Underground Chiswick

by James Wisdom

Brentford & Chiswick Local History Journal 1 (1980)

Through most of the 19th century one of the major political preoccupations of the people of Chiswick was with the arrangements they made for drainage and the disposal of sewage. Until 1849 this was the responsibility of the Vestry but in that year Chiswick began to pay rates to the Metropolitan Board of Works as well – the Board was building main drainage through the centre of London. As very few of the services provided by this Board directly benefited Chiswick, some prominent local men witheld the payment of these rates and lost the subsequent Court case. Eventually Chiswick freed itself from the Metropolitan Board of Works by establishing in 1858, by Act of Parliament, the Chiswick Improvement Commissioners. This body took over from the Vestry many of its civic responsibilities.

The Improvement Commissioners standing on the newly constructed sewage settling tanks, 1881

For most of our history the Thames has provided Chiswick with a convenient main drainage service. But with the invention of the water closet and the growth of population in London as a whole the Thames was failing more and more often in this task. In 1867 the Thames Conservancy informed the Improvement Commissioners that they had 13 months before they must cease discharging sewage into the river. At once Chiswick applied to rejoin the Metropolitan Board of Works! When this was refused the Improvement Commissioners considered some rather unrealistic alternatives (including joining with other Thames-side authorities to pump sewage on to Bagshot Heath); in the end the only realistic scheme was to construct a sewage purification plant, raising the money from the ratepayers of Chiswick.

There is abundant evidence, mainly in the Minute Books of the Improvement Commissioners at Chiswick Library, that mid-19th century Chiswick was sometimes a dangerous and unpleasant place. Behind the Indian Queen at Strand on the Green ‘….there are 8 open cesspools or privies nearly full …… in the centre of a radius of a few feet of these cesspools is the only well and pump for the use of the inhabitants….’; or the Stamford Brook, bringing down refuse from the laundries and dye works at Steyne Mills ‘….. filled with the most offensive sewage matter ….” which ended up in Ravenscourt Park; or there was, wafting over the river, the ‘effluvium’ from the ‘Brine Boiling, Fat Frying, Animal Charcoal and Glue Making and Incidental Soup (Soap?) Manufactory of Barnes’.

It was cholera that was the greatest danger and some parts of the area were more prone to outbreaks than others. The New Town, for example, was described at the time as ‘inhabited by a closely impacted population numbering some thousands …. in the summertime ready to ferment into the most formidable diseases, alarm the neighbourhood and drive out many of the respectable inhabitants ….’ Another witness said: ‘…. so long as drainage is denied to the New Town, so long will the water company be practically excluded, and the effect of this double denial, which we would not tolerate for a day in our own homes is, as the frightful evidence around us shows, degradation, sickness and premature death…..’

The Commissioners finally appointed a surveyor in 1870 to prepare plans for intercepting sewers to be built along Strand on the Green and Chiswick Mall to divert the flow to the site of the pumping and treatment station at Corney. Six years later they started borrowing the necessary money and the work commenced. By the time it opened in 1879 this scheme had been the most expensive single item yet bought by the people of Chiswick. It was extended straight away – the photograph shows a visit by the Improvement Commissioners to the new tanks in October 1881. Later a destructor for household refuse was added in which the compressed sewage was burnt; the resulting clinker was used to make flagstones. While the streets of Chiswick may not be paved with gold, some of its paving stones may be a reminder of the time when the death rate was a lot higher than it is today.

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