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The prevention of infectious diseases

Water supply and sewage

In the 19th century most people did not have the benefit of an indoor water tap. In fact it was a series of outbreaks of cholera which alerted people to the stark need for a better and cleaner water supply. In many rows of houses where wells and outdoor privies were shared, the well water was contaminated by the effluence from the cesspools. For a city of its size, Hereford was particularly badly provided for.

The Report to the General Board of Health on a Preliminary Inquiry into the sewerage, drainage, and supply of water, and the sanitary condition of the inhabitants of the City of Hereford in 1853 states:

"There is no public provision for the supply of water in the ordinary sense of the term. The whole city is supplied by means of wells. There are seven public wells, which, however, are closed up, and only available in case of fire. For soft water the river is usually resorted to. It is commonly sold throughout the city at the rate of ½d. a bucket. The river water is generally used for brewing. For washing purposes many of the inhabitants, who have the necessary conveniences, catch and store the rain water from the roofs. The well water is generally very hard, but is described as being good in other respects, except when it is affected by impurities draining through the soil from cesspools and sewers; and the substratum being porous, this is a contingency which is by no means unfrequent." (Thomas Webster Rammell, 1853, p. 29. There is a copy in Hereford City Library.)

Many houses and streets had their own wells, of differing water quality. Samples were taken from many of these wells and analysed. Some witnesses believed lead to be a problem, in particular when a pump was made of lead, such as the kitchen pump at Drybridge House. Dr. Henry Graves Bull, a well-respected local medical doctor, thought however that many rural people got lead poisoning not from their water supply, but from drinking cider which was conveyed from the cellars via lead pipes. It was particularly dangerous if the cider remained in the pipes for a long time and was then drunk. He says, "I have not known deaths to result, but permanent paralysis in many instances" (Report to the General Board of Health..., p. 30). Even if lead was not present in many water samples, there was a variety of other chemicals. For the purpose of the report, several wells were tested. The sample referred to as number one in the report was taken from the public well in the High Town Square:

"This water was colourless and very nearly clear, containing nothing visible except very minute floating particles, but the taste was vapid, saline, and unpleasant, as if from the presence of nitrates, which on examination proved to be the case. Tests showed the presence also of bicarbonate and sulphate of lime in considerable quantity, and chloride (probably common salt), and magnesia. The hardness was 48 degrees. The total quantity of saline matter was about 77 grains per gallon" (Report to the General Board of Health..., p. 30).

The main problem was the lack of an adequate sewerage system. The report draws attention to the problem of drainage:

"The refuse of the town, or so much of it as is removed by means of culverts and sewers, is disposed of by being conveyed to one or other of several running streams which surround the city. Nearly a third of the sewerage passes along a covered culvert into the Stonebow-brook, on the north-east side; another portion empties, at the bottom of St.Owen's-street, into the Town-brook, which is the old moat of the city; and a small portion is led into the same brook down Widemarsh-street. The south side is drained directly into the Wye; the western part of the city is drained through the town-brook into the Wye. And generally it may be stated, that all the drainage passing into the various streams mentioned eventually falls with them into the Wye" (Report to the General Board of Health..., p. 32).

This deplorable state of affairs was perhaps manageable in times of plentiful rain, however, when there was a period of drought, the stench must have been overwhelming. One of the witnesses, a contractor named Mr. J. D. Buckham, stated:

"The public sewers in Hereford are in my opinion quite inoperative during droughty weather; there being then no water coming from the brook or any other source to flush them. Most of the solid matter then passing into them remains, and much of the liquid matter soaks away through the brickwork into the gravel beneath, and of course affects the wells more or less" (Report to the General Board of Health..., pp. 33-34).

What about the market towns? Did they too experience problems in relation to the sewage system, drainage and public health?

It appears that conditions were not much better in the market towns of the county, and in fact when considering the date of the next source, this took longer to address than the problems in the City of Hereford. The Hereford Record Office holds a letter to the Town Commissioners from the clerk to the Ross Improvement Commissioners (Hereford Record Office, BD11/17) dated 29th July 1870.

Dear Sir,

At the Petty Sessions held in the Town Hall here Yesterday the Justices present took into consideration from the reports which had been made to them the large amount of epidemic disease which has for some time past prevailed in the town and which if not altogether owing to the very defective state of the sewage of the town and the drainage from the Houses and the want of any flushing of the sewers must tend very much to aggravate and increase such disorders.

The Justices have directed me to call the attention of the Town Commissioners as the local authority under the Nuisances Removal and Diseases Prevention Acts, thro' you as their Clerk, to this very important & pressing subject and to suggest that steps should be taken to ascertain cases of defective drainage and in all instances in which it shall appear to be necessary to compel the owners of the Houses in which it exists to remedy such defects -

Also that a supply of water should if possible be obtained for flushing drains and sewers and for domestic purposes for the poorer Inhabitants of the Town.

I am, Dear Sir

Yours truly, W. P. Hooper Esq.

(My thanks to Sue Hubbard, formerly of the Hereford Record Office, for pointing this source out to me.)


The problem of waste disposal affected people from all walks of life. It is thought that Prince Albert, Queen Victoria's husband, died from typhoid attributed to the drains at Buckingham Palace (Graham Roberts, The Shaping of Modern Hereford, Logaston Press, 2001, p. 107). When an attack of Asiatic cholera struck Britain for the first time in the 1830s, it became apparent that there was a problem with waste disposal, sewerage and water supply.

