River Wandle

By Brian Lancaster, Croydon Natural History and Scientific Society committee member

Imagine a cottage in the country without running water, where its inhabitants only alternative was to use a well in the front garden attached to an outside toilet or privy that was emptied two or three times a year. Go back into the more distant past and you will find that, even in Croydon in the early nineteenth century, the majority of its residents lived under much the same conditions.

Yet, Croydon was a growing and flourishing town which attracted many well-off London businessmen to live there, either in retirement or as commuters travelling to London daily by stagecoach or private coach or carriage. From the late 1830s they had the choice of going by train but the sanitary conditions remained the same. Although Croydon was a desirable place to live, surrounded on all sides by country affording opportunities for hunting deer and shooting game, there was still poverty. Pigs were kept in backyards, drinking water would be fetched from the nearest pub and for some the workhouse offered the only solution to avoid destitution and premature death. Some could go trout fishing in the River Wandle, which still flowed beside the parish church. Others, children particularly, played beside the two fairly large ponds in the town, where they could see dead dogs floating in the water.

What was needed was clean drinking water and inside toilets that could be flushed into pipes taking the waste to the main sewers. This was the aim of the campaign for public health in the 1840s both nationwide and in Croydon. The town developed a Board of Health, a committee of twelve elected men, determined to implement a scheme to provide clean water, sanitation and sewage disposal. Its vision was to have hundreds of towns throughout England and Wales provided with such schemes. After much determination and experiment, a pumping station was formed which still stands today and often overlooked, behind the market in Surrey Street. The opening ceremony in 1851 was a grand occasion attended by the great and good. The sewage was deposited in the Wandle but only after it was filtered. What remained was for farmers to use as manure.

The other need was to drain the ponds, culvert the Wandle and do away with the large number of cesspits throughout the town, which was carried out by the Croydon Board of Health. Residents commented on how much nicer the tea tasted since it could be made with clean water. By ridding Croydon of polluted streams and ponds, Croydon became one of the healthiest country towns in England and Wales. Unfortunately, within a year or so of the scheme coming into operation there was a typhoid epidemic with its attendant deaths and diarrhoea. Panic ensued and unlike the cholera epidemic a few years earlier, the typhoid affected both the rich and the poor. No one could yet know what the cause was, but, coming so soon after the scheme began to operate, the Board of Health’s new system was blamed. Fortunately, once the epidemic was over, the scheme proved its worth: the death rate fell quite dramatically, not far short of what it is today. One problem remained unresolved till the beginning of the 20th century not only in Croydon, but nationwide. The infant death rate remained disturbingly high until the risk of milk ‘going off’ in warm weather could be prevented. It was not only tea which needed to taste better.

As part of Croydon Heritage Festival, a talk on the persecution of Poor Law Doctors in the mid-Victorian Croydon will take place at Asburton Library, Monday 20 June 11:00am – 12:00pm. Book a place on the festival website.