The Water Problem

It’s rather disturbing to realise that early Victorians were largely unaware of water-borne diseases. Water was water, and although it might be a little discoloured or brackish, nobody saw much problem with that. It was the industrialization of Britain that brought these issues higher up the agenda, but as the follwing story will show, it took some years for the connection to be made.

The water supply for the new town came from wells dug to a depth of 90 feet. One would have thought that there would be no problem with this but before too long a number of residents experienced serious stomach and skin problems. The cause of the problem was not easily diagnosed. At first they mixed canal water with well water and it was quite likely that many people relied on canal water alone. Samuel Salt, writing in 1849, made this observation:

Though it stands low and on the banks of the Grand Junction Canal, it is considered very healthy; but it is a remarkable fact, and one that has baffled the inquiries of the sanitarians of the town, that the mortality amongst the children is greater than that of any other town in the kingdom.
Eventually the problem with the well water was identified by George Corfe, 
Resident Medical Officer at the Middlesex Hospital. Shallower wells dug for the Radcliffe Arms, the Royal Engineer, the Vicarage, had no problems at all during this period, and the newer well dug near to the Blue Bridge, and which then became the well for Wolverton’s water supply, was also pure. Although it strikes us today as appalling that  people would continue to drink unhealthy water, the early Victorian understanding of water-borne diseases was not well developed. In 1849, for example, there was a major epidemic of cholera in London, killing over 14,000 people.
Mr. Corfe wrote up his findings for the Pharmaceutical Journal in 1848. The article is reproduced below.
Resident Medical Officer at the Middlesex Hospital.
Soon after the opening of the Railway line from London to Birmingham in 1838, it was considered, by the Directors, that Wolverton, a mere farm-house, fifty-two miles from London, or just halfway between these two towns, should form a station for supplying the locomotives with water, and that a factory should also he established there. The latter has been accomplished, and now the little town averages 1400 to 1600 inhabitants. There are a church, two public-houses, and various shops, so that it has become a place of some importance in every respect.
        In order to accomplish the former object, the locomotives were supplied from the canal adjoining the station. The water was forced up by pumps into a tank, and from thence conveyed to the engines when required. But the exorbitant demands which the Canal Company made for such supply, induced the directors of the Railway Company to sink a well in the centre of the factory then erecting. This was in 1840. Accordingly, a well fifteen fathoms deep was sunk, and the water was brought up by an engine to another and larger tank, erected by the side of the former one, but capable of communicating by a main pipe; so that in the event of any deficiency from one source, there might be a supply from the other. As soon as the well, tank, &c., were complete, the engines were wholly supplied by this water; but in the course of a few weeks after its use, the drivers found that they experienced great difficulty in getting the steam up; the water required more fuel, the trains were after time, the boilers and the machinery were much furred and clogged, and the foam or scum on the surface of the boiling liquid was such, that after several failures and disappointments, they were reluctantly compelled to abandon the use of the well-water, and once more return to their supply from the canal.
            The houses were now rapidly increasing, and the next question seems to have been, how these dwellings should be furnished with water. The pipes were laid on to the houses, from the well-tank in three or four streets, whilst, in some others, pipes from both tanks were supplied.
        It appears, therefore, in the history of this spot, that about the year 1841, the inhabitants were supplied wholly by well-water, and the locomotives by canal water. But it was soon observed that the use of the former beverage gave rise to a singular but unequivocal train of symptoms of derangement in the stomach, bowels, &c. The directors at length were satisfied that the well-water was not only unfit for their engines, but that it was not altogether a wholesome beverage. But then the difficulty arose how these inhabitants should be furnished with a different water. The houses subsequently built were accordingly supplied with “half-and-half,” or partly well and partly canal water.
            Notwithstanding this arrangement, there was a constant complaint, especially by the new comers, that the water disagreed with them: and the men broke out in eruptions over the face, hands, and neck, and the women and children were the subjects of a much more distressing train of symptoms.
            From the year 1841 to the autumn of 1847, a large number of cases were attended by the medical gentlemen of Newport Pagnell, Stoney Stratford, and the practitioner at the station, yet the Company were then in the habit of sending cases occasionally to the Assistant Physician of this hospital: but it appears that about the autumn and winter months of 1847 and 1848, the water, especially of the well, became unusually thick, yellowish, and loaded with extraneous vegetable matter.
            Since the 1st of January of the present year, 110 out-patients bave been sent to Middlesex Hospital from Wolverton, exclusive of surgical cases. There has also been a large mortality from pulmonary complaints at the station, the patients, chiefly children, having been attended by the resident medical practitioner.
        A large proportion of the out-patients above-mentioned came under my charge as the resident medical officer, on account of their arrival at irregular hours, and I was struck with the uniformity of their symptoms.
        Of these 120 cases of which I have carefully preserved an abstract or outline of the diseases, &c., there were thirty-seven males and seventy-three females. Of these males, eighteen were under the age of twelve years, and the remainder were boys or men employed in the factory. Of the females, there were also eighteen under the age of twelve, and the remainder were married women with families, except in two or three instances.
