Histories of aristocratic, public or democratic water?
Article by Michel Bastin
A long process confronted the City with the contractor of the machine which would never be repaired nor reactivated.
Twenty years on, following the examples of large capitals and other European and North American cities, the City will decide to set up a modern network of water supply.
The first networks
But let us first go back in time.
Networks of underground water supply pipes have been in existence ever since the Middle Ages. The oldest known system can be found in the Abbey of Forest, where, from the XIIth or XIIIth century, it delivered water collected from a source at the foot of the Zeven Bunders1 hillside.
Around the XIVth century, a network developed at the heart of the city that brought together three small streams flowing down from the sandy hills to the river Senne and that along the way fed public drinking water fountains as well as some « poelen » (basins of non-drinking water serving as troughs for animals) and reservoirs in case of fire...2
Witness of those times is the Grote Pollepel, a large XVth century reservoir moved in 1957 and rebuilt in the Egmont Garden. It originally stood at the foot of the Coudenbergh hill, more precisely where the current rotunda in the Ravenstein Gallery can be found.
Among the fountains served in this way were those of De Dry Godinnen, the Lions (City Hall), the blue fountain (Le Cracheur or the Spitter), the one of Saint-Jacques (rue de Ruysbroeck) or... Manneken Pis.
Towards the middle of the XVIIth century, a network brought water from several sources bought by the City and that sprang from the small valley of the Elsbeek in Saint-Gilles (the current neighbourhood of the place Morichar) to patrician houses in the rue Haute. They also fed some fountains like those of the Minerva, the Grand Sablon or the Fountain of Charles V, at the foot of the Porte de Hal.
At this instance an hydraulic engine has also been mentioned, but that is more likely to be a large reservoir.
These first networks in fact relied upon the natural movement of water, running from high to low...
At the start of the XVIIth century, however, Brussels would get to know an apparatus that would inverse this situation, propelling water from below to above by means of the energy, the driving force of that very same water according to systems already studied by the Ancient Greeks (Ctesibius, Archimedes, Hero of Alexandria), Romans (Vitruvius) and developed further in the Renaissance by Italian engineers.
Some believe that the system is related to ancient water wheels of the Arab world.
In fact in 1601, the Archdukes Albert and Isabella had a large hydraulic machine built in Saint-Josse-ten-Noode to supply pure water to fountains and other luxuries in the gardens of the Coudenberg, their palace in Brussels, as well as to the palace itself.
The first purpose in this particular case was display. In the middle of the Eighty Years’ War that opposed Spain to the Protestant Netherlands, the reign of Albert and Isabella, marked by the Twelve Years Truce (1609-1621) was one of relative improvement of the region’s economic situation.
The Archdukes set out to restore the lustre of both the Palace and its Park which were left in a state of neglect during these troubled times.
The taste of the time is an exuberant early baroque. Inspiration comes from Italy, where some gardens still remain famous (Villa d’Este, Bobboli gardens in Florence...).
Water plays a central part. It is “a poetic material like none other, (supporting and maintaining in the garden) a continuous system ( )of different typologies - nymfs, waterfalls, canals, rocks, streams, ponds -”3 but also automatons and musical devices...
Although mythological creatures happily roamed, religion was never far away. In the Coudenbergh gardens, the mother fountain was adorned by a statue of Mary-Magdalene4 - at the time a popular Counter-Reformation figure. Her tears of repentance of love symbolise the attachment to the Roman Catholic Church, which the Baroque, largely calling upon emotions, aims to re-establish in the people’s minds contrary to the severity of Protestantism.
Unsurprisingly, the reign of the Archdukes, heralds of the Counter-Reformation,would coincide with the expansion in both architecture and painting5 of the art of the Baroque, expression of the religious ideology linked with the princes that defend her.
But back to the water works
The Archdukes commissioned Georg Müller, a founder from Augsburg (a city known for the quality of its metalworks), to build the hydraulic machine, making him the first person to carry the title of Fountanier to the Court6.
