Looking Back With Little: A public health danger

The top of the High Street in 1839
The top of the High Street in 1839

One of the most important themes in the 19th century is the improvement in public health. This is covered especially well in the Victoria County History of Oxfordshire Vol. X and in William Potts’ book published in 1942 entitled Banbury through a hundred years. This charts the development of the town from the 1830s to the outbreak of the Second World War.

Early 19th century Banbury was notorious for its poor roads and lack of drainage. The corporation had no power to act as sanitary authority. George Herbert in Shoemakers’ Window writes that ease of access depended on ‘picking your way and stepping from stone to stone’. Things improved slightly after 1825 when a private Act of Parliament ensured that Commissioners were appointed to implement certain procedures in the Borough of Banbury. They required householders to sweep pavements around their houses before 9am, provide gutters and water shoots to drain water off their premises into nearby sewers or water courses, empty privies at night and leave no dung in the streets. However no provision was made for a general sewer and there was a lack of public water pumps.

In September 1842 an anonymous writer penned a letter to the Guardian drawing attention to health related matters. The author stated that formerly Banbury was ‘dirty, rut-furrowed, and almost impassable’ but by the early 1840s had become ‘a healthful, clean, dry respectable borough. Then followed a word of caution that concerned ‘smells that may be generated in the suburbs’.

This latter comment finds echoes in ‘Victorian Banbury’ by Barrie Trinder who records that in 1846 Calthorpe Lane deaths were blamed on ‘the stench arising from the stagnant water and filth accumulating in the drains. It seems streams acted as sewers and often the outskirts of Banbury were marked by open drains and dung heaps. Along Rope Walk off Castle Street there were open drains and dung heaps that were potential sources of pestilence.

The originator of the 1842 letter goes on to make cynical remarks about the Board of Commissioners suggesting that they should ‘sit in a row and smoke their pipes as this would be more useful than ‘projecting culverts to ensure the cleanliness of houses’.

Subsequent letters to early issues of the Banbury Guardian refer to the Township of Neithrop and relate to inadequate drainage. The consequence was that ditches and dunghills were locations for ‘putrid vegetable and animal matter’. Just such a place was the Bank, which was known to a highways surveyor and Board of Guardians. Unfortunately the Board of Guardians had no powers to act in this area.

One of the writers made an interesting and evaluative point that in the past a dung heap close by the obelisk in South Bar was a more serious nuisance than the idlers who occasionally gathered here. The heap was thought to be a factor in a serious outbreak of typhoid.

From about 1850 onwards another area with developing health problems was the Cherwell area of South Neithrop. Here a pattern of roads was laid out ready for house building speculators such as William Hobley, James Gardner and Richard Gillett (landlord of the Crown Inn). The problems stemmed from the condition of the land that was ill-drained with no proper sanitation provision. Many wells became contaminated and piles of filth appeared in the street. A mid-century report by the Board of Health inspector highlighted the ravages of illnesses such as cholera and a fever described as ‘the Banbury disease’ which was widespread.

An act of 1848 had set up a central public Board of Health. Four years later it was agreed to set up a drainage scheme with sewers in Banbury, Neithrop and Grimsbury. However as long as filth was swept into the Cherwell it was a nuisance. In the words of George Herbert ‘the only effective way was to buy a farm and filter sewage’.

This way only surface drainage passed to the river. In 1854 the Banbury Water Company was formed and subsequently developed its filter beds at Grimsbury.