The Mersey Basin has been significantly polluted for over 200 years. However, there is a lack of quantitative historical water quality data as effective water quality monitoring and data recording only began 30–40 years ago. This paper assesses water pollution in the Mersey Basin using a Water Pollution Index constructed from social and economic data. Methodology, output and the difficulties involved with validation are discussed. With the limited data input available the index approximately reproduces historical water quality. The paper illustrates how historical studies of environmental water quality may provide valuable identification of factors responsible for pollution and a marker set for contemporary and future water quality issues in the context of the past. This is an issue of growing research interest.