The hydraulic machine of Saint-Josse-ten-Noode used the driving force of water in a completely novel way, in projecting it from below to above … In a sense it had to be propelled 45 meters up over a length of 640 meters to the Water tower - Watertoren – built on the city walls close to the Porte de Louvain.
The machine was powered by the water wheel of the Fonteynmolen (Fountain Mill), built on the site of an impressive grain mill7, and moved by the water of the Maelbeek that was kept back by a dam on the Grand étang of Saint-Josse-ten-Noode, the Hoeyvyver8.
The propelled water was that of one (or several) abundant springs situated not far from the village of Etterbeek9, which came together in the Broebelaer, a tributary rivulet to the Maelbeek, that by means of an underground aqueduct of more than 2 kilometres was led to a large collector from where it was treaded to the tower.
From there, it poured into a canal that took it through the Warande (wooded area of the park) to a series of closed gardens: the leafy garden (or the labyrinth), the flower garden...10
Over the course of the years the water was also distributed, on condition of payment, to the aristocratic dwellings that mushroomed in the surroundings of the Court.
By 1750, there were about 25 private connections to the hydraulic machine’s network. This increased to about 500 in the middle of the XIXe century, just before the machine disappeared.
The hydraulic machine was central in the device that gave water a role in pleasure and display. Just as the possession of a pleasure garden with fountains, the first distribution of water at home was intended for the privileged classes, close to the powers that be.
Though a technological marvel, throughout its existence up until its destruction in 1855 the machine would prove to be a bone of contention.
An this form the moment it was built. Georg Müller apparently had some connections with the Archdukes’ administration, making his work the subject of contestations and/or intrigues11.
The conflicts opposed the Court’s Administration to the users of the Maelbeek Valley. Tensions mixed socio-economic interests and the confrontation between ancient and modern expertise. As noted in C. Deligne, engineers, custodians of the mechanical ingenuity of the machine, hardly took into account neither the needs nor the know-how of former users of the valley. “The passage from the specialised but hardly innovating management of waterschutters and molenslagers12 to the ambitious technical projects heralded” a new era in water management “that left little room for dialogue between those involved”13.
In order to generate enough driving force for the Fountain Mill, the dams on the Hoeyvyver had to be heightened, causing conflicts with millers and fish farmers both upstream and downstream.
Conflicts also opposed the Administration to the patrician first “subscribers” who regularly complained that they did not have water, which over time was confirmed by experts.
Although the sources of the Broebelaer never reduced – water flowed here at full stream – the water of the Maelbeek often struggled to provide enough force to the wheels of the Fountain Mill.
As a matter of fact, the stalling of the Maelbeek and a parallel, the Leibeek, is sometimes blamed on millers and other manufacturers, because they would dump different residues in the beds of the two rivulets. This would not improve with the progressing industrialisation of the valley around the XVIIIth and XIXth century.
The “pipes” of the underground aqueduct (for a long time made in pottery), suffered severe degradation due to the unfavourable weather … It is precisely to protect them from continuous sagging that the Chaussée d’Etterbeek, previously a dirt road, was paved in 172414.
Other technical failures struck the machine itself. Not to mention theft and human error: such as the fountanier who, in 1731, allegedly helped customers who graced him with bonuses ... at the expense of those who were said to be more stingy...15
In 1750, the machine was a bone of contention between the Court and the City when the latter attempted to obtain a connection to power two fountains near the Place the Louvain. Eventually fifteen years later, this was abandoned in view of financial demands of the Administration of the Court.16
Times of water at home
During the XIXth century, the city of Brussels experiences an exponential population growth: it increases by more than 300% during the second half of the century, while the population of the country as a whole increased by “only” 50%.
