When water was taken for granted and how the issues of pollution were resolved

As Sussex faces issues with water supplies and drought, we take a look at the history of public water supplies.

Monday, 17th August 2020, 8:39 am
Updated Monday, 17th August 2020, 8:46 am

Jeremy Knight, heritage and museum manager at Horsham Museum, has been delving into the archives and supplied the following article.

In the past, water was free. It naturally flowed in rivers, bubbled up in springs and fell from the sky. Why pay for it?

In fact, that attitude was prevalent for centuries, causing Horsham to have higher death rates than the big industrial cities in Victorian Britain. We take access to clean, fresh water for granted today but how it first came to Horsham is a fascinating story.

Collecting water from the Horsham water cart

The first account of public water supply in Horsham is in 1627. It was recorded that ‘the public fountain (fons publicus) in the North Street called Comewell, is very defective for want of a curb and, a nuisance, and is to be repaired before the next Court’.

Then, in 1646, mention is made of the parish having to pay for the repair of the Normandy well. It appears the borough looked after the North Street well and the parish looked after the Normandy well. The records then stay silent for nearly 100 years, until 1742, when there is a remarkable agreement signed by William and Resta Patching stating that ‘William and Resta Patching had undertaken to serve the inhabitants of the borough and town with water from and out of the river called Horsham River’.

The agreement also gave the Patchings permission to take up pavements and lay water pipes for a term of 500 years at a rent of 6d per year. One condition of this indenture was that water should be supplied free of charge to the Manor House, including water for the fountain in the ‘best’ garden. Additionally, Resta and William ran the Town Mill and also had the authority to ‘erect, set up or build any engine or engines for conveyance of water in the said river to the inhabitants of the town and borough of Horsham with rights to lay pipes through the Church Field’.

The museum has a few fragments of these wooden pipes. If fresh water was supplied, was sewage taken away? In the accounts of Horsham Gaol that were presented at the quarter sessions in 1743, there is an indication that sewage pipes were laid from the gaol at a cost of £2,700. The sewer was 16in wide and 12in deep, ‘finding all material viz, lime, sand and stones’, and it appeared to have been used for draining the Carfax, as it went through the area to West Street and beyond.

The scene in 1897 at the water fountain which the Victorians were so proud of but is almost forgotten today

At the same time, fresh water was supplied to the gaol via pipes from the town waterworks, even though there was a spring nearby. It would appear that the town got fresh water from the river and had its sewage taken away by charging the county.

In 1836, Howard Dudley, the precocious 16-year-old author and illustrator of Horsham’s first history book, would write: “The water around Horsham is of a very superior quality and extremely abundant. It is intended shortly to supply each house by means of pipes.”

This may have been a proposed scheme rather than a fully-formed plan as it was another 40 years before it became a reality. However, the comment made by Dudley is interesting as the water in Horsham was very good but the water supply was heavily polluted as much of it came from shallow wells.

Some 20 years later a report showed how much contamination was actually in the Horsham water supply. Horsham well water had 49 grains impurity per gallon compared with only two per gallon for Glasgow.

Notice of water restrictions in June 1922

Henry Burstow also recounts the story of Ned Hall: “The waterman… Well water at Horsham, too, was very hard and most people used to save all the rain water they could for washing purposes, &c. With his pony cart and barrel old Hall could always in summertime do a good trade in water, which he used to fetch from the river, selling it at a half-penny per bucketful, and with a wooden trough, fitted behind the barrel, watering the streets, charging 1d per time for watering the road in front of a house.”

In 1858, the Local Government Act was passed. The following year, Robert Henry Hurst Jr tried to persuade the town of Horsham to adopt the act but the final vote was 160 to 6 against.

Then, in 1862, scarlet fever struck and through the Literary and Scientific Institution, Robert Henry Hurst made it known how much worse off Horsham was in its death rate than neighbouring Sussex towns. He formed an action committee which issued a broadsheet headed Health of Horsham, which showed that the drains were defective, the cellars were infested with rats and sewage, and that the wells were between 14 and 24 feet deep and therefore susceptible to pollution. The water was so bad that when it was heated, a greasy film lay on top like scum and smelled appalling.

The total deaths per thousand were 25 for Horsham, 16 in the rural districts and 24 in the country as a whole. The solution was to create deep main sewers and a find a pure water supply. What was even more shocking, during the outbreak of scarlet fever, Horsham’s death rate was 15 per cent, when 10 per cent was considered high nationally.

The failure of quasi-local government committees to make the necessary changes possibly encouraged Robert Hurst to ask private companies to invest in the town infrastructure and reap the benefits.

