29th June 1865. ‘The Great Stink’.
I offer no apologies for today’s post on a subject that can be literally a matter life or death: sewage and the pollution of rivers.
In Victorian England up to the 1850s the problem was ignored, until Sir Michael Faraday publicized the dreadful state of the River Thames in 1855, was anything done.
However it was with the ‘Great Stink’ three years’ later, emanating from that river, which affected the Houses of Parliament, that matters came to a head.
By 1864 a Royal Commission described British rivers as ‘poisonous’. A delegation petitioned parliament (1) which was willing to legislate, by extending to Local Authorities the power to use sewage on land, to stop discharge into rivers.
However the politicians were wary of upsetting the manufacturing interests by any greater control, but limited legislation came Today in 1865, when the Royal Assent was granted for ‘Facilitating the more useful applications of sewage in Great Britain and Ireland’, in the Sewage Utilities Act.(2)
In the same year, A Royal Commission on River Pollution Prevention was set up with three Commissioners, to gather evidence on the London rivers Thames, Lee (Lea), and the Yorkshire Aire and Calder.
The following year saw further legislation as the country attempted to come to terms with a growing urban population, with its associated waste and disease in The 1866 Sanitary Act.
However the original Commissioners fell out, to be replaced by others in 1868, who started afresh by looking at the Mersey and Ribble in Lancashire, and the ‘woollen town rivers’ in Yorkshire. Rivers in mining and manufacturing areas in the Report, now included Scotland.
By 1874 the Commission had produced nine volumes, resulting in the 1876 Rivers Pollution Act.
Much of the legislation against pollution from sewage disposal was not entirely altruistic. The worry over the Lancashire Rivers Mersey and Irwell, was a concern not primarily environmental, but in that 35,000 tons of sewage and industrial waste, was raising the river bed, threatening navigation. Similarly the Mersey Docks and Harbour Board was pushing for control in the late 19th century.
Also the inland fisheries movement in the 1870s was not environmentally based, but to protect fish stocks, at a time when six leading rivers produced 185,000 salmon yearly. By World War II it had dropped to 50,000.
In the industrial River Tees, the 10,000 catch of 1867, had dropped to 130 by 1930, resulting from pollution from not just crude sewage, but coke-oven effluent, and spent-pickle-liquors from steel cleansing, using hydrogen, chloride acid.
One measure to improve river quality was the development of sewage farms, though raw sewage was still being discharged into river and onto sea-shore.
By the late 20th century, resulting from a measure of clean-up, many species of fish reappeared and squid, octopus and sea-trout was found in the Mersey estuary; salmon was found in the Clyde; lamprey in the Humber, and in the once foul Trent, which takes the contaminated Tame waters from the Black Country, loach, salmon and brown trout reappeared.
(1) Reported 12.12.1864 in The Times.
(2) 28 & 29 Vict c 75. House of Lords 29.6.1865 Debate. Hansard Vol. 180 cc 916/7.
Previously there was a doomed Bill by Lord Robert Montagu, February 1865, Hansard 9.2.1865.
Authorities on fish stocks and pollution include: Broome 1971: p.26. Public Record Office, 1930. Bartrip 1985, p.293. Leake 1995.
Ref: nationalcurriculum.co.org/river pollution for Pictures Image.
Ref: History of Water in England and Wales: John Hassan.
Ref: WH Michael, Sewage Utilization Act 1865.
Ref: River Pollution, Developments in Victorian England. Dr. Leslie Rosenthal 2014.
Ref: Lawrence E Breeze. British Experiments with River Pollution New York, 1993.