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New River Head (former Metropolitan Water Board offices)

A Grade II* Listed Building in Clerkenwell, London

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Latitude: 51.5283 / 51°31'41"N

Longitude: -0.1075 / 0°6'27"W

OS Eastings: 531375

OS Northings: 182741

OS Grid: TQ313827

Mapcode National: GBR N6.0B

Mapcode Global: VHGQT.3V08

Entry Name: New River Head (former Metropolitan Water Board offices)

Listing Date: 29 December 1950

Last Amended: 26 September 2013

Grade: II*

Source: Historic England

Source ID: 1195722

English Heritage Legacy ID: 369253

Location: Islington, London, EC1R

County: London

District: Islington

Electoral Ward/Division: Clerkenwell

Parish: Non Civil Parish

Built-Up Area: Islington

Traditional County: Middlesex

Lieutenancy Area (Ceremonial County): Greater London

Church of England Parish: Clerkenwell St Mark

Church of England Diocese: London

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Utility company headquarters, now flats, 1915-20 and 1933-6 by Herbert Austen Hall, incorporating interiors from the demolished Water House of 1693.


MATERIALS: red and brown brick and Portland stone with slated mansard roofs; modern uPVC windows replacing timber sashes.

PLAN: the building forms a large irregular pentagon on plan, comprising a large quadrangle to the west and a triangular extrusion to the east formed by two obliquely projecting wings enclosing a courtyard. The main entrance, in the centre of the south range, leads via a lobby and a broad entrance hall to the former Rental Ledger Hall, which occupies the quadrangle’s central well. The principal staircases are at either end of the west range, with a third stair at the apex of the eastern triangle. The boardroom occupies the first floor of the south range immediately above the entrance, while the Oak Room is on the first floor at the south end of the west range.

EXTERIORS: the south front to Hardwick Street is a bold, Beaux-Arts Classical composition, with a three-bay stone-faced centrepiece flanked by narrow recessed bays and projecting outer wings. The wings are faced in fine red brick, although the rusticated stonework of the lower storey is carried across the whole of the front. The central doorway is set in a richly ornamented surround, its upper panel containing a wreath with the MWB monogram and an inscription (‘ERECTED BY THE METROPOLITAN WATER BOARD ON THE SITE OF THE NEW RIVER HEAD’) set amid naturalistically carved water-plants and scrolls bearing the dates 1613 and 1920. The doors themselves are clad in bronze and bear MWB monograms in paterae with anthemions. The piano nobile, which contains the boardroom suite, has paired giant pilasters to the centrepiece and stone balconies and pedimented architraves in the outer wings. A dentil cornice above runs the full width of the façade; the centre block rises into an attic storey and a steep mansard with dormers.

The treatment of the outer wings is continued along Rosebery Avenue in the angled eastern ranges. Both the cornice and the rusticated basement are carried around this part of the building, and the penultimate bays – with triple-keystone doorways at ground level – have first-floor balconies and architraves (though not pediments) like those on the main front. Above the cornice is an attic storey (added in the 1930s) and a mansard with dormers. The apex of the triangle is squared off, and here there is a short projecting block forming a secondary frontispiece: this has a semicircular bay window with Doric triglyphs on the ground floor and paired giant brick pilasters flanking a pedimented window on the piano nobile. From the mansard above rises a tall stone tower (another 1930s addition), square below but developing into an octagonal cupola above.

The west range and the short north range are much more simply treated. They are faced in plain brown brick with red brick dressings and a more sparing use of stonework. The southern part of the west range contains the Oak Room, its presence marked by full-height windows (retaining their original sashes) with ornamental iron balconies and semicircular tympana brought from the old Water House and inscribed ‘ERECTED A[NN]O MDCXIII’ and ‘RESTORED A[NN]O MDCCLXXXII’. The north range has projecting wings echoing those of the main front; the eastern wing is surmounted by a bow-windowed penthouse containing the board members’ dining room.