Of course, any kind of change to the infrastructure would be expensive and initially there was great resistance to reform. Who would pay for the recommended improvements? Landlords and builders especially were reluctant to approve of measures to improve sewage, drainage and a clean water supply. The Times newspaper in August 1854 reflected this widespread reluctance to invest money to combat the dire living conditions of such a large part of the population: "rather to take our chance with cholera and the rest than be bullied into health" (Roberts, p. 106).

In Hereford too infectious diseases were a large problem, with 256 deaths recorded between 1846 and 1852 caused by diseases which included typhus, typhoid, smallpox, whooping cough, measles, chicken pox and dysentery (Roberts, p. 107). Altogether there were 27 deaths per 1,000 inhabitants, which was a high enough number to draw the National Board of General Health's attention to Hereford and hence the inquiry which precipitated the Hereford Improvement Act of 1854.

In the aforementioned report to the Board of General Health, the mayor of Hereford, Charles Anthony, complained about the problem of human waste. Due to the lack of a sewage system, he was forced to let all his household's human waste drain into his garden, where there were already several full cesspools. He says,

"If the population of the city goes on increasing, and the use of water-closets also increases, what is to be the end of it; are the back premises in every street to be converted into cesspools? On my own premises are two privies, which in summer time are a great nuisance, and might be the source of zymotic (infectious) diseases; and unfortunately these privies are within a few yards of the back premises of my neighbour, Mr. Bullock, to whom the effluvium must in the summer time be most offensive" (Report to the General Board of Health..., p. 38)

If the wealthy were affected by these deplorable conditions, how much worse must it have been for those neighbourhoods where several families had to share the same privy, which was often situated near the well from which these families drew their water? For example, Mr. Dalton, a draper, told the enquiry that there was a privy on his premises at Barnard-court that served ten cottages and was a great nuisance (Report to the General Board of Health..., p. 39).As the privy itself did not belong to the draper he had no power to improve the situation.

The Hereford Record Office holds Sales Particulars from c. 1840 for seven freehold cottages in Bath Street (numbers 11-17), to be sold as one lot. Each house contained two rooms upstairs and two downstairs plus a cellar. Also included were small gardens, two wash-houses with furnaces and four W.C.s. These all had to be shared among the seven cottages. The income from these cottages generated by rents was £72 11s. a year. Unlike today, most people rented their homes and if they were prepared to share toilets then why should the landlord go to the expense of building more, especially as he had to pay for the cesspool to be emptied when it got full? At least that is what most landlords thought.

According to the Herefordshire Report to the General Board of Health, many people cheated and re-buried the waste in some other hole in the garden rather than incur the expense of having it carted away (Report..., p. 39). One of the complainants of this practice, but for economic rather than hygiene reasons, was a Mr. Rowan who owned the manure factory behind the gasworks, near the Stonebow-brook. He was paid by people to empty their cesspools (on average 15s.-£1.00) and he then subjected the waste matter to a process of decomposition etc. and resold it in sacks as manure for gardening, at £6 a ton. However, his soil yard must have generated a terrible smell, because it too was a source of complaint and was subject to legal proceedings (Report..., p. 40).

Other witnesses complained about the proximity of privies to wells. Dr. Henry Graves Bull stated that some of the wells were so affected as to cause disease (Report..., p. 42). It was the mayor who drew the obvious conclusion: the city will not be in a proper state of cleanliness or the excessive mortality reduced, until the problems of the sewerage and drainage are addressed (Report..., p. 39).

After the Hereford Improvement Act achieved royal assent in 1854, a new sewage system was built. Pipes were laid throughout the city so that effluent could be directly channeled into the river Wye. It was not until the 1970s that the practice of allowing untreated sewage to drain into the river was stopped (Roberts, p. 111), although a treatment works with 6.6 acres of filter beds was built in 1890.

[Note: Graham Roberts' book, The Shaping of Modern Hereford, is a good source for the study of the development of the infrastructure and public institutions in Hereford during the 19th century.]

Water filters

Water filters were manufactured to decrease the level of contamination in drinking water, although how effective they were in preventing disease is debatable. These water filters came in a variety of designs. Some merely had a perforated ceramic layer to strain out the largest impurities, others had layers of carbon block, sand or charcoal. Examples of 19th century ceramic water filters are highly collectible nowadays and fetch good prices at auction (see Alan Blakeman, Miller's Bottles and Pot Lids, A Collector's Guide, 2002, pp. 52-53).

Cholera never reached Hereford itself, but people were aware of the threat and an attempt was made to prepare for it. A pamphlet was produced, entitledPrecautions to be observed during the threatened outbreak of Cholera and other epidemic disease.

In this treatise on disease prevention, the Hereford doctor Vavasour Sandford provides a recipe for making a cheap water filter:

"take flower pot, plug hole but not too tightly with a piece of sponge, add a layer of powdered animal charcoal about 1 inch thick, add same quantity of clean sand, and some coarse gravel. The charcoal should be occasionally re-baked, or washed with Condy's fluid; during epidemics the water should be boiled before filtration." (Pamphlet Box 20, Hereford Library)

Do you think it worked?

[Original author: Toria Forsyth-Moser, 2004)