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project findings | PROJECT OUTLINE |

Liquid Politics: The Historic Formation of the Water Consumer

Liquid Politics has examined conflicts over water in late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century Britain. This period forms a prehistory to current concerns about water shortages and sustainable consumption. It brought constant supply, baths and WCs to cities. But the late Victorian period was also a time of droughts and disruption, with heated conflicts over how water was priced, who should own and manage it, and, indeed, what was legitimate and what wasteful supply. Our research revealed the rise of early consumer defence leagues and traced an expanding sense of citizenship and entitlement to water that has impeded attempts at demand management to this day.  

This project runs from October 2005 to July 2007

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Project team
Frank Trentmann
award holder
Vanessa Taylor

Prof. Frank Trentmann
School of History, Classics and Archaeology
Birkbeck College
Malet Street
London WC1E 7HX

+44 (0)20 7079 0603

Trentmann F. and Taylor V. ‘From Users to Consumers: Water Politics in Nineteenth-Century London’, in Trentmann F. (ed.), The Making of the Consumer: Knowledge, Power and Identity in the Modern World (Oxford and New York: Berg, 2006), pp.53-79.

Taylor V. and Trentmann F. ‘Political Matter: Water, Practices and Conflict in Late Victorian Britain’, Cultures of Consumption Working Paper No.34

Chappells H., Medd W., Taylor V. and Trentmann, F. ‘Drought is Normal: The Socio-Technical Evolution of Drought and Water Demand in the UK, 1893–2006’ (forthcoming).  



Project outline

The following is the text of the project's original proposal


Liquid Politics charts the formation of the politically self-conscious water consumer in Britain in the modern period. In the nineteenth century, political debates over the rights and responsibilities of water consumers came to the fore at a time of changing modes of access to water, changing habits of water consumption and intermittent failures of supply. In 1880s and ’90s London, ‘the consumer’ was for the first time mobilised as a distinct group in battles between water users, ratepayers and water companies. The project compares this consumer with water users in three other settings: nineteenth-century municipal water supply; the aftermath of London’s municipalisation in 1902; and recent conflicts over water quality, pricing and ‘scarcity’.

The project addresses the significance of basic needs and routine consumption in the formation of the consumer overlooked in the dominant focus on conspicuous consumption. It will expand our understanding of the evolution of the consumer, contribute to the ongoing debate about the nature of consumption in ‘consumer society’ and offer an historical perspective on the rights and responsibilities of the water consumer today.

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This study has three main aims.

Water users and water consumers
Firstly, the project provides an historical account of the development of the social and political identity of the ‘water consumer’ in nineteenth-century Britain. From the 1810s until 1902, London’s water supply was provided by eight private companies operating district-wide monopolies. This period was one of rapid population growth and urban expansion, rising trade and industrial demands for water, changing modes of water use and increasing consumption levels in the home (especially with the introduction of WCs and baths) and growing sewage problems. Existing work has focused on the effects and implications of this expansion in London and elsewhere, especially in the field of public health.

Yet little is known about the new political identity of the water consumer that grew out of and helped to shape this process or about the organisational frameworks that gave the water consumer a public voice. This research is the first to foreground the way changing patterns of domestic and commercial consumption and changing conditions of supply were linked to new perceptions of needs, new entitlements and new political identities. The project explores the relationship between shifting modes of consumption and the expanding agency of the water consumer, tracing the changes in identity from water user to water consumer and in notions of rights and responsibilities.

Basic needs, ordinary consumption and the consumer
The second aim of the project is to expand our understanding of the nature of the consumer and of ‘consumer society’ by focusing on the social and political mobilisation arising out of routine consumption.

The birth of ‘the consumer’ has traditionally been tied to the paradigm shift in neo-classical economics in the 1880s, and the economistic individualism and ‘rational consumer’ to which it gave rise, or to expanding sites of conspicuous consumption, symbolised by the department store. But the 1870s-90s also saw the emergence of a radical and progressive ‘consumer’ in the contested area of routine consumption. This ‘consumer’ was connected to debates about civic rights, entitlements and accountability arising from the payment of taxes (water, paid by rates) as distinct from commodities purchased in the market place. This was a debate to which water companies and commercial users as well as ratepaying householders contributed. Also important in this period is the changing relationship of women, key users of water, to the collective and expanding category of water consumer. The relation between consumption, consumer identity and debates about democracy and representation in progressive politics will be central to this research. The recovery of a politicised consumer identity promises to modify current debates over the traditional public sector language of ‘service users’ and the encroachments of a private sector language of ‘consumers’ and ‘consumer choice’.

Rational consumption, waste and scarcity
Thirdly, the project will shed historical light on the water consumer in the UK today. We examine parallels and differences between historical and contemporary debates, especially in the light of current tensions between the practices and expectations of water consumers, consumer advocacy groups and the concerns of a re-privatised water industry.

