By David Shavreen, Journal 17, 2008
In 1874 Old and New Brentford, although still in separate parishes, were united to form the Local Board for the Brentford Urban Sanitary District with the aim of tackling the long-existing insanitary conditions in which the majority of their inhabitants lived.
Many reports had described the appalling conditions in towns and cities where the life expectancy of a common labourer was 22 years. These included ‘rutted broken streets . . . holes filled with refuse and excrement . . . and cottages cramped almost to suffocation’. Brentford was little different.
Since 1835, with the passing of the Municipal Reform Act and several subsequent acts, the powers of local authorities had grown substantially and their duties now included cleaning, paving and lighting the streets, building and improving main roads and bridges, the naming of streets and the administration of the 1855 Building Act, which had attempted to bring about improvements to the dreadful housing in which many working people lived. In addition, legislation dealing with dairies, slaughter houses and cattle diseases, regulations concerning petroleum (used for lighting and cooking), controls on water and gas companies, the licensing of places of entertainment, and the establishment of fire brigades were all added to the responsibilities of local authorities.
Essential to the reforms which were necessary if the town was to be improved were a competent bureaucracy and an enthusiastic body of Board members. Both of these appear to have been available. The Chairman of the Board was James Montgomrey, the owner of a large timber yard, where now Heidelberg Printing Machines have their premises. He was a JP and one of the founders of a non-denominational school for local children.
Water Supply and Sewage
One problem was the water supply. Although the Grand Junction Water Company had been operating in the town since 1837, by 1882 only half of the town had clean water while the rest still relied on artesian or surface wells which were sometimes contaminated. However the main focus was on the installation of a sewage system. As the Medical Officer of Health reported: ‘the habit of burying the contents of cesspools, closets etc . . . in yards and small enclosures prevails largely in the town and the Committee strongly recommends that stringent measures be adopted to prevent so dangerous a practice’. The model had been set by the Metropolitan Board of Works whose chief engineer, Joseph Bazalgette, had constructed large brick tunnels to carry London’s waste into the Thames.
Brentford did nothing until 1881, and then under pressure from local newspapers and questions in Parliament, they adopted a different system using cast iron pipes with branch pipes of stoneware. A pumping station was to be constructed on the piece of ground adjoining the Town Meadow and the sewage pumped from there into tanks erected on land adjoining the Ealing Sewage Works in Ealing Road and there treated and deodorised, the effluent being pumped back into the Thames. The pumping station survives, adorned with a plaque recording the names of the Board members, the Chairman of which was Thomas Layton. The pumping station was ready by 1883, a year before the system itself was completed, since laying the pipes involved digging miles of trenches often through or beneath developed properties, whose owners demanded compensation for the inconvenience caused.
The Town Meadow itself was used for pasturing cattle although it was also still used as a dumping ground for rubbish. Animals seem to have proliferated in the alleys and yards of the town. There were constant complaints of wandering pigs, and as late as 1891 the Medical Officer reported that eight cows were being kept in Boar’s Head Yard and added that ‘keeping so many animals in a confined space will be injurious to health. The manure stored in the yard could be a source of danger to the inhabitants who live near’. Drinking troughs had to be provided for horses.
The High Street, the road to and from the west, continued to attract vagrants looking for employment in London or travelling to the remaining market gardens for seasonal employment, and to accommodate them there were lodging houses, usually in tumbledown shacks with quite inadequate washing or sanitary arrangements. These were now subject to inspection, and those in Smith Hill, a narrow lane of mean cottages, were found to need improvements.
The appalling conditions in which many poor people lived were underlined in several reports. For example in 1881 the Medical Officer wrote:
I have inspected eight cottages at the Back Lane end of British School Alley: two of them consisting of only one room. These cottages cannot be considered at all fit for habitation unless repaired and cleansed and a ventilation placed in the chimney breast near the ceiling. The other six cottages are let out to small families. In most cases each family occupying two rooms.
