Many of London’s blue plaques bear the names of famous people who need absolutely no introduction – Sir Winston Churchill, John Lennon and Virginia Woolf. But there are other plaques that honour unsung – or at least undersung – heroes who have made a considerable impact in a particular field, but whose names are less familiar. Historian, Howard Spencer, tells the story of civil engineers William Lindley and William Heerlein Lindley and their contribution to our everyday lives
You probably won’t have heard of them, but without their work, today’s urban lifestyles would simply not be possible. That’s because the Lindleys – who were father and son – were two of the most distinguished and prolific designers and builders of water supplies and drainage systems.
From the 1840s until the First World War, the Lindleys were responsible for the construction of supply, drainage and sewage systems in more than sixty cities worldwide. These included Frankfurt, Warsaw, Budapest, Dusseldorf, Amsterdam, Basle, Prague, Vienna and Sydney.
Lindley senior was a leading pioneer of sand filtration, a water purification system that eventually became almost universal, and did more than anything else to eliminate cholera, a water-borne disease that once killed millions (and is still a major health hazard in parts of the world not fortunate enough to enjoy ready supplies of clean drinking water).
Perhaps this is William Lindley’s greatest achievement, but he also played a key role in rebuilding the German city of Hamburg after a disastrous fire in 1842. Not only did he give the German port city one of the world’s first constant supplies of fresh water, but he was also responsible for much of its modern form and extent, having drained whole areas to make them habitable.
Lindley is fondly remembered in Hamburg, where he met and married a German girl, Julie Heerlein. There is a statue to him in the city, while William Heerlein Lindley is similarly honoured in Warsaw – though probably his most impressive achievement was the water supply for Baku, the capital of Azerbaijan.
This involved building a 110-mile pipeline over the Caucasus mountain range, and his death in 1917 – the year that this gargantuan project was completed – was said to have been hastened by the physical strain of having to supervise work in such an environment. His brothers Robert and Joseph were also civil engineers and part of the family firm.
The Lindleys were great British exports, essentially, but there are a couple of London landmarks on which Lindley senior worked in his early career. One was Brunel’s Thames Tunnel, now incorporated into the Overground network between Wapping and Rotherhithe, and the other was the Victorian gothic pumping station at Green Lanes, Stoke Newington, on which he was a consulting engineer. Of course the man who designed London’s sewers, Joseph Bazalgette, already has a blue plaque – on his former home in St John’s Wood.
The Lindleys’ blue plaque adorns a mid-nineteenth-century house on what is now the busy A2 road in Blackheath – 74 Shooters Hill Road, formerly numbered 10 Kidbrooke Terrace. It was their family home for close on eighty years, so seemed the right place to give them a memorial, at last, in their home city.
So before you next drink your fill of fresh water, straight from the tap, on demand raise your glass to the Lindleys. They might not be particularly showbiz, but their achievements in promoting public health worldwide via clean water supplies surely entitle them to our grateful thanks and remembrances.
Learn all about the London Blue Plaque scheme here
Main picture credit: Robert Parma, An artistic shot of some of the Lindleys' water supply work, in Warsaw.