the land was used for recreational purposes until the early 19th century when it became profitable to build housing, and so the Company became responsible for the architecture of a significant part of the Southern area of the borough which survives to this day. When its water supply function together with the New River Head site was taken over by the Water Board, the New River Company still continued to exist as a property development company.
From Thames Water to Berkley Homes
When Thames Water relocated its headquarters to Reading, it planned to redevelop the part of the New River Head site which was no longer needed. In 1991 a planning brief was drawn up and the 1914 Headquarters Building and the 1938 Laboratory Building (both Grade II listed) were converted into flats. In 1999 a second planning brief allowed for the creation of two new blocks of flats, the Nautilus Building and the Hydra Building, and also Remus House was converted from old offices. The original planning brief in 1991 had not made much provision for the benefit of the wider community, and the 1999 brief attempted to remedy this. As a requirement of planning permission they insisted on affordable housing being made available on the site, and public access to the land around the engine house and the round pond. They wanted to see a public right of way across the site from Amwell Street to Rosebery Avenue. In addition the planning brief stated that when the historic engine house and windmill base and adjacent buildings were no longer required by Thames Water, they should be offered for purchase to Islington Council with a view to being converted into a heritage and educational centre with some offices and/or meeting space. Importantly they should be made accessible to the community. A sum of money for this purpose was given by Thames Water to the Islington Building Preservation Trust to hold until there was an opportunity to spend it.