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Water and Sewage - lessons from history and who pays?


A sewer marker in my home town of Amble - a large S on a metal plate with a distance of 12 feet marked on the plate
A sewer marker in my home town of Amble

Much of our water and sewage system owes its existence to the Victorian era of expansion. Water supply and sewage were essentially interlinked for without the later the former could become contaminated with disastrous results. But the problem was identified and dealt with with varying measures of success by many generations before as towns grew into cities, and villages grew into towns.

In the Elizabethan era Boston in Lincolnshire saw rapid expansion, not least in part, due to persecution of people in Europe seeking sanctuary, but also due to the then expanding trade routes that sought to avoid conflict with France and Spain. This put a strain on both water supply and sewage. Water supply in the town was under strain and as early as 1568 an investigation into mechanisms to bring water from Keal Hill into Boston was investigated. Who paid for this at the time? Most possibly everyone that could afford to pay for the Corporation of Boston appointed two persons to gather water tolls. But flooding and sewage were a problem with both contaminating ponds and underground water courses. In the case of Boston this was reduced by fortuitous closeness to the sea which meant effluent could be disposed of into the tide. It has to be understood that towns were run by Corporations that were typically created by Royal Charter that gave them the ability to raise funds to run the town and provide essential services. Funds were raised by a variety of means including market tolls, tariffs on goods passing through, taxes and compulsory, and voluntary subscriptions to works. The people running these corporations were typically rich land owners and latterly merchants who had a vested interest in the success of the town to sell, transport their goods and as a healthy supply of people to provide labour, skills and services. They were typically looking after their self interest but did not usually look to the town itself to provide a direct income. Is this possibly worthy of note when looking at today’s problems?


However, water supply and sewage were not interlinked, that process was to happen a little later as supply of water was the big issue to any expanding town and population. In 1711 an Act of Parliament was passed for the better supply of water to Boston from the West Fen by granting two acres of land at Cowbridge on which to “erect a water-house, or mill and other edificies, construct a cistern or pond, lay pipes etc. and do other necessary works”. However, local interest and bickering over the location of cisterns and water storage saw little progress in water supply until 1746 when borings under Boston Market Place for water were made to improve supply. Much reliance on stagnant water and open water sources continued, in Boston the street names can hint at their locations with Liquorpond Street and Water Lane. Such names are echoed in almost every town. Beer was safer to drink than water. Conflicting self-interests within the management of towns prevented proper investment in water and sewage until the 1830’s saw the arrival of cholera in Europe. Cholera is thought to have originated from Asia and the Ganges and was identified as a disease within the British Empire and trading countries long before it entered Europe with traders in the Baltic ports especially Hamburg identified as an early source to the UK.

Ports that traded with the Baltic were particularly susceptible to the disease with Sunderland being the first port to have an identified outbreak of Cholera in 1831. The disease was not fully understood with quarantine being the bluntest and most direct tool used to fight it. This meant that the quarantine of ships coming from Sunderland had a severe impact on trade. All the East Coast ports of Britain became victim to the disease which spread throughout Britain. The disease is thought to have killed about 32,000 in the 1830’s outbreak. To give an illustration of the size of the disease the population of Boston at that time was around 15,000. Despite knowledge that the disease was associated with contaminated water it did not jolt town commissioners into improving water supply and sewage. Cholera connected the two needs for the first time, but this was not accepted. Hence in 1848 Britain saw a further outbreak with twice the number of fatalities to the 1830’s one. This was despite warnings by Edwin Chadwick in his publication: “ The Sanitary Condition of the Labouring Population of Great Britain” in 1842. He made a solid argument in that publication the the motivation to improve things was economic. Year’s before Bill Clinton was to utter the words, “it’s the economy stupid”. He proposed four simple steps: improved drainage and sewers; removal of refuse from houses and streets; provision of clean drinking water and the appointment of medical officers in each town. It took the deaths of 64000 in 1848 to encourage his proposals to become any form of law in the Public Health Act. In reality it was not until the 1880’s that Victorian towns started to catch up with Improvement Commissioners appointed in many towns to improve water supply and sewage. Motivation for change was driven by economic conditions and the supply of a healthy workforce to enable industry, agriculture, trade and the military to function.

The Victorians had one significant advantage and that is that the economic drivers of the time were far greater than the environmental ones, indeed such concerns were an insignificant minority. When it came to water pollution the chief concern was that sewers should not smell and this was achieved often by simply bricking over the problem so that it was underground. There was no conscience or concern with waste water and effluent going into rivers provided those with influence could avoid the smell.

