A Great Stink in Salisbury

Looking through correspondence of the Local Authority files the other day I came across some interesting letters. Wiltshire Buildings Record had been investigating a failing, ancient WC attached to a medieval house in Fisherton Street, Salisbury (we get to see allsorts!), which naturally led me on to looking at when the sewers had been constructed. Sewerage services are something we take for granted in our own homes, and we don’t think twice about it. However, not so long ago, what to do with waste, human and otherwise, was often an individual responsibility. In towns and cities you could ‘bucket and chuck it’ into the street with only a warning cry of ‘gardyloo!’ to alert those passing beneath. This is what happened in Salisbury until the middle of the 19th century, less than 200 years ago!

In 1845 a report on the sanitary condition of Salisbury was made by an inspector from the Health of Towns Commission. He felt that the high death rate was due to the nuisances in these places and to the low position of the city, but did not think that the general lack of efficient drainage could be easily remedied. At the time, however, nothing was done. Hitherto, Salisbury’s effluent had run along open watercourses that ran down the streets, but the incidences of cholera were reported as 200 cases one year, and the decision was taken to create a proper sewerage system.

Surprisingly, there was some stiff opposition to the sinking of raw sewage out of sight and harm. John Winzar, the medical officer to the overseers, was strongly in favour of keeping the open sewers; ‘Neither nature nor art’, he wrote, ‘could possibly have formed channels better adapted for effectually carrying away the sewage of the city’. Some of these channels had indeed been covered over some years back, but during the Cholera epidemic they had been opened up again, with ‘thousands of loads of filth removed’.

G23/701/1PC  Local Board of Health plan of city of Salisbury for sewerage and drainage scheme. 1854

Eventually, something had to give. The Area Board plan of 1854 showed where sewers were to be laid, and the connections to the houses. All well and good. However, looking through the contractor’s correspondence there were very many complaints about the works. The main problem was the smell of sewage. One such letter reads:

Dear Mr Paget,

On Friday, May 27th (1907) there was a recurrence of the bad smell from the sewage works affecting Barnard’s Cross. During the last few days there was quite an epidemic in the house, several of the students and three of the staff being affected. The symptoms were:- a slight degree of fever, as high as 100.4, sore throat, headache, nausea and loss of appetite, and diarrhea (sic).

These cases were spread all through the house, and did not occur among girls who were particularly associated together. This is the first time I have been able to associate anything more than a temporary nausea and loss of appetite with the smell, but Miss Black tells me it was much worse than usual. The occurrence of this trouble in such a severe form seems to have been a source of great danger to the students – both from the point of view of their general health and from the interruption of their studies by illness extending for over two days or more. I need hardly point out to the committee that should such a smell arise, at such a critical time as the certificate examination it is extremely probable that the majority of the students would not be able to complete their final examination.

Believe me,
Very Truly Yours,
WW Ord

A further letter, backing up Ord’s complaint came from the training college to the Town Clerk:

Dear Sir,
Nuisance arising from the sewage works
After evidence given by the Barnard Cross College together with a letter read from the medical officer as to the fowl (sic) smells arising from the sewage works and consequent damage to the health of the students, I am requested by the training college committee to express a strong hope that the authority will lose no time in carrying out such improvements that may abate this intolerable nuisance.

I am, yours sincerely,

Ralph Paget, hon sec (Salisbury Diocesan training college to Mr F Hodding, town clerk)

For the scientifically-minded interested in whether a smell can actually cause harm, I found out that in themselves, smells do not cause harm. A smell is a neural response to airborne molecules binding to receptors in the mucus membranes of your nose. You can’t be harmed by a smell any more than you can by a colour. But the chemical that causes the smell can harm you. Sewers can produce a cocktail of harmful gases including ammonia, methane, hydrogen sulphide, and carbon dioxide. Any of these would have harmed the poor girls at Barnard Cross College.

Dorothy Treasure, Principal Buildings Historian
Wiltshire Buildings Record

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