On August 31, 1865, the first ordinary general meeting of the Horsham Waterworks Company was held at the Literary Institution. The prospectus was issued to raise £5,000 on the basis that ‘an experimental well has been sunk upon land in Park Terrace East, Horsham, belonging to Mr Michell, with a view of testing the supply. The abundance of the supply, obtained at a depth of only 75 feet, has exceeded the most sanguine anticipation of the promoters of the Experimental Well, and has been secured at a comparatively trifling cost.”

It goes on to state that ‘the water from the main spring enters the well at a rate exceeding 60,000 gallons a day. It has also been ascertained that, notwithstanding the heavy rainfall of the recent winter, no land springs have found their way into the well.”

In 1868, Dorothea Hurst, the sister of Robert, wrote in her History of Horsham about the wells of the town: “There is a considerable variety in the water of the springs in this parish, which ranges from very hard to very soft; some few have a brackish taste, others are more or less impregnated with iron. In general, however, the quality of the water is considered good, and some of the wells are remarkably pure and unfailing. This observation particularly applies to an ancient well, called The Normandy Well. The Normandy Well is open and runs partly under one of the houses; it is only about four feet in depth, and yet in the longest drought the water always stands up sufficiently high to allow a pail to be dipped into it. It has been the custom to use the water from this well for the baptisms in the church.”

Dorothea then goes on to discuss the new water supply and offers a different perspective on the comments made by her brother. According to her writings, the real reason for the establishment of a new water company was not the poor quality and contaminated water, but was actually driven by the effects of a couple of dry seasons.

“Most of the old wells are from ten to fifty feet in depth, twenty-five being perhaps the average; but the recent dry seasons, especially those of 1864 and 1865, have proved that the supply at this depth is not sufficient for the existing needs of the town. To remedy this defect a company has sunk a well of seventy-five feet, and a large reservoir has been formed a quarter of a mile on the eastern side of the town.”

On April 12, 1875, a public meeting was held with a resolution to adopt the Local Government Act. The Public Health Act of 1875 forced the issue leaving little room for manoeuvre. In May, a poll was held to confirm this decision and 518 voted for it, 222 against. Work could now begin on sorting out the town’s problematic water and sewage.

The local government bought out the water company for £7,000, bringing it under its control. In May 1879, Horsham’s drainage system was completed at a cost of £13,560, almost £6,000 above the original estimate of £7,590.

In 1882, Kelly’s Directory states that ‘a large reservoir in the high lying ground near the union house, for the constant supply of the district’ was to be constructed. This became the Star Inn Reservoir, built near the workhouse in Crawley Road, which opened in 1883.

The possibility of fresh clean drinking water led the town to create a drinking fountain in honour of Queen Victoria. As we take drinking water for granted, we do not understand the pride felt by the people of Horsham for the fountain, so it now stands largely ignored on Charts Way rather than having pride of place in the Carfax. Photographs from the museum’s collection show the pride the town took in the feature at the time.

By the end of the century Horsham had apparently resolved the issue of unsafe drinking water and sewage contamination that was first brought to public attention in 1850s. It now had a public drinking fountain that tourists as well as Horsham folk could be proud to drink from, and a fountain that praised and paid homage to Queen Victoria, a Queen who had overseen the transformation of Britain’s infrastructure including its water supply.

Before we finish the century, in 1898 when the Anchor Hotel was being rebuilt, an event occurred that reminded people of the medieval wells in the town.

On Saturday, March 19, it was reported: “During the work of making up the roadway in the Market Square the steam roller and its driver had a narrow escape from an accident. While running the roller backwards the driver felt the ground sinking beneath him. He at once put on full steam, and on feeling solid ground again, stopped dead. Meanwhile, the ground between the front and back wheels of the roller fell in, disclosing a large well about twenty-two feet deep and with nine feet six inches of water in it. The roller was soon got out of its awkward position, and on the following Monday, the well was pumped dry and then filled in.”

We know about this incident because a fine illuminated testimonial recounting Mr Henry Penfold’s endeavour was presented to him by Horsham Urban District Council ‘as a mark of their appreciation of the presence of mind displayed by him’.

One of the most unusual notices put out by Horsham Rural District Council was a November 1919 invitation to tender for ‘divining for water and sinking wells upon 28 sites selected for building dwellings for the working classes scattered throughout the parishes of Billingsurst, Cowfold, Horsham Rural, Ifield, Itchingfield, Lower Beeding, Nuthurst, Rusper, Shipley, Slinfold, Warnham and West Grinstead.”

In Horsham the water supply for council housing was drawn from the town’s supply and not from localised wells. While it might seem very old fashioned, in reality 30 years earlier, Horsham Council would have had to place the same sort of advertisement, as its supply was not that extensive.

