As Baldock entered the 19th Century the town was home to about 1280 people, a slightly smaller population than Walkern, has today. Much of the population made its living from servicing the horse drawn traffic along the Great North Road that ran through the town. Malting & breweries, and farming employed nearly everybody else.
The town drew its water supply from the underlying chalk aquifers using wells & pumps, which can be seen marked on following Ordnance Survey map from 1871 of the town. These wells were from 12 feet to 50 deep, getting steady deeper, the further up the High Street they were located. The pumps shown on the map are located furthest from the Ivel Springs and were generally the deepest of the wells.
Besides the water for people, there were between 600 and 900 horses kept in stables attached to the many coaching inns in the town who also required drinking water. The daily water required for animals may have exceeded the daily requirement for people. Breweries were also major users of water.
Evidence given at the River Pollution Enquiry on Thursday 20th April 1871 describes how “The town is supplied with water by wells and pumps. We find the water from about 10 to 40 feet. I use 20 or 30 gallons a-day for my family.”
With the town’s water supply dependent on the chalk aquifers, which experience cyclical annual fluctuations between summer & winter flow, water was often short in summer. The following article from the Hertford Mercury in November 1848 demonstrates just how tight the water supply in Baldock often was.
“Both engines were upon the spot [Mr Davis’s barn] in less than twenty minutes after the fire broke out, and the smaller one in less than ten minutes, and they were at work within a quarter of hour of the time they reached the