Water stress is becoming a permanent feature of life in Britain and other developed societies, and attempts to change ‘consumer behaviour’ are at the forefront of strategies for sustainability. This paper combines historical, geographical and sociological perspectives on the evolution of drought and water demand in modern England and Wales. Droughts have natural properties but their course, size and distribution is also the result of an interplay between governance, social norms and everyday practices. Focusing on seven significant droughts between 1893 and 2006, this article traces changing understandings of ‘normal’ water consumption and ‘rational’ demand and relates them to the evolving socio-technical management of water and identities of ‘the consumer’. We challenge the idea of a watershed between private supply (associated with passive ‘customers’) and public ownership (associated with active ‘citizens’). While private systems facilitated self-organised civic action more easily than public supply, the ideal of a citizen-contract blinded systems of public provision to the problem of expanding water use. An interdisciplinary analysis of droughts in the past offers lessons for the debate about sustainable consumption today.