INTERIORS: the significance of the interior is greatly enhanced by the Oak Room (see details below), which is the primary reason for the Grade II* listing. Much of the rest of the interior is of a lesser order, which would warrant Grade II listing otherwise. The following text sets out this relative interest in detail. The entrance lobby is a small, approximately square, room lined in rusticated stonework, with a moulded plaster ceiling (dentils with guttae) and a floor of polished grey and black limestone. Carved roundels bearing the insignia of the MBW's eight constituent companies are displayed in the frieze, with a band of wave-scroll decoration below. The openings at either end are flanked by fluted Roman Doric columns.

Beyond the lobby is the entrance hall, a broad transverse space with a stone floor, pilastered walls and moulded ceiling. At its western end is one of the two principal staircases, its lower flights having elaborate balustrades of wrought-iron scrollwork. A similar arrangement of hall and stairs is found in the north range.

The former Rental Ledger Hall is a rectangular double-height space beneath a glazed elliptical plaster vault with decorated ribs. The original fittings - a curved counter at the entrance and blocks of clerks’ desks in the body of the hall - have all been removed, and the side openings infilled, although the glazed hardwood doors at either end remain. Above these are balustraded galleries topped with square lanterns; further balustrades run across the upper-level windows on each side, which are set within lunettes scooped out of the soffit of the vault.

On the first floor of the south range, immediately above the main entrance, is the former boardroom, now the largest and most luxurious of the flats. This has a richly moulded and coffered ceiling supported on giant Ionic columns and pilasters with Bassae capitals. Between these runs a band of wave-scroll ornament, beneath which are roundels identical to those in the entrance lobby. At either end of the room are raised galleries bearing further roundels. The original fittings – a raised dais with semicircular banks of seating – have been removed; two carved hardwood doorcases survive, although the doors have been replaced in glass and a third opening created in place of the dais.

The other parts of the building have been much altered on conversion into flats, although some rooms retain hardwood doorcases, panelling and fireplaces. The basement contains a strongroom of fireproof concrete construction with massive steel doors.

The richly carved oak panelling and plaster ceiling in this room were installed in the old river house by John Grene in 1693, and were transferred to the new building in 1919-20. The room is square, and originally had windows on three sides, although it is now flanked by lobbies to north and south. The dominant feature is the elaborate chimneypiece, set between Corinthian columns and comprising a white marble fire surround surmounted by an overmantel bearing the full armorial achievement of William III along with trophies depicting a variety of aquatic life - fish, crayfish, crabs, scallops, water plants etc - as well as pheasants, pigeons, fruits, ears of corn and other more conventional motifs. The upper panels all around the room bear carved wreaths and festoons, some with amorini (winged cherubs' heads), trumpets, drapery and similar motifs. All the carving is done in very high relief in the illusionistic manner of Grinling Gibbons, although the actual identity of the carver is unknown.

The ceiling is no less rich. In the centre is an oval oil painting by Henry Cooke, depicting angels and Virtues bearing aloft an image of William III, enclosed within a wreath of flowers and fruits. The surrounding ornament is divided into three bands separated by ribbon-mouldings. The narrow inner and outer bands contain miniature scenes of hunting, fishing, boating and other riverine and pastoral activities, along with images of fortifications, classical water deities (Nereids, Tritons, Neptune’s chariot), rosettes and palm fronds. The broader middle band is of rich acanthus scrollwork, among which appear various species of birds and reptiles. Cartouches at the corners contain swans and dolphins; in the middle of the short sides are roundels with Tritons, while on the long sides are painted shields with the arms of John Grene and Sir Hugh Myddelton. The lobbies on either side, added in 1919-20, also have elaborately moulded ceilings, again with dolphin cartouches. The antechamber to this suite contains two boards emblazoned with the names of the chairmen and vice-chairmen of the MWB from the 1900s to the 1970s.

