Public Health in the 19th century

Public Health etc in Witham, in the 19th century

Summary by Janet Gyford, adapted from one first written for Dated Buildings Survey in 1992, re Faragon Terrace, 59-67 Bridge Street.
Retyped October 2002. 

See also notes on PRO MH 13/209, read since this was written.


Edward Cresy made a report to the General Board of Health in 1850 about Witham. About Bridge Street he said that ‘the stagnant open drains, and the absence of all arrangements requisite for decency, are still producing their usual effects – fever and demoralisation. Many other parts of the town were described in an even more stomach-churning fashion. The general arrangements were common to most towns before they had main sewerage and water supply systems. Cresy contrasted their inadequacies with the ‘neat fronts of the homes looking out onto the well-swept pavement’. There do appear to have been drains in a few streets, including about half of Newland Street, but these were probably mainly for collecting surface water; they were not flushed by any other water supply, and any matter that was able to move along them went straight into the River Brain. Waste from privies and from the few water closets usually went first into cess-pits, and may have been taken away sometimes, but more often overflowed and made its way along the ground to the nearest hollow or open ditch, and sometimes thence to the river. Water supplies came from wells, springs, and also from the same river; there was a public pump in the centre of the town, which was to be moved to the northern end near the Grove in the 1850s.

Cresy’s investigation was made under the 1848 Public Health Act, following a petition from 128 Witham ratepayers (nearly half the total). The result was the establishment of a Board of Health for Witham in 1852, with power under the 1848 Act to charge a rate for providing proper water supply and drainage. George Thomasin himself was a member from 1858 until his death. The Witham Board’s role in supervising the sanitation of individual new buildings proceeded as shown by the Building Plans in the ERO. Making arrangements for the town as a whole proved to be much more difficult.

In 1853 the Board commissioned plans for a water supply sand sewerage system for the whole town; the two aspects were linked, as sewers were needed to take away used water, and water was necessary to carry material along the sewers. During discussions about the proposals, it was noted that cholera had re-appeared in the country; in fact there were already several outbreaks in other parts of Essex. An earlier epidemic in 1848-9 had killed over 70,000 people in Britain as a whole, so this new outbreak was potentially very worrying; the Witham Board urged renewed and diligent inspection of nuisances. As a result of these country-wide epidemics, it became conclusively established for the first time that cholera was caused by contaminated water supply.

However, the Witham Board received a petition about its proposed scheme in December 1855 ‘expressing the hope and desire that no further outlay of money should be attempted’, and as a result, the plans were ‘laid aside’, ‘because of the great expense’. The petition came from ‘Thomas Tomkin Esquire and 93 other ratepayers and inhabitants of Witham’. Perhaps surprisingly in the circumstances, Thomas Tomkin was a doctor (he ran a private lunatic asylum in Maldon Road).

There was no further action for a full ten years. Then in 1865 there was yet more cholera in the county; the Witham Board received a letter from one of the inhabitants about the town’s drainage, and set up a Committee to consider the matter. During the following two years, several more enquiring letters were received, but there was no word from the Committee. At last during autumn 1867, some consideration was given to the revived plans from 1853, and to two new schemes by rival Chelmsford engineers, Jabez Church and Frederick Chancellor. Chelmsford was often referred to as an example during the Witham debate, as it was just completing its own new scheme after an earlier unsuccessful one. Chancellor was Surveyor to the Board there. Several other Essex towns had also completed new schemes in the 1860s.

In December 1867 a serious typhoid epidemic broke out in the parish of Terling, which adjoins Witham to the west. A report about it, written for the Privy Council, blamed the contamination of water supply by sewage, and also drew attention to the ‘filthiness’ of Witham. It suggested that the inhabitants of the town dared not complain for fear of reprisals, both from their landlords and from the Inspector of Nuisances, who was also Relieving Officer and therefore controlled the dispensation of poor relief. Particular attention was drawn in the report to ‘several groups of cottages belonging to a Mr Thomasin, a gentleman of a large fortune. He has a seat on the Local Board and yet so much has he neglected the dwellings of the poor which belonged to him that the magistrates have been compelled to summon him before them’. This summons was in January 1868, and related to Bridge Street, probably to a site adjoining the predecessors of Faragon Terrace (59-67 Bridge Street). It was for allowing a ‘foul and offensive privy, a nuisance and injurious to health’. Henry Risbury, a skinner at the tanyard, had reported that the overflow soaked under the foundations of his adjoining cottage, and Petty Sessions ordered Thomasin to make a proper brick cess-pool, with a cemented side next to Mr Risbury’s dwelling.

In February 1868, a representative from the Home Office visited Witham. As a result, the General Board of Health, namely the national body, threatened to take the provision of a town scheme into its own hands, which it was permitted to do under the Sanitary Act of 1866. At the same time, two noisy public meetings vehemently opposed the idea of a comprehensive scheme. At these meetings, timeless issues were discussed, such as the nature of democracy, represented in the relative powers of the elected Board of Health and of public meetings, and the principles of cost-benefit analysis, namely ‘a question of pounds shillings and pence against life, health and disease’.

The Board stood its ground against ‘the public’, although its members still had to argue about which engineer should be favoured. In August 1868 it was finally agreed to adopt the plans of Jabez church. These included a well, reservoir and pump, behind the Swan Public House in Newland Street (now no. 153); the water was to be pumped up to a water tower holding 100,000 gallons in the new Collingwood Road. The land for the latter was given by the owner, Reverend William M Oliver of Bovinger, in return for the setting out of the road across his land by the Board (an arrangement similar to that for the setting out of Guithavon Street in 1842). The sewage was to drain into a tank east of the Maldon railway line; further treatment of the sewage was still a thing of the future. £6,000 was to be borrowed to pay for the scheme, to be repaid out of the rates over 30 years.

Interestingly, the beginning of the work provoked scepticism from yet another doctor; this was the 81-year old Dr Henry Dixon, formerly of Witham, and then of Rivenhall. In January 1869 he wrote in his diary:

Witham is in an uproar. Contractors and navvies are cutting up the streets to form a culvert as a main drain to all the cesspools and other offensive matters from the dwellings … into which the householders will have to carry drains at their own expense. Water is to be pumped up by steam to flush the drains … The expense of this formidable work will be not less than £8,000 and this is so small a parish … will I expect be ruinous to many. I think £400 or £500 would if judiciously used be fully sufficient … I have a full knowledge of every cottage and locality … that required attention and furthermore know something of drainage.

In contrast, the short-lived scurrilous local newspaper, The Tomtit, was supportive of the scheme. Among other comments it included a ‘Song of the Drainage’ in eight verses, one of which urged ‘In the advance of time’s great changes, in the question of our health, list to what the Board arranges, tho’ little it affects your wealth.

The town’s new drainage and water system was completed in 1869. The Board took powers to enforce people to connect their properties. These powers were suspended temporarily as early as 1871 because of inadequacies in the water supply; these were overcome by new work on the well, and extra help with the pump, but the supply was still probably an intermittent one compared to that from a modern system, and several subsequent enlargements of it were needed in subsequent years.

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