The city sprawls. It is freed from its medieval walls, of which the demolition, started under the French regime, was completed around 1821 under the Dutch regime - it is replaced by the belt of boulevards, the “pentagon”. Shortly after the country’s independence the first neighbourhood is planned outside the walls, the Quartier Léopold. Other suburbs are created along the main access roads and villages around the city are soon also confronted with a significant population growth.
Water regularly runs out. But the upper classes have a desire for modernity, even luxury. This will motivate the capital of the young Belgian state to equip itself with a modern system of water distribution.
But there is also fear for epidemics that regularly emerge and mainly affect the poorest.
As the city becomes more dense, in historic districts just as in village centres or popular and industrial neighbourhoods, countless cul-de-sacs are created within housing blocks, where the poor are cramped into inhumane housing conditions.
Advances in medicine and science in general raise awareness of the need for healthy living conditions (air, water ...), while, paradoxically, the industrial revolution plunges large populations into the most sinister misery imaginable, where none of these conditions are met...
This is the time of the public health committees. The impetus is given by Charles Rogier, one of the lead thinkers of Belgian liberalism. Hygiene congresses are organised in 1851 and 1852 and committees involving doctors, engineers and various dignitaries organise themselves in several communes and focus extensively on the living conditions of the working classes.
There is at the same time a real “humanitarian” concern as well as a fear of contamination, a generous impulse and a strong desire to maintain the existing order, and order in general.
In truth, hygienists have work to do, more particularly on one of the questions that preoccupy them: the access to water that is not polluted, not carrier of disease ...
The directory waters of France indicates in 1851 that all drinking water must be “clear, light, aired, soft, cool in summer, tepid in winter, odourless, of fresh taste, lively, pleasant ( ) nor bland, nor spicy nor salty or sweet, nor sour, nor sulphurous”17.
These are not exactly the characteristics of the water the resident of Brussels consume at the time.
At the Hospital Saint-Jean, after evaporation, the water contains more than 2 grams per litre of various residues: calcareous salts and organic matter to the point that it is sometimes difficult to bathe patients18.
The hydraulic machines of Saint-Gilles and Saint-Josse-ten-Noode function somehow, but fail to meet the needs. Therefore most residents of the city have to rely on private or public wells, of which the quality varies according to neighbourhood from good and excellent to very bad. Others get their water from public fountains.
The engineer Carez, appointed by the Minister of Public Works to study the situation of access to water in Brussels as well as the proposed projects for water distribution systems, hands his conclusions to the City Council in January 1851, which subsequently makes some important decisions – we will discuss these later.
In the heart of the city, between the boulevards, 136,208 people live in 14,761 homes. According to Carez, 4,051 of these houses “have poor water, 2,685 have none at all,” making “ 6,734 houses are overall deprived of water.”
Already in the middle of the 1780s, there had been talk of building a steam engine that would allow to bring water from the Senne to reservoirs situated along the “Grosse Tour”19. Two bastions of the enclosure had already been acquired for that purpose. Nonetheless the project never materialised20.
The mishap of Teichmann’s machine did not stand in the way of further study of modern water supply systems, of an eye for those who were fitting out the large cities of Europe and the United States.
The City would debate the question for 8 years. Between 1844 and 1848, 3 projects are presented to the City, which the Carez report will analyse in detail.
A first is submitted by Le Hardy of Baulieu, engineer trained in Paris. He proposed to capture water from the Geleytsbeek (called Gladbeek at the time) and to tread it through a steam engine of 100 horsepower, located just upstream of the confluence of the stream with the Senne, to a large reservoir located in the areas of Saint-Gilles and Uccle, from where it would then come down through two successive filters to the city.
Very expensive project and Carez does not think much good of it. Amongst other things, the water of the Gladbeek was polluted by several dyers and paper mills and produced an abundant and viscous foam21.
It would be better to tap subterranean water that was naturally filtered, rather than using river water in an increasingly industrialised region. That is what the authors of two other projects propose.