There are interesting parallels between disputes over ‘waste’, ‘needs’ and ‘entitlement’ in the use of WCs and baths in the nineteenth century and current debates about the impact of power showers, gardening and how best to control consumer behaviour. Debates surrounding the ir/responsibility of water consumers in the context of droughts in the late Victorian period have resonance for discussions today about ‘sustainable’ and ‘rational’ consumption, sufficiency and scarcity, and the basis on which to balance the competing needs, practices and demands of highly differentiated consumers. The political battle over the rights of consumers as citizens in local nineteenth-century politics can also fruitfully be connected to ongoing conflicts over the status of water as human right or commodity at both national and global levels.

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· How did the narrowly defined water-ratepayer of the early nineteenth century come to be fused with water-users as ‘water consumers’ by the late century?

· What conceptions of consumer needs, rights, responsibilities and rationalities have been at work in the constitution of the water consumer, amongst users, water companies and politicians?

· How might this historical dimension inform the dialogue today between water consumers, consumer advocacy groups, regulators and water industry professionals attempting to understand and control consumer behaviour?

· What impact does this account of the water consumer, forged in the sphere of ordinary consumption, have on our narrative of the development of consumer identity and of ‘consumer society’?

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The project will investigate the changing nature of the water consumer using methods of historical research. A primary area of research will be the politicisation and contestation of the water consumer in the 1880s-90s, centring on the Water Consumer Defence Leagues that emerged in these years in London and Sheffield, at first in opposition to company charges and then in the context of repeated ‘water famines’. It was here that the most effective and long-lasting mobilisation of the water consumer took place. For the first time, ‘water consumer’ came to mean water users, including women, tenants and users of communal standpipes, as well as ratepaying householders. The project will investigate this important but neglected transformation through research into the Water Consumer Defence Leagues, legal battles over rates and access to water and the response of the water companies.

It is planned to set the nineteenth-century London water consumer alongside water users in three distinct contexts. The first comparative case study will be a nineteenth-century English municipal setting (e.g. Liverpool in the 1870s and ’80s). Water was widely seen as distinct from a commodity; private companies were believed to make a profit out of a ‘God-given’ and basic ‘necessity’. If the politicised water consumer was formed in opposition to private water monopolies in London, we need to ask what difference municipal water supply made. Were the interests of water consumers identified with those of their municipal suppliers? How did municipal suppliers perceive their customers? Were people more likely to behave ‘responsibly’ in relation to a municipal water supplier than to a private company?

The second comparative setting is London in the aftermath of the 1902 Metropolitan Water Act (which bought out the companies and established municipal water supply). What happened to the water consumer and to progressive concerns over the water supply in 1902-1914? What happened to earlier tensions between consumers, between commercial and domestic customers, for example? We will look at how outstanding problems of definition, such as that of ‘domestic’ vs. ‘trade’ supply, were handled in this period. The late nineteenth-century shift towards a more universal water consumer also had implications for gender relations. There had always been a tension between the centrality of women to water consumption as end-users and the public face of the water consumer, the male head of household. The project will seek to relate the broadening of the consumer to debates about the role of women in politics and the changing nature of the relationship between the state, civil society and the domestic sphere in the Edwardian period.

The third comparative case study will be a select, more recent, episode in which the role of the consumer was contested, such as Yorkshire during the drought of 1995. Through active dialogue with water industry representatives, regulators, consumer advocacy groups and social scientists working in the field of ordinary and sustainable consumption, the project will explore the issues of consumer identity, rights and responsibilities, rationalities and waste, in the context of the post 1989 re-privatised British water industry.

Together, these comparative settings for the water consumer promise to contribute more generally to the debate about the development of ‘consumer society’ and to contemporary problems of understanding the consumer.

The principle sources for the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries are to be found in the London Metropolitan Archives and other local record offices, the National Archives, the British Library, the Wellcome Institute and the House of Lords Records Office. Primary research for the twentieth century and contemporary water consumer will focus on official reports, newspaper reports and dialogue with water sector and consumer advocacy groups.

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The project has relevance for academic users in the fields of political, social, urban and public health history as well as for sociologists, anthropologists and historians working in the consumption field more generally. It will also engage in ongoing debates over problems of consumer rights and responsibilities, consumer education and ‘rational’, sustainable consumption, with the water industry and with consumer advocacy groups working at regional, national and international levels.

The research outcomes will include papers providing: an account of the historical dynamics of the late nineteenth-century water consumer; an historically informed examination of debates over the water consumer in the UK today, arising out of active dialogue with water sector representatives and social scientists working in the field of routine and sustainable consumption; a long-term synthetic account of the changing identity, nature and expectations of the water consumer and its implications for the study of consumers and consumption in modern societies.



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