Where money does not flow: Finance and the diffusion of the Dutch sanitary revolution,

Water tower pumping station - The Hague 1890 - Dutch sanitary revolution
Water tower and pumping station in The Hague, ca. 1890

Public health in major urban areas became a matter for major concern during the second half of the nineteenth century. Industrialization and the need for an ever increasing number of laborers had contributed to mass urbanization and with the rapid growth of cities came widespread waste and pollution. As a result of the urge to provide clean drinking water to the population  and expanding technical knowhow stemming from the industrial revolution, waterworks were constructed in many Dutch cities. 

However, the timing varied throughout municipalities. Why was this the case? This post will give insights into when and why waterworks were built in the Netherlands during the late 19th century, by reconstructing relevant parts of popular debates based on contemporary newspaper articles and other sources. 

An urban revolution 

A revolution in water supply during the 19the century was facilitated by the machinery invented during the Industrial revolution and after ca. 1850 the construction of waterworks became a worldwide phenomenon. The invention and application of steam engines made it possible for cities to access clean sources of water in their surroundings that could be stored in towers and reservoirs; this also led to a more reliable supply even in periods of drought. Furthermore, water quality greatly improved with the invention of filtration systems, in which layers of sand and gravel filtered out impurities and reduced the risk of water borne diseases. All these inventions also led significant changes in the way societies thought about the relation between hygiene illness and sanitary conditions.

The water supply revolution in the Netherlands started in Amsterdam in 1853, when the first large-scale provision system was completed. From there, it spread throughout the country in subsequent decades. In the following, I focus on the largest Dutch cities and identify some interesting patterns in the diffusion pattern. First, there is a significant pause in completing waterworks between 1856 and 1874, when those in Rotterdam and The Hague were finished (see table below). The second pattern I identify has to do with company ownership, which was mostly private with the exception of Rotterdam, The Hague, Nijmegen, Dordrecht, Haarlem and s- Hertogenbosch. And third, not all early adaptors were large cities and not all large cities were early adaptors. For instance, Den Helder was really early with waterworks operational (1856) and had a small population of about 15 thousand inhabitants in 1859, while Haarlem had about 27 thousand citizens in 1859  but only started supplying piped water in 1898.

Population and Dutch waterworks by date and ownership

Drivers of investment in waterworks

How can we make sense of some of the patterns discussed above? Consider the timing difference between Amsterdam and the two next largest Dutch cities: Rotterdam and The Hague. Looking into newspaper articles, there seems to be some overlap in discourse as they both acknowledge the importance of waterworks and were actively looking for investors, mostly in vain. This resembles the experience of Amsterdam, where the construction of waterworks almost had been cancelled due to a lack in funds, but at the lats moment British investors were found. 

Looking at the discourse in the papers it seems that concessions written by the city councils were very strict, as they requested large non-completion deposits and absolved the city of much of the investment risk and shifting it to investors. We can clearly see the fear of being swindled by foreign investors in a letter of the Amsterdamsche Duinwaterleiding Maatschappij when they had to deposit a large sum for non-completion when they asked for permission to expand the number of water taps inside the city. According to the letter: “these conditions of overprotection cause that many of the necessary developments [of waterworks] in the Netherlands and in the city of Amsterdam are delayed or all together stopped despite their apparent necessity”. This text further states that a majority of shareholders living abroad should no longer be seen as a reason for distrust, since they had proven by their earlier works that they could be trusted. In the end, The Hague and Rotterdam decided to finance and exploit their own waterworks, creating the first two public systems, after private companies gave up the concession negotiations due to the aforementioned strict rules. 

Newspaper advertisement of the Amsterdam water company - 1853

Financial considerations, and not necessarily public health concern, also explain why rather small municipalities built these systems earlier. Consider the example of Den Helder given above. In this city, the construction of waterworks did not have as its primary aim to provide clean drinking water for its inhabitants, but rather to offer this resource to ships docking in its harbor with the aim of gaining some extra advantage over the neighboring ones.

Why was private initiative so significant in the Netherlands? As discussed above the main obstacle of infrastructural improvement was finance. For a city council to build and exploit such a large project was full of risk. To circumvent this, private investors were a logical alternative. However, this also seemed to have been one of the factors delaying diffusion, as most private companies were financed with foreign capital which meant that profits to shareholders would go abroad. This increased the likelihood that the next investment needed foreign backing, and Dutch investors simply did not profit as much from these companies. But even in the case where Dutch capital financed the project, as in Maastricht, true local ownership remained lacking. In January of 1886 stocks were sold to finance the first part of the waterworks, when the local newspaper published an article consisting of one sentence “The loan for the waterworks in Maastricht did not find a single financer in this city” (De geldleening ten behoeve der waterleiding te Maastricht heeft daar ter stede geen enkele inschrijver gevonden). 


The diffusion of waterworks during the 19th century in the Netherlands is a story that is marked by mainly problems in financing. Starting with the waterworks in Amsterdam, there seems to have been very little local ownership leading to some distrust between the city council and the private (foreign) investors. This distrust was also shown in strict concession rules making it unappealing for many investors to start similar projects. 

The lack of local ownership also established profit as the first priority for investors, and not the health of citizens. Probably as a result of within-city political inequalities, the cholera epidemic of 1866 did not create substantial momentum for large cities to invest in waterworks; instead they seemed to have been more interested in easy and quick fixes to their public health problems.

Further information:

  • The associated image of this post can be found here.


  • Apers, J. “Begin Van De Drinkwatervoorziening in Amsterdam : Water Gebeurde Er Sinds 1853? [Themanummer: 150 Jaar Drinkwater Voor Amsterdam].” H Twee O : Tijdschrift Voor Watervoorziening En Afvalwaterbehandeling 36 (17) : 12 – 15, 2003. https://edepot.wur.nl/368073.
  • Groen, J.A, and Gemeentewaterleidingen Amsterdam. Een Cent Per Emmer : Het Amsterdamse Drinkwater Door De Eeuwen Heen. Amsterdam: Gemeente waterleidingen, 1978.
  • Geels, Frank W. “From Sectoral Systems of Innovation to Socio-Technical Systems: Insights About Dynamics and Change from Sociology and Institutional Theory.” Research Policy 33, no. 6 (2004): 897–920. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.respol.2004.01.015.
  • Noort, Jan van den. “Pion of Pionier : Rotterdam, Gemeentelijke Bedrijvigheid in De Negentiende Eeuw.” Dissertation, Stichting PK, 1990.

Author details

Researcher (WUR)