Bullers, muggers and ventilated sewers — the practicalities

Bullers' Green was home to itinerant muggers and potters.
Bullers' Green was home to itinerant muggers and potters.

IN his Sanitary Report of 1842, Edwin Chadwick advocated drainage without being particular as to its design. Later, however, he adopted the ideas of John Roe, whose brick-built sewers had an egg-shaped cross-section instead of the flat-floored shape common at the time.

He then took up the theories of another engineer, John Phillips, who favoured glazed earthenware pipes. These, he believed, made the sewage flow so quickly that they would never silt up.

He stirred up bitter antagonism amongst professional engineers by his doctrinaire attitude. He maintained that narrow pipes, as little as four inches across, were better than brick sewers. Brick sewers were bigger than necessary, and consequently cost much more than pipes.

Secondly, he was ahead of his time in adopting systems thinking. To him, sewers were systems. Feeders should enter at a narrow angle pointing downstream and the gradient should be steady all the way to the outfall, with no dips.

Chadwick’s ‘arterial-venous’ concept, borrowed from his friend James Kay-Shuttleworth, was the ultimate sewerage theory. It assumed a constant balance between incoming clean water and outgoing sewage, did not allow for storm surges, and, if Chadwick was right, needed no sewer ventilation because the effluvia were expelled so rapidly.

It was unreal. Engineers often had to link new sewers to existing ones with flat bottoms and dips in the long profile. If so, they had to be big enough for a man to work in to sweep stagnant sewage out of the dip and send it on its way.

Thirdly, he accused them of corruption, of building ‘sewers of vicious construction’, and charging fees based on the inflated cost.

Croydon was the first to adopt the Public Health Act of 1848 and to install a Chadwickian system of pipe sewers. The initial design had nine inch and six inch pipes, but Chadwick’s Superintending Inspector reduced them to six inches and four inches respectively.

It was completed in 1852. Collapses and blockages began immediately. Typhoid fever broke out in December, and the issue came to public attention (I avoid the obvious figurative expression) after an independent engineer reported that the pipes were too narrow, too thin-walled, and had variable gradients that hindered the flow.

This led to a ‘pipe and brick’ war between the General Board of Health and civil engineers generally, ending in 1854 with Chadwick’s enforced retirement, albeit on a pension of £1,000 p.a.

Morpeth’s Local Board of Health was set up between 1849 and 1851, when Chadwick’s theories were still new and none had as yet been proved wrong.

In 1849 William Woodman wrote to local sanitary ware manufacturers asking for prices. One, Addison Potter, from Willington Quay, quoted simply for oval drainage pipes, ‘delivered at the Railway at Newcastle’. The other, Wilkinson, sent drawings of his improved system. His pipes were not egg-shaped, but shield-shaped, and had a removable top so you could see that all solid matter had been flushed away.

Not having heard from Woodman, he wrote: ‘Perhaps you will be kind enough to inform me if the Superintending Inspector of the General Board of Health approved of my drain, & oblige,

Your Ob. Sert.

W.B. Wilkinson’

Then there was the question of the lines of drainage for the fall of the sewers and for gravity-fed water pipes. Mr Thomas Fenwick supplied the levels between Morpeth and Heighley Wood:

‘Usual Surface Water at the Bakehouse Steps, 40’. At foot of Bullers Green Cross, 94’. A little past the ‘Seven Stars’, 101½’. Foot of Pottery Bank, 118½’. Top of Pottery Bank, 159’. Junction of Benridge Lane & Turnpike, 197’.’

He charged a guinea for a plan of the Parliamentary Borough, a guinea for the survey, and 11/9 for expenses; total, £2 13s. 9d.

This was Chadwickian theory in action. Bullers’ Green was one of the poorest parts of Morpeth. And this leads to an interesting question: Who or what were the Bowlers of Bullers’ Green?

Alec Tweddle tells us that the name dates back at least to 1604, Gypsies used it for a halting place, and Pottery Bank had a pottery in the 17th Century.

The 1841 census is the first for which detailed schedules exist. Michael Clarke, the enumerator for Bullers’ Green, noted that: ‘Several Families Inhabitants of this Township are absent at this Season Hawking the Country with Earthenware.’

They didn’t all go travelling. William Todd, age 20, potter, lived in the house of William Curry, miller, in Wansbeck Place, while Robert Robson, 27, mugger, lived on Newgate Street, between Beggar Lane and Manchester Lane.

Roughly opposite lived Joseph Brown, 39, and his family, in the house of Mary Blyth. He was a dish turner, but unfortunately you cannot tell if he turned wooden dishes or earthenware ones.

Hazel Reynolds, in Customs and Traditions of Northumbria, says that many Gypsies made goods during the winter months to sell on their summer travels. ‘Heather besoms (brooms), willow-plaited baskets and earthenware, which earned the Gypsies the name of ‘muggers’, were all loaded into covered carts in the spring and sold around the various farms and hamlets.’

Settled residents resented their presence. The Newcastle Courant of June 4, 1841, reports approvingly that a policeman at Warkworth had impounded the cattle of some muggers and potters: ‘who make fires by the road side and turn their horses into the highways.’

You get the picture. Bullers’ Green was full of poor travellers living in multiply occupied houses – as presumably was Muggers’ Corner in Bedlington.

Woodman and his friend Robert Rawlinson, the Presiding Inspector in charge of the Morpeth sanitary inquiry, intended to drain them and make them healthy.

Rawlinson was a staunch Chadwickian, but perhaps never a total believer in clay-pipe sewers. In November 1852, just before the Croydon typhoid outbreak, he addressed the Institution of Civil Engineers on ‘The Drainage of Towns.’

He referred to Hitchin, ‘where upwards of 60,000 feet of pipe sewers, from 20 inches down to 4 inches diameter, and 2 feet 6 inches long each, had been in action for four months, with perfect success … some of the pipes had been broken, from being laid in bad ground, but after being relaid in wooden troughs, no further fractures ensued.’

Significantly however, ‘the system of pipe sewerage must be modified in practice’.

He referred to a sewer at Manchester, laid seven years previously with ‘oval pipe drains, 25 inches by 18 inches … 2½ to 3 inches in thickness,’ but, ‘The maximum size at which, even these thick pipes were preferable to brick sewers, was 30 inches by 24 inches.’

William Haywood, an experienced engineer in the City of London, compared sewers to mining: ‘It was not desirable to send men up sewers … but neither was it pleasant for a miner to be obliged to go daily down a pit.’

And, he said, if sewers ‘were ventilated and maintained … there was less objection to the labour, than might be imagined.’

It was, and is, essential to have ventilated sewers.

Sources: Christopher Hamlin, ‘Edwin Chadwick and the Engineers’, www.homepages.ucl.ac.uk, and Proceedings of the Institution of Civil Engineers, 1853, www.icevirtuallibrary.com