            But in order to present the subject in its most important and interesting view, I am desirous of classifying the whole number under two distinct heads, viz., those who partook of the well water exclusively, and those who were supplied by the mixed, or canal and well water and the striking difference in the character of the respective diseases will be apparent.
            There were sixty-one cases (as the sixty-second patient lived at Stoney-Stratford, and walked to his work daily at the station) who were sufferers from the injurious effects of the well-water, and forty-nine of the mixed water.
        My register of the cases specifies the sex, name, age, locality in Wolverton, the period of residence at the station, the state of health before such residence, the towns from whence they came, and the date of their illness, its rise, progress, and their present symptoms, together with the observation of any peculiar features in the disease, and its termination, &c.
The diseases may be divided into two classes. The first class were chiefly amongst the young men, boys, and children, and soon after their arrival in the town they presented the following symptoms: scaly or desquamating surface of the face and neck, pórrigo of the head, or psoriasis of the neck, hands, and arms, or urticaria. Febrile excitement, with more or less disturbance in the bowels, loss of appetite, cough, and disturbed sleep.
            Amongst the second class of sufferers from this water, there were the following more serious, distressing, and intractable symptoms:— constant frontal headache, muscse volitantes, dizziness of sight, temporary loss of consciousness, impaired memory, recurring three or four times a day, excessive prostration of the mental and bodily powers, palpitation, pulse varying from 100 to 120, sometimes intermittent, skin feverish, tongue clammy and furred, bowels costive, and constant gastralgia, with tenderness on pressure. No appetite, disturbed sleep from frightful dreams, a dry, harsh, and straining cough. The cerebral symptoms in some instances, were attended with distinct epileptic fits, especially in one lad of seventeen, who was seized with nine successive attacks in one day; but it is important to notice here that the lad lost the attacks of giddiness, &c. T when his uncle, who lives a mile from Wolverton, allowed him to lodge with him, and he walked to the station to his work, but never took his meals there. He expressed himself as not feeling like the same, since he resided at the house of his relation. They all complained more or less of a peculiar coppery or foul taste upon the tongue in the morning, and of the total loss of appetite for breakfast.
            Although I have divided the class of patients under two heads, for the sake of drawing a line between the two characters of disease with which they were affected, yet, in reality, the sufferers from the mixed water presented the same train of obstinate and severe com plaints as did those from the well-water, with this difference, that the symptoms in the latter class of patients were more obstinate, more decided, and were never accompanied with the presence of entozoa. Whilst in many of the cases from the canal-water, there were unequivocal evidences of the existence of ttcnia tata, ascarit, and uncarts lumbrirnidex, and after they had been expelled by the usual anthelminties, as turpentine, pomegranate root, Sic , and steel, the symptoms corresponded with those of the patients who partook wholly of the well-water.
        In consequence of observing that all these patients exhibited much uniformity in their symptoms, I was induced to note them down, and at length I waited upon Mr. Creed, the Secretary to the Company, at Euston Station, and informed him of my suspicions. This gentleman, after thanking me for the great trouble 1 had taken in investigating the subject, requested me to have an interview with Mr. Dockray, the superintendent engineer. I acceded, and found that he was not altogether a stranger to the suspicious character of the water, but he was under the impression that it merely affected new comers; and that its evil effects soon wore away as the people became accustomed to it, and were able to bear it. In this latter opinion I corrected him, inasmuch as I pointed out the fact that there was a larger number of cases now than had occurred for a long time. However, he was most anxious to obtain all the information possible, and enquired what 1 would suggest. I proposed that the two waters should be analyzed by our Professor of Chemistry, Dr. Ronalds, and 1 left him twenty-four questions, to which he promised to forward replies of undoubted accuracy.
            The waters were sent, and the analysis was made, and my questions were faithfully answered, when the following valuable facts came to light. The well-water was proved to be a weak saline and alkaline spring, and the canal-water a tolerably pure soft water.
            Here, however, I must digress a little in order to return to the subject of the diseases. Until my suspicions were raised that this water was saline and alkaline in its character, I had treated the majority of cases with hydrochlorate of ammonia in some bitter infusion, with an occasional aperient of compound decoction of aloes, or aloetic pills, and by using either the ointment of creosote, the weak nitric oxide of mercury, or chalk, to some of the severe cases of eruptive diseases, but in nearly all the instances, it proved unavailing. When, however, the valuable chemical discovery was made that the well-water was a simple alkaline spring, I immediately commenced a totally opposite treatment. The intro-hydrochloric acid, with or without steel, in some bitter infusion, was now substituted. The eruptive diseases were treated by weak nitric acid lotions, the patients were strictly enjoined not to use the well-water for culinary purposes, and the improvement in their health was very marked and decided, except in two or three instances, where, I afterwards found, I had neglected to warn them not to use the water for the purposes of cooking their meals. But even in these few instances, they made more progress when it was left off than before.
