A Woman Dropping Her Tea-cup in Horror upon Discovering the Monstrous Contents of a Magnified Drop of Thames Water Revealing the Impurity of London Drinking Water


This 1828 caricature shows a woman looking into a microscope to observe the monsters swimming in a drop of London water. In the 1820s, much of London’s drinking water came from the Thames River, which was heavily polluted by the city sewers that emptied into it. A Commission on the London Water Supply that was appointed to investigate this situation issued a report in 1828, which resulted in various improvements. The five water companies that served the north bank of the river upgraded the quality of their water by building reservoirs and taking other measures. However, the people of Southwark (on the south bank of the river) continued to receive contaminated water. The problems were not solved until the 1860s, when London's present sewerage system was installed by the Metropolitan Board of Works (MBW) and its engineer, Joseph Bazalgette. Between the appearance of this caricature and the completion of the MBW sewers, London suffered two cholera epidemics: in 1832 (part of the world pandemic of cholera) and in 1854. Looking at a drop of water though a microscope was a popular entertainment offered by travelling showmen who carried the microscopes around in cases on their backs. In this caricature, the showman figure in the extreme lower left corner raises his hat to a water pump and says: "Glad to see you, hope to meet you in every parish through London." The lettering at the top reads: "Microcosm. Dedicated to the London Water Companies 1 - Brought forth all monstrous, all prodigious things, 2 - Hydras and gorgons, and chimeras dire. Vide Milton." The latter is a reference to Milton’s Paradise Lost.

Date Created

Subject Date

Publication Information

T. McLean, London


Title in Original Language

A woman dropping her tea-cup in horror upon discovering the monstrous contents of a magnified drop of Thames water revealing the impurity of London drinking water

Type of Item

Physical Description

1 print : etching, with watercolour ; image 22 x 34 centimeters


Last updated: May 11, 2015