The Problem of Sewage

Within the rapidly expanding towns and cities of the Victorian age the problem of waste disposal, including night soil (human sewage), became more and more acute. Edwin Chadwick’s “Report on the Sanitary Conditions of the Labouring Population of Great Britain (1842)” greatly highlighted this situation and the introduction of the Public Act of 1848 went some way in encouraging reform. Until the widespread construction of adequate sewer systems and access to plentiful supplies of clean running water became available however, the problems associated with Chadwick’s report persisted for many years.

In Preston sewage and general waste disposal was dealt with in various ways. Where there were no proper sewers whole streets or groups of houses had a deep covered pit nearby with pipes leading in to convey liquid waste from the houses, which would then drain away naturally leaving only solid waste and excrement known as cesspits. These would have to be dug out by hand once full and the stinking contents removed by cart to be either dumped elsewhere, or used as fertilizer by farmers. For homes that had a privy or midden in the back yard or courtyard, again these would have to be emptied periodically by hand by men known as scavengers. These men were described as,

“For the most part paupers and elderly men receiving low wages and as a class, not equal to the efficient performance of this kind of work”(LCRO. G T Clarke- Report to the General Board of Health, Borough of Preston 1849)

Once the privies had been emptied the foul contents would be removed in carts eloquently known as “treacle wagons” and either dumped at various places on the periphery of the town or made available to farmers as fertilizer.

From the 1830’s onwards much of the collected night soil was dumped at the old Police yard situated on the present site of the Magistrates and Crown Courts adjacent to the Ring Road. From there it would be distributed to farmers as manure. I cannot pretend to imagine the foul stench that must have contaminated the area from this huge pile of human waste. With an ever increasing population in Preston by the mid 1800’s it was clear that a small band of scavengers could not possibly fulfill the task of clearing waste in an efficient manner. The inevitable result of this was that many cesspits, privies and bog holes simply overflowed leaving the surplus contents accumulating everywhere. A letter to the Preston Chronicle newspaper in 1846 highlighted the concern of many of the residents of Preston at the time.

“Sir, Guano, on account of its portable character and highly fertilizing properties seems at present to engross the favour of the farmers in this neighbourhood to the expense of other manures. Night soil, which two or three years since was sought after and taken away with avidity, is now left to accumulate in the ash pits and poison the atmosphere with foul exhalations.

If fever makes itself a home in the neighbourhood of cesspools and accumulations of putrid substances, may not the noxious effluvia constantly evolved by countless heaps of decaying animal and vegetable matter and all kinds of putrescent filth contribute in no small degree, to the prevalence of fever in the town. I would earnestly press upon the Police Commissioners the necessity of adopting some measures for removing, or compelling the removal of all night soil, wherever it has been suffered to accumulate so as to become a nuisance. The evil consequences which must follow from a continuance of the overflowing of ash pits during the autumn and winter months, must necessarily result in the generating and propagating of fever and the deterioration of the general health of the town.”(PC Oct 17th 1846)

Yours Respectfully

W.B

The problem of “night soil” removal appears to have still been problematic almost 15 years later as this letter published in the Preston Chronicle in 1860 indicates.

Sir, some time since a correspondent drew your attention to a nuisance that has existed for months past in Strand Road.I mean the night soil deposited on the vacant plot of land between Allsups Foundry and the adjoining shipbuilding yard. Passing the other evening that way, I was disgusted with the effluvia arising from some tons of a mixture it is unnecessary to describe but which need only be smelled to be pronounced intolerable.

Strand Road is at this time of the year a much frequented thoroughfare and how the abomination to which I have referred can exist without detriment to those who have occasion to pass that way, will puzzle wiser heads than mine to conceive. Besides, in the immediate vicinity there are some hundred workmen employed the week round and it is quite certain that inhaling the pestiferous vapours arising from such a mass of decomposition will in no way contribute to their healthiness.

If it is to be the duty of the Nuisance Inspector to see to the removal of nuisances, as I presume it is, how happens it that this has not been removed long ago? Surely it cannot be because the land is the property of the Corporation and on that account he is afraid to deal with that august body, or whoever it may be that is responsible for the existence of such an abomination, in the same manner as he would deal with a poor man who should happen to keep a pig at the rear of his dwelling. Trusting I shall not again have occasion to trouble you, but that Mr. Marriott will see the removal to some more suitable locality of the filth at present deposited in Strand Rd.(PC July 14th 1860)

Believe Me, Yours Truly

Cleanliness

Even the more affluent areas of Preston suffered the scourge of the night soil nuisance, as Mr. J Gorst Esq., Deputy Clerk of the Peace and a resident of Winkley Square made abundantly clear when he presented himself at the Town Hall in July 1849. Mr. Gorst complained to the Magistrates that a quantity of night soil being removed from Oxford St in a cart totally unsuitable for the task, had passed through Winkley Square and scattered a quantity of filth along the way, causing an intolerable stench and nuisance.

Being a substantial ratepayer Mr. Gorst demanded that the filth be removed as soon as possible. The offending night soil carrier, a man named Vickers, was charged with creating a nuisance, found guilty and ordered to pay 2s/6d towards the poor box plus costs. It would appear the more affluent of Preston’s citizens were determined to avoid at all costs the unpleasantness of unremoved sewage, in contrast to much of the poorer areas of the town who had little influence over the matter.(PG July 28th 1849)

Even almost 40 years after The Rev John Clay described the wholly unsatisfactory state of Preston’s sanitary arrangements, a report included in the respected medical journal “The Lancet” in 1879 concluded that major problems still existed. It said,

“Visitors who approach the town from the South by the London & North Western Railway are usually much impressed with its beautiful public gardens and if they do not chance to be to inquisitive in peering right and left into the courts and back streets overlooked from the railway, in its passage through the town, they are apt to carry away with them such impressions of the place as the local authorities would have.

But if it has been the visitors ill luck to become more familiar with the internal arrangements of the place, he presently discovers that even among northern manufacturing towns, Preston has a preeminence in the imperfection of its sanitary arrangements and that it’s beautiful gardens form but a fringe and it’s Town Hall, a crown to a vast stinking middenhead. Preston in fact lives habitually among a twelve months accumulation of itsmost obnoxious filth and its Corporation is resolved that the town shall not abate a jot of its ancient pride in this arrangement.” (PC April 19th 1879)

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