        So singular and so uniform were the symptoms of the whole class of patients, that 1 do not exceed the hounds of truth when I assert, that if a patient presented herself, and informed me of the street she lived in, I could repeat her ailments almost word for word before I interrogated her. If she was from Ledsam or Creed Streets, she would labour under the distressing cerebral symptoms already alluded to, with palpitation, hurried pulse, feverish skin, and total prostration of physical and mental energies. If she resided in Walker, Bury, or Cook Streets, or the North Cottages, I might find, in addition to the above symptoms, unequivocal evidences of tsenia or lumbrici, whilst, if they were children, the presence of ringworm, psoriasis, and ascarides, were more or less observed. One instance I cannot refrain from alluding to, it was that of a boy eleven years of age, who, with his mother, became patients in the early part of January. They had resided in Bury-street, and had therefore been supplied with the mixed water ; they were natives of Stoney Stratford, two miles distant from the station, and had been in Wolverton eighteen months. The mother was seized in October, 1847, with vertigo, frontal headache, loss of appetite, palpitation, alternate flushings, and clammy perspirations ; and the boy, in November, was attacked with blindness and double strabismus, with constant weight over the forehead. They had both been under medical treatment for some time in Wolverton without avail, and observing the equivocal nature of nervous symptoms in many of these poor people, I was led to conclude that the squint and headache arose from mere cerebral distress rather than cerebral disease, lie was ordered an emetic twice a week, and a dose of turpentine and castor-oil to be given on the morning succeeding the emetic. When he had pursued this plan for a fortnight, the mother and myself were gratified to find that the boy’s sight returned, the strabismus diminished, and his health improved ; but it was co-existent with the escape of a large number of joints of a tœnia lata, and numerous ascarides. He was discharged quite well before the end of January, and the mother has greatly improved also under the use of steel wine in a bitter infusion. A man is now in attendance upon Mr. C. De Morgan, who has charge of the Ophthalmic department, with partial loss of sight in the left eye, and impaired vision in the right, attended with músete volitantes. He is a native of Leeds, and had resided in Ledsam Street, Wolverton (well-water), for ten months. This attack crept on after he had been there four months; he is greatly improving.
        I will now pass on to the interesting but important facts communicated to me by Mr. R. Dockray, Esq., and Dr. Ronalds. The nature of the earth about Wolverton, for the first fifteen to twenty feet, is a mixture of limestone and white marl, and below that depth it is a blue greasy clay. This clay I have a specimen of, as it was taken from the well, and its consistence, appearance, and chemical qualities, exactly correspond to that of ” fuller’s earth,” so common in the county of Bucks, that is to say, silica, alumina, magnesia, lime, chloride of sodium, with traces of potash and oxide of iron. It will be seen presently that these elements enter largely into the saline ingredients of the well-water. It is forced by a stationary engine into a large cistern in the roof of the factory, and supplies the schools, Creed, Ledsam, and Young Streets, and Glyn Square. The mains are cast iron, whilst the services are partly lead and partly iron pipes.
            The locomotives are supplied by the canal, which is also worked into a large cistern on the top of the factory, some distance from the well-cistern, but it is counected with it by a cast-iron main and stopcock. The inhabitants of the North Cottages, Bury and Gas Streets, have a mixed supply of well and canal-water. But these supplies are far inferior in quality to the clear and pleasant springs existing at a public-house, “The Engineer,” and the Parsonage House, near the Station. The drainage is excellent, and no suspicion of poison can arise from any imperfection in this department; indeed, the whole train of symptoms in all the cases does not favour the supposition of an animal malaria.
        I shall now proceed to the respective analyses of the well and canal water qualitatively, by which the character of this saline alkaline spring will be at once observed.
            This water is of a dirty yellow colour, is distinctly alkaline to test paper, it contains chiefly bi-carbonate of lime in solution, and rather more organic matter than should exist in water for drinking.
            This water is remarkable for the large quantity of alkaline carbonates, sulphates, and chlorides which it contains, and which render it a weak saline water.
        It will be seen by analysis of these two waters, that neither of them are suited for drinking, and that the spring in the Parsonage House is the only one of the two that can be considered to approach to a wholesome beverage.
            In addition to this analysis it should be observed that the temperature of the canal is 46°, whilst that of the well is 53°.
        I have here subjoined a subsequent analysis made by Dr. Ronalds, of five springs on the station.
            The character of the water from the Refreshment Room was any thing but “refreshing” either in look or in taste; it was opalescent, and had a vapid, brackish flavour, which was not observed in the other specimens. The Blue Bridge and Parsonage House waters were very pleasant to drink, and were sparkling in character.
No. 1.—Water from the Well in the Refreshment Room.
No. 2—Water from the Blue Bridge Cutting, 1 mile from the station.
No. 3.—Water from the Well at the Parsonage House.
No. 4.—Water from the Well at the Royal Engineer Inn.
No. 5.—Water from the Well at the Radcliffe Arms lnn.
I afterwards found, I had neglected to warn them not to use the water for the purposes of cooking their meals. But even in these few instances, they made more progress when it was left off than before.

Wolverton was not the only new town to experience these problems. Swindon was equally bad for the health of workers and for a while water had to be brought in by cart from outlying villages. Lessons were learned and this country has developed remarkably pure water supplies which we now take for granted.

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