Thornbury and District Museum: How mains sewerage finally came to Thornbury
WHEN it came to public health, it took a long time for Thornbury to enter the Twentieth Century.
Not until the 1930s did the town have a complete sewerage system and even then, some people in rural areas still had to rely on the euphemistically-named ‘honey waggon’ to remove waste. The Public Health Act of 1875 required all new residential construction to include running water and an internal drainage system. But despite that, Thornbury still relied heavily on earth closets, cesspools and bucket toilets. It had sewage flowing down the streets and appears to have been a very smelly place indeed.
The issue was the subject of a letter of complaint from the vicar of Thornbury, William Holwell, who accused the local steward of blocking the flow of sewage down Castle Street and into the Pithay behind the church, causing “a most insufferable nuisance which has been long a real subject of complaints”.
In 1873, residents sent a petition to the Sanitary Authorities of Thornbury Union requesting that the problems should be remedied, not by having sewers installed but by the simplest and cheapest method – proper cesspits. They also asked that rainwater from the roofs of houses be directed away from the pits: it seems that in wet weather the cesspools flooded, and the sewage simply ran through Thornbury down the street gutters.
That year the Rural Sanitary Authority concluded that a Special Drainage District was to be set up to remedy the problems – but it took until 1884 for an announcement to be made that money would be raised to comply with the law, after opposition from the town’s taxpayers.
In 1911, the first steps were taken to create a sewage works and to install pipes for this purpose. At this stage the workhouse was linked to the sewage plant.
But still progress was slow. In May 1915 the Gazette reported a complaint at a council meeting that some people in Castle Street and the High Street threw sewage matter into the gutters. The chairman’s response was that he “deprecated the bringing of the nuisance too prominently before the notice of the public, for fear of a sewerage scheme being forced on the parish”.
Amazingly, more than ten years later in October 1925, the County Medical Officer reported that 35 out of the 340 houses in the special drainage district allowed their sink waste to flow into street gutters and then into the stream at what is now the popular Streamside Walk.
The minutes of Thornbury Parish Council in December 1930 record progress in the sewerage scheme after what appear to have been grants from central government, recording that there was “very little expense to the rate payer” and the scheme would also “find employment for many who were now unemployed”.
The sewage works on the road to Oldbury and mains sewers were finally completed in February 1935, with the work taking longer and costing more than expected because of the difficulty of cutting through the famous Thornbury rock, the seam of dolomitic conglomerate on which the centre of Thornbury was built.
Another system used in the area, which will be familiar to many older people living in rural areas especially, was the collection of sewage from “honey buckets” – a bucket under a wooden frame with a toilet seat on top, usually in the garden, which was emptied regularly by a council employee who would tip it into his cart or “honey waggon”.
In some rural areas this practice it continued until as late as the 1960s and early 1970s.
Picture: Pipe laying outside what was then Thornbury Grammar School and is now Castle Sixth Form Centre in 1932. Photo courtesy of Thornbury and District Museum