This caused a piecemeal approach to the problem of open sewers with reponses to improve catering to those with influence that shouted the most. This is illustrated in Holbeach, Lincolnshire which saw a piecemeal approach to the culverting of the Holbeach river the river was arched over, but only as far as the cemetery simply moving the stench rather than curing it as can be seen by this report from 1865:

“HOLBEACH – The old Holbeach river as it is called has long been a difficulty and a nuisance. To get rid of this the ratepayers, at great expense, have arched over the drain as far as the cemetery. This appears to have increased the nuisance at this place, and for a great distance the pent-up gas is exhaled and creates a most nauseous and deadly stink by the road side. The liquid in the river is nearly black, and covered with bubbles, by the foul exhalations. The want of a proper outfall, we presume , is the great difficulty.”[i]

January 1868 saw the Elloe Court of Sewers planning and subsequently starting improvement of the outfall of the Holbeach River by straightening it out and applying a sluice gate so that it entered the Welland outfall and thus increased the flow of water draining away and reducing stagnation. The river was still open by the cemetery in 1895 when one well-meaning local was admonished for placing a wooden frame at the opening “for the purpose of keeping pots , pans, filth etc going into the river” , as this act impeded the flow. By the late 1880’s the river was culverted throughout the town.

So we have inherited a sewage system that does what it was intended to do, take away excess water and sewage from urban areas and keep it away from our water supply, but not from the environment. Before I am corrected I do understand that sewage is treated, but this takes many forms including partial treatment and it is recognised and accepted that peak outflows of water from heavy rain will increase some pollution. Has it improved? Well, I can only describe a conversation I had with an Environment Agency (or its equivalent) engineer as he took samples from the River Nene in 1988 when I asked him what the water quality was like:

“It’s not good”, he replied.

“Okay, but in simple terms what does that mean?”

He smiled and said, “Well, I put it this way the heavy metals and contamination is so bad we don’t understand how anything can live in the water.” He then went on to explain how much of the source of this contamination was from past practises from the Victorian Age up to the 1970’s with such activities as Tanning and other highly toxic industry upland freely polluting the River without check and that much of the current contamination was from historic activity. I am reliably informed that this is much improved today.

What lessons have we learned from history?

Looking at what I’ve just written it is clear that clean water and sewage improvements are best driven by economic necessity. At the same time localism and local interests and responding to “who shouts the loudest” can be detrimental to full and meaningful progress. Indeed, a desire to cover up the outbreak of Cholera by businessmen in Sunderland possibly cost lives. It is also clear that throughout the history of water supply and sewage progress has been slow and often playing catch up. This is especially true at the moment with water supply in Eastern and Southern England under strain and investment and action too slow which we are likely to see to the detriment of industrial development in London and the detriment of Agriculture in Eastern England.

So today we see Ruth Kelly the chair of Water UK apologising for the industry’s lack of action in preventing water pollution of our rivers and seas and heading a proposal to remedy this. The remedy proposed is for money to be borrowed and future generations to pay the price with increased bills. The clean water campaigner Fergal Sharkey has understandably called this out, “… this isno apology, we have paid for a service we haven’t got and they are now suggesting we pay for a second time.”[ii]

So who pays? Ruth Kelly stated “….our research shows customers are willing to pay a little bit more in order to put the problem right.”[iii] I do NOT believe this. The reason behind me not believing this is that the research is possibly based on surveys funded by the water companies themselves. I started to complete one of these surveys for Anglian Water but did not submit it because as I was completing it I realised that the questions and the available answers were weighted so that the survey was effectively putting answers that were not acceptable to me. So I do not trust Ruth Kelly’s words as at best they are only as good as her sources and she was understandably described on Radio 4 today by the interviewer as a lobbyist.

The anger over the Water Companies is great within the country and I have no doubt that popular opinion would see them taken over by the state without compensation to shareholders if such an action was possible. However, such action would put the funding directly on the taxpayer and consumer. Before anyone shouts “Let the polluter pay” that is fine, but in reality the consumer ends up funding the polluter with higher prices. One of the largest challenges in coming up with a solution is avoiding damage to those that may be part of that solution, even if it is the Water companies. But the anger of the public on this issue should not be under-estimated and bodes well for the political growth of the Green Party.

[i] Lincolnshire Chronicle 10th March 1865 [ii] Radio 4 Today 18th May 2023 [iii] Radio 4 Today interview 18th March 2023

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