Two rooms in the south range (not seen) also contain good late-C17 ceilings from the Water House, originally in the loggias which Grene added to the main block. These have central roundels bearing the date 1693 and the NRC seal, which depicts rain falling from an open hand upon the City of London, along with the motto 'ET PLUI SUPER UNAM CIVITATEM' (Amos 4:7, 'and I shall cause it to rain upon one city').

SUBSIDIARY FEATURES: the main entrance to Hardwick Street is approached via a flight of stone steps whose flanking walls support cross-braced railings and lamp standards. Similar railings, alternating with square stone piers, run along the Rosebery Avenue front, with arched overthrows marking the two side entrances.


The New River, a 40-mile conduit bringing clean drinking water from Amwell in Hertfordshire to supply the City and northern suburbs of London, was begun in 1605 and completed in 1613 under the direction of the City magnate Hugh Myddelton, who became the first Governor of the New River Company (NRC) when the latter received its royal charter in 1619. The conduit's terminus was on the high ground of Clerkenwell, where a circular reservoir, the Round Pond, was formed; this was gradually supplemented by further ponds, filter beds, a windmill and an engine-house to create the extensive waterworks known as the New River Head. Beside the Round Pond stood the Water House, containing both the stop-cocks for the reservoir and accommodation for the site overseer. The Water House, which appears in views by Hollar and others, was extended and remodelled in 1693 when John Grene, clerk to the NRC and Myddelton's grandson-in-law, took up residence, and again by the Company's surveyor Robert Mylne when he lived there in the 1780s. In 1820 the building, further enlarged by Mylne's son William, became the NRC's headquarters.

A Royal Commission of 1897 recommended that London's water supply system be brought into municipal ownership, and in 1902-4 the assets of the NRC and the other seven private water companies were taken over by the Metropolitan Water Board (MWB). In 1913, despite opposition from those who favoured a more central site in Westminster, the MBW decided to build its new headquarters at New River Head. The Round Pond was filled in and the old Water House demolished, although the panelling and plasterwork in Grene's 'Oak Room' of 1693 were carefully removed for reinstallation in the new building. A limited architectural competition was held in 1914, won by the experienced town hall architect Herbert Austen Hall. The initial contractors were TW Heath & Son, later replaced by Rice & Son of Stockwell. Work began in July 1915, several months after the start of the Great War, which eventually brought construction to a halt for two and a half years from 1916. This resulted in various economies including the substitution of brick for Portland stone on most of the exterior. The building was finally opened in May 1920, having cost £298,417 - more than three-and-a-half times the original estimate. In 1933-6 the eastern ranges were raised by one storey, an addition anticipated in Hall's original design. The cupola at the east corner and the board members' dining room on the top floor of the north range were also added at this time. In 1995-8 the offices, having been relinquished by the MBW, were converted by Broadway Malyan architects to form 129 flats.

Herbert Austen Hall (1881-1968) worked for a number of firms before setting up in partnership with Septimus Warwick, with whom he worked on several large municipal buildings including Lambeth Town Hall (1905-8) and the Shire Hall at Reading (1904-11). His later works include the east wing of the Peter Robinson store on Oxford Street (1922, with TP and ES Clarkson) and the Bankers' Clearing House at 10 Lombard Street in the City of London (with Whinney & Son, 1938-61).

Reasons for Listing

The New River Head building, built in 1915-20 to designs by Herbert Austen Hall, is listed at Grade II* for the following principal reasons:
* The Oak Room: the carved woodwork, panelling, plasterwork and ceiling painting of 1693, transferred from the previous building on the site, form an exceptionally rich and complete ensemble - one of the best of its date in London - whose aquatic and riverine iconography vividly reflects the original function of the site. (This is the primary reason for the high grade of listing);
* Historic interest: built as the headquarters of the Metropolitan Water Board, and succeeding the old River House as the central feature of the New River Head site, the building encapsulates the 400-year history of mass water supply in the metropolis;
* Architectural interest: the 1915-20 building, although somewhat compromised by subsequent alteration, is an impressive late essay in the Edwardian grand manner, retaining - particularly in the former board room and rental ledger hall - some interiors of note.

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