Delsaux in “Conducteur de la Machine Hydraulique de Saint-Josse” conceives a new network starting from the existing one that captures water from the Broebelaar and Saint-Gilles. His system is inspired by Teichmann, of whom he would apparently re-use part of the infrastructure.
He counted on the water from the numerous sources of the Maelbeek Valley, in Ixelles and Etterbeek, increased with some captures in the Woluwe Valley, Uccle, Forest and Koekelberg.
In the third project, Delavaleye proposes to capture water from sources to the South of Braine-l’Alleud, close to the villages of Lillois and Witterzée, and bring it by natural flow via an aqueduct to a reservoir in the hamlet of Vleurgat in Ixelles.
Initially, Carez seems very favourable to Delsaux’s project.
Generalisation of drinking water distribution
In 1851, the City of Brussels opts for a public management of water. And in 1852, after rejecting all of the 3 projects mentioned above, it entrusts its realisation to the inspector of Bridges and Roads Darcy and the engineers Groetaers and Carez.
These, after having defended Delsaux’ proposals, start working on a system largely inspired by the proposals of Delaveleye.
The system, referred to as the Hain’s, captured the water of sources of a small tributary of the Senne running South of Braine-l’Alleud. The aqueduct runs through the Forêt de Soignes and ends in an immense reservoir (20.000 M³) in the rue de la Vanne, which is still in use now. This system predominantly uses the natural slope of the landscape to guarantee the flow of the water, but from the start was also provided with steam engines.
The works are carried out with much circumstance and, with the royal family present, the new system is inaugurated with great pomp once a jet of water emerged from the basin designed by Carez. The ceremonial fountain in the old Warande, now a public park, was thus supplied by drinking water. Fountains have lost their utility function to be no more than decorative or “instructive”, but they are also there to celebrate the fatherland, its grand men (and sometimes... its grand dames) of the past, its virtues ...
The network was now able to guarantee supply to the inhabitants of the town, to large industrial customers (railways), and also feed a large network of 1,400 fire hydrants.
The hydraulic machine of Saint-Josse-ten-Noode was stopped in 1855, and completely destroyed – its parts sold to the highest bidder. The “hydraulic machine” of Saint-Gilles ended up being buried in the embankments.
Public drinking points will disappear bit by bit, for public health reasons … and finances, because of the City’s interest in connecting as many people as possible to its system22.
The network keeps expanding. During the 1870s, a drainage system of the Forêt de Soignes completes that of the Hain; the Etterbeek reservoir will be built in 1877, as well as a water tower in the La Cambre forest, allowing for the supply of the highest parts of the city.
Challenges and Paradoxes
Different questions are raised: opt for pipes in varnished pottery, lead, glass (as in Switzerland) or in cast iron? The last one was chosen to the benefit of the Hainaut steel industry.
How much water should be supplied, what should be its quality (there is a concern that the water of the Hain, though very pure, is too hard, risking to provoke cases of “gut blockage”?
Should the natural natural flow of water be used, or should it be treaded ? Which increasingly means calling upon steam, a new energy that requires a lot of fossil fuels, but also water. Also an energy industry and railways rely upon, who immediately become very greedy ‘clients’ of large quantities of water.
Technical issues, propelled by advances in the field can of course never be dissociated from economic interests, nor are they independent from social questions to which they must often fail to formulate an answer.
The question of waste water, sewers, rivers turned into cesspools en thus put underground should also be addressed here. But it is whole story in itself.
Social and hygiene challenges
Social inequalities in wealthy countries keep part of the popular classes in a terrible misery. They live crammed in substandard housing conditions, where they consume water from wells polluted by cesspools or rivers that have become dumps for used household and industrial water. High exposure to epidemics is the consequence.