In 1883 he described two houses in The Ham belonging to Mr Joseph Goddard which he considered to be dangerous to health:
At number 4 the ceilings were quite black and the steps were extremely dangerous. At number 5 the walls and ceiling were dirty. The sewage from the closet ran through the wall into a cupboard so that the smell in the house was unbearable. The floor boards were open and dangerous as were the steps. Both houses were greatly dilapidated.
It was not surprising that in such conditions tuberculosis was rife, especially given the damp due to the frequent flooding of the area by the river nearby.
Infectious diseases were common and epidemics a frequent occurrence, although as medical knowledge improved progress in containing them resulted in an increased survival rate, so that a note of optimism appears in some of the reports of the Medical Officer. In 1881 he wrote:
I am glad to say that the health of the District is very good for the season of the year and we are free of epidemics. During the earlier part of the year there were a few cases of typhoid fever but only one death resulted, and during December there were a very few cases of measles. There were only a few cases of whooping cough. During the last three years there has been no death from diphtheria and only one from smallpox. This immunity from fatal cases of smallpox is attributed to the general enforcement of vaccination, and has been due to the efficient work of the Vaccination Officer, but the need for a local infectious hospital has become apparent.
Efforts to prevent the spread of disease had been rather hit and miss and often involved impoverishing the poorest members of the community, who were advised to burn their clothing and whitewash the walls of their cottages, which then had to be disinfected by the burning of sulphur and the widespread use of carbolic acid. The need to have an isolation hospital continued to be raised. As Old Brentford was still part of the parish of Ealing agreement had to be reached with them, and this proved difficult because no one wanted to shelter those who might spread their infections to their neighbours. After various temporary expedients including a Felt Hut erected on the Town Meadow and the use of a house on the Ham, an agreement was eventually reached with Ealing and the hospital was erected in Ealing Road next to the sewage works. Today it has become the Clayponds Recovery Unit of the Ealing Health Authority.
The question of the contamination of food also concerned the Board. The Inspector of Nuisances had to deal with a diseased heifer that was about to be turned into sausages, a load of stinking fish, and reported that he had received a letter calling attention to the practice of selling meat in the market by the Town Hall on Saturday nights which was under price and of inferior quality.
Perhaps the most persistent complaints from the general public concerned the foul smells resulting from the industries that clustered along the foreshore of the Thames. In 1875 it was the soap works of T B Rowe and Company that aroused the most bitter criticism. The Medical Officer reported that he had visited that part of the premises where the melting of butcher’s fat and kitchen stuff took place adding that:’When the weather is hot and sultry the effluvium is increased which mingling with the atmosphere produces a most disagreeable effect on those residing near’.
However, industry was too important to warrant interference by the Board. It was the same with the Brentford Gas Company that had been pressing to expand its works along the river. The coke stores were allowed to expand and the Board decided ‘that it is inexpedient any longer to oppose the proposed extension of the Company’. To counter the evil effects of soot and smoke a Bathing Shed was provided on the Ham, but this seems to have been another temporary solution and a swimming pool was under consideration, but the Baths in Clifden Road were not opened until 1896.
In Brentford the abundance of public houses, the nature of the riverside occupations and the widespread unemployment all led to complaints about bad behaviour by the local populace such as: ‘the nuisances committed behind the Lamb Beer House and at urinals and other places, and the obstructions in the public streets by loungers and others particularly on Sundays’ and ‘the disorderly proceedings constantly occurring in the neighbourhood of the Market Place of an evening’.
Even when there was music to soothe the savage breasts there was cause for complaint, and the police were asked to attend the Recreation Ground to keep order when the band was playing. Music at this time began to penetrate the lives of the people though a strict control was kept on proceedings by the necessity to apply for licences for music and dancing. In 1891 licences were issued to William Rushton for the Town Hall, to John Taylor for the Three Pigeons, and to Charles William Bennett for music and stage plays at the Star and Garter. There were other signs of cultural activities; cricket was being played on a cricket ground where Griffin Park now stands. There was also an increasing demand for a public library. Here were the first chinks of light that were eventually to transform what was at that time still an industrial slum.
Minute books of the Brentford Local Board 1874-94, held in Chiswick Library
David Shavreen lives in Brentford and taught for over 40 years in schools in Brentford, Chiswick and Tottenham.