Although the Government and the nation were in retrenchment following the First World War and the Spanish flu pandemic, the Urban District Council still chose to implement a major improvement in the quality of life for most of its residents, the enforcement of sanitation.

The council’s sanitary inspector undertook a street by street survey of sanitation in the town and in June 1922 he reported there were 830 houses without flushing tanks, 58 requiring separate closets, 26 with earth closets and 22 privies.

The district councillors agreed all properties should have flushing tanks and all earth closets should be removed and replaced with proper flushing systems. The house owners or landlords were given one year to get the work done.

The one drawback was the town was also suffering from periods of poor water supply. In 1922, the town converted its steam driven water pumps to electricity, unfortunately, however, the water problem would continue throughout the 1920s and beyond. The expanding the use of water closets, while desirable, had a distinct effect on water supply.

In 1925, the situation was very severe, as a booklet published in 1932 explained: “By this time it was evident that a new supply of water was a necessity, owing to continued growth of Horsham, the increase in the amount of water used and to the falling-off in the flow of water to the wells. At the same time, owing to various technical difficulties, the amount of water stored in the Star Reservoir (near the Star Inn on the Crawley road) was reduced from 500,000 gallons to only 78,000 gallons. There was no filtration or purification of this water, it being delivered to the consumers exactly as received in the wells, and iron in suspension in the water was a source of much complaint.”

In May of that year, a request to supply water for swimming baths at the new Manor House School caused some discussion in the council. In 1926, it was reported that the test boring for water at Whites Bridge yielded 20,300 gallons per hour. It was hoped this would help solve Horsham’s water shortage, however there would be shortages for some time, as shown in a 1928 newspaper account: “Since the last meeting the yield of water had decreased by 1,200 gallons per hour, and in spite of notices having been sent out asking consumers to curtail the use of water as much as possible the consumption had increased by 25 per cent.”

Just to reinforce, the issue the local paper carried a notice informing residents that on Monday 23rd from 6pm to 6am, a number of roads would be without water. In all 37 roads, or part of roads, were listed.

In the 1930s, the greatest commitment to the future of the town was not the restructuring of the schools, or the investment in the market, both of which are symbolic and important, but the creation of a new sewage and waterworks that would provide fresh water for 30 or more years. Or so the planners predicted.

The first development was the provision of a constant supply of fresh clean drinking water. It had taken two years of investigation, and the previous decade of water shortages, to come up with a solution.

The solution was dramatic, extensive and expensive at a time when austerity was in the air, although not yet the watchword. The council wanted to borrow £60,791 in order to provide water ‘for the town until 1960 at least’, as well as hopefully supplying the surrounding villages. The scheme would consist of two boreholes at White’s Bridge, as well as the necessary plant and mains, and a reservoir with a capacity for 1,600,000 gallons.

The council’s decision to require flushing toilets also put increased demands on the water supply. In 1894, with a population of 8,500, around 50,000,000 gallons were pumped, while in 1929 with a population of 12,500, around 94,500,000 gallons were pumped. The council’s new sewage scheme ran in a circle around the town consisting of 7.5 miles of concrete pipes, which relied on gravity rather than pumping. At the start of 1931, there was an announcement for water pipes and at the end of the year, there was another for sewage pipes. Both required significant additional employment and were unlikely to have happened without the grants.

In 1932, the County Times carried a fascinating account of the construction of both the water and sewage pipe work describing how: “A small mining community is established in the field between the disposal works and Guilford road. Down the shafts welsh miners struggle to cut out the wet clay to form a tunnel through which the sewer can run. Shafts are sunk 50 feet apart so that miners in each one have to excavate a 25 foot tunnel in order to meet their comrades in the next shaft. Further along the field where the ground falls, it is possible to lay the sewer in an open trench. ‘Let’s go down this one,’ says Mr Atkinson, pointing to the most formidable shaft. I follow him down a ladder by the side of the shaft, having first politely refused an invitation to descend in a swaying bucket. Down below, standing in slush, we crouch in the tunnel while the roof dribbles on our backs. Across the way, in the flickering light of a candle, is a miner beating the merry tattoo of the road mender with a compressed drill as he carves out the clay. The work of sewer laying began last December, and it will keep gangs at four different points busy for two years. About ninety men, half of whom come from distressed areas, are engaged in this scheme.”

In April 1933, the water committee issued handbills and placed adverts in newspapers stating that the new water scheme would start on May 4, 1933.

On May 5, the County Times led with the news ‘Horsham’s water fears now banished’, stating: “Fears of a water shortage that have beset Horsham for the last few summers will be finally banished by the new supply system which was brought in to operation yesterday. In addition to certainty and purity of supply the scheme will result in the pressure of water being doubled. This is caused by the force of gravity, the reservoir being about 300 feet higher than the old pumping station.”

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