In Schaarbeek, that suffered lethal epidemics of cholera in 1832, ‘49, ‘55, ‘59, ‘66 … a police report confirms23 “the reference point of the plague is the Maelbeek Valley: 1849 and 1859 confirm it; the water of this rivulet used to be so clear and beneficial; today it spread noxious miasma because before arriving into our commune, it receives the waste of the aqueducts of the Quartier Léopold and Saint-Josse-ten-Noode”
A petition by the residents of the Quartier Léopold in 1868, demanded a partial suppression and sanitation of the Saint-Josse-ten-Noode pond, confirming that its water and its mud had increased the spread of cholera. It would make 8,73% victim in the neighbourhood, as opposed to 2% in the rest of the region. The figure increases to 18% in some dead end streets close to the stagnant waters.24
Furthermore, epidemics were not the initial reason for building a modern distribution network. It still took many years to stem the tide. Not everybody has access to clean water, which comes at a cost.
Besides, the City, anxious to earn back the enormous investments in the system, refused the idea of free supply. Although it hesitated long time over which system of charging to adopt, it did agree on the principle: water can not be for free.
It does put in place specific subscriptions for workers’ housing, which must be signed by the often little scrupulous owners25.
However, health gradually improves in Brussels’ neighbourhoods once they are connected to the water supply system26.
Political and economic challenges
The XIXth century in Belgium is the era of liberalism.
Only the wealthiest are allowed to vote (it is a vote based on tax qualification). Politics is divided between Catholics and Liberals, and within these two families, particularly at the end of the XIXth century, a clash will gradually emerge between supporters and opponents of more or less state intervention.
Yet, the City decides to take charge itself of the realisation and operation of the water distribution network. It already owned the sources of Saint-Gilles for two centuries. By imperial decree, in 1810 it became the owner of the hydraulic machine of Saint-Josse-ten-Noode, which previously belonged to the Court.
The City is then approached by private entrepreneurs:
- Delaveleye, mentioned above, who proposes to build his own system and bring water to the Ixelles reservoir.
- Demot, founder of the galeries Saint-Hubert, wishes, through a 90 year concession, to build and exploit the Delsaux system, and organise “at his own cost, the distribution inside Brussels and hold the right to sell water”.27
We are clearly dealing with privatisation projects here, since both want to take ownership of the resource.
The City turns down the proposals.
It cites unconvincing experiences in other capitals, and more precisely in London, where 9 companies argue for clients of the well-off neighbourhoods, and ignore deprived areas.
Councillor Blaes, in his report to the council in 1851, declares: “Give the water services to a private company, and you are making public interests subject to private interests.”
And a footnote to his report cites an architect of the city of Liège: “The English are beginning to understand that a good water supply can not be the object of speculation; a limitless supply should be made available at cost of the distribution, and it has to be organised, governed and monitored by magistrates who defend the most precious interests of public order and public health. “
In view of these findings, Brussels councillors believe that it is “in its interest to do things itself, to remain absolute master of the entire hydraulic system () the works () used to distribute water (and) those used to bring water to the city.”28
In January 1851, the decision is made that is still valid today: water is a public service.
However, this does not go without effort. There were many conflicts between the City and the municipalities ...
The City of Brussels will be responsible for the distribution of water to the suburbs under an agreement of 1853, which will continue to cause conflict between the city and the municipalities throughout the process of urbanisation.
The city grudgingy took over the construction of new pipelines to the new streets that were created and sold water to its residents. A regulation from 1870 sells water more expensive in the suburbs: 4 cents per hectolitre against 3 for the city, marking the beginning of a long period of tension ...
So much so that the communes of Schaerbeek and Saint-Josse-ten-Noode took the initiative of creating an inter-communal (involving also Auderghem, Ixelles, La Hulpe, Saint-Gilles, Uccle, Watermael-Boitsfort): the compagnie des eaux, founded in 1891, brought in water from Bocq in Spontin. The water had to be treated before being drinkable ...
In 1899 works were finalised
Until their merger in 1933, the two networks competed, rivalled over capturing safer water further away, and disputed who could supply new communes in the region that kept growing vigourously.
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