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A Drop of London Water 1850

Updated: Mar 18, 2022

A microscopic examination of the water supplied to the inhabitants of London makes for a disturbing read


Sample of Middlesex Water from Hassell’s A microscopic examination of the water, 1850



If you are anything like me the quality of the food I eat and what I drink is of the utmost importance, so my interest was piqued when I picked up Hassell's A microscopic examination of the water…. 1850. Hassell (1817-94), a retired doctor, put London water under the microscope and the results of his analysis made for harrowing reading. While West Middlesex Water Company claimed that their water was ‘bright and pure at all seasons’ (Hassell, Food and its adulterations…, 1855, p.88); Hassell discovered tiny crab-like organisms, living and dead animal and plant matter, including algae and fungi from sewage, in the water. His publication contained colour illustrations of the organisms he found under his microscope while analysing samples of water from all over London.


Samples of Chelsea and Southwark water from Hassell’s A microscopic examination of the water, 1850


In 1850 Punch, volume 18 carried a cartoon ‘A drop of London water’ exaggerating Hassall’s illustrations, but the actual microscopic plates of Hassall’s colour illustrations are more skin crawling and nausea-inducing.






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