Cholera in the Black Country

The provision of water to towns and cities was not generally established until the beginning of the nineteenth century. Many of these works were initiated by private groups of individuals as a personal contribution to the welfare of their fellow citizens. These undertakings carried out the work without any reasonable prospect of a return of capital on their initial outlay.

The industrial revolution was running at its peak. It began in England and within a few decades had spread to most of Western Europe and then to the United States.

The Industrial Revolution marks a key turning point in our history; almost every aspect of our daily life has been influenced by it in some way or other.

Average wages were rapidly rising and population began to show signs of extraordinary growth. In the words of Nobel Prize winner Robert E. Lucas, Jr;

For the first time in history, the living standards of the masses of ordinary people have begun to undergo sustained growth … Nothing remotely like this economic behaviour has happened before….

This increase in population fuelled a change in our social structure too. In the Black Country, large families became extremely common and housing conditions were predominantly poor, meaning that this growth bubble was about to burst. This was not because of an economic recession, but because of an age old problem, disease.

Cholera had a massive impact on the area in 1832 when hundreds of people died. The worst affected areas were Bilston, Dudley, Tipton, Brierley Hill, Rowley Regis, and Netherton

In September 1832 the Reverend William Leigh wrote;

….the condition of Bilston had become frightful; the pestilence was literally sweeping everything before it; neither age nor sex nor station escaping. To describe the consternation of the people is impossible. Manufactories are closed and business completely at a stand….

As the cholera tightened its deadly grip the burial grounds had to close because they were so full; those who died once the epidemic had taken hold were buried in common graves.

In Bilston there were no families who had not been touched, or almost wiped out by the Cholera. Between 3rd August and 10th September 1832, the death toll had reached 742; around 20% of the population.

After several other outbreaks had already occurred elsewhere in the country, a major outbreak of cholera struck Soho, London. John Snow, a physician, linked the outbreak to contaminated water and by talking to local residents (with the help of Reverend Henry Whitehead), he identified the source of the outbreak as the public water pump on Broad Street. Snow later used a spot map to illustrate how cases of cholera were centered around the pump. He also made use of statistics to illustrate the connection between the quality of the source of water and cholera cases.

With the water supply of the community only partially satisfied by the meagre, impure sources available from a communal pump or wells, cholera and other associated diseases caused the deaths of thousands of the population and there was a dire need for an organised waterworks scheme.

In the South Staffordshire District this want was endorsed by the evidence at enquiries held before the Commissioner, appointed by the General Board of Health, in the towns of Dudley, Walsall, Tipton, Bilston and Wednesbury.

Following the Inquiry into Health of Towns of 1845 and the report of T.W. Rammell, Inspector of the Central Board of Health in 1851, who, in his report on Wednesbury stated;

“The natural sources of water have mostly failed and been diminished by reason of the mining operations carried on in the parish and neighbourhood. Consequently the inhabitants suffer a want almost amounting to destitution in regard to this important element, having to send, in many instances, a great distance to procure it and at a very considerable expense. The poorer people are generally obliged to use water lying in stagnant pools, filthy and unwholesome in the extreme….endemic and contagious diseases prevail at all times in Wednesbury”.

Water supplies, properly organised, gained popularity as a direct result of the sanitary reforms recommended by the General Board of Health. Between 1850 and 1852, three schemes to supply water to the South Staffordshire district were investigated and proposed.

As news of a waterworks scheme circulated, applications for water were received from other towns including; Tipton, Kingswinford, Bilston, Darlaston, Oldbury, Sedgley, Stourbridge and Rowley, towns equally desperate for water.

John McClean, a consulting engineer working for Dudley Waterworks Company had the idea of founding the South Staffordshire Water Works Company. Following discussions in the board room of the South Staffordshire Railway Company of which he was leasee, he persuaded five directors of the railway company to join him in the venture; Richard C. Chawner, Richard Dyott, Charles Forster, Richard Greene and Richard Jesson. An  Act of Parliament was obtained, and as a result E.B. Dimmack, S.H. Blackwell, James Solly, Thomas Walker and Sampson Lloyd were invited to become Directors of the South Staffordshire Waterworks Company on 17th December 1852.

In August 1871, a tender of £5,820, submitted by Jonah and George Davies of Tipton for supplying and erecting a 150 horse power Cornish beam engine was accepted. Due to financial problems the work was not completed until late 1873 at an additional cost of £2,000.

Sited near to the railway, the engine house, styled like the original buildings was principally constructed with blue bricks, ornamented with various coloured bricks and was the work of Messrs. Branson and Gwyther of Birmingham. The original buildings were designed by Edward Adams of London who had been responsible for designing several railway buildings, hence the railway look to the Sandfields Pumping Station. It was substantially built, and had to be equal to the strain that would be imposed upon it, by the vibration of the pumping equipment when the engines were running.

This engine has a steam cylinder sixty five inches in diameter, the stroke being nine feet, and worked from the beam was a ram and bucket pump. The bucket was 25.625 inches and the ram 17.175 inches in diameter by 9 foot stroke, and once developed 190 hp at seven strokes a minute, whilst pumping water at the rate of two million gallons per day with a delivery head of 355 feet on the force pump. A Tuscan arcade of three arches with fluted columns supporting the bearing for the beam. Messrs. Thornewill and Wareham of Burton on Trent provided and fixed the steel stairs and handrail in the three storey building.

The engine worked up until 1927, when it was replaced with a set of two Sultzer horizontal uniflow steam engines that had been installed in 1922 to replace the James Watt engines. At the same time the Company decided to construct a comprehensive filtration plant for dealing with water from this station, regarded as the last word in the rapid gravity type. To accomplish this object, it was necessary to lift the water to the surface for treatment and then pump the filtered water to Walsall.

In 1966, the pumping plant was fully modernised with the construction of a new pump house building and the installation of a new electrically powered pumping plant. The new pump house was constructed on the site of the old uniflow engine house, using the old basement and wall footings, and was designed to blend into the Cornish beam engine house.

In 1997 The South Staffordshire Water Company entered into a voluntary agreement with the Environment Agency to cease abstraction via Hanch Tunnel, resulting in the abandonment of Sandfields Pumping Station, the site was subsequently sold to Persimmon Homes in 2003.

Can contribute to the history of Sandfields Pumping Station, did you or any member of your family work or live there. Do you have memories or a photograph you would like to share, can you help us and would like to join in the effort to save Sandfields, if so please leave your comments below, or get in touch with us here;

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46 Responses to Cholera in the Black Country

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  3. Hannah Crowther says:

    I am currently in my final year of university studying architecture, living in the local area I have always admired the significance of Sandfield Pumping Station from a distance. Given the opportunity to select a personal existing building for a final design project, Sandfield was a clear choice for me. I am currently in the research stage of my design, writing a full research and feasibility report on the pumping station.
    Although my final design has been selected for conceptual purposes and therefore irrelevant to the heritage intentions of Sandfield’s, I have done significant research into similar buildings that have been converted to a heritage function, and I am currently re-drawing the historic plans and sections of the building.
    I am very interested to join your campaign to ‘save’ Sandfield’s as I believe this beautiful building has great potential, hence my selection for my design project.
    Will you be likely to gain access inside Sandfield’s again, as this would be extremely beneficial for the Site Investigation element of my report.
    I look forward to you reply
    Hannah Crowther

    • morturn says:

      Hi Hanna, thank you for your post, welcome aboard the campaign to save Sandfields Pumping Station. I would welcome your thoughts and comments and would certainly like to see what your design proposals are. The pumping station is an incredible space, which needs to be utilised in a sympathetic yet functional way.

      Access to the site is difficult at this moment in time, I made the first official visit in May this year and have posted photographs on flicker. There seems to be a significant ground swell of interest now I have published this blog. Some good folks are rattling a few cages, and asking all the right questions. Therefore I am hoping a further site visit may become a possibility in the near future, I will ensure that you are informed.

      Thanks again for your interest and input.

    • morturn says:

      Hanna, I almost forgot to say, can you send me a private message on the Sandfields Pumping Station Facebook page?

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  7. Mike Ryan says:

    I was delighted to read and follow up the links provided in David Moore’s snapshot of the Sandfields Pumping Station featured in the Lichfield Gazette, March 2013. It reminded me of an enlightening history of the provision of water in Lichfield pre-dating the pumping station and on the same theme of health in the community. A must read: The History of the Lichfield Conduit Lands Trust 1546 to 1946 by Percy Laithwaite, M.Sc. In commemoration of the 400th anniversary of the formation of the Trust. In my opinion, this book should be re-printed.

  8. David
    Just caught up with this after a visit to see the sad-looking Sandfields building from the outside. I last saw it a few years ago when it was in the middle of a building site. This really needs to be saved and opened to the public. Happy to help in any way I can. I have a lot of contacts in the preservation press, having been the editor of various magazines over the years. I also produce the annual Steam Heritage Guide and will post a couple of pics and some thoughts on our website. Happy to discuss how we can help to achieve something.

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  14. Neil Carney Chairman, Northern Mill Engine Society Bolton Lancs. says:

    All the vrey best of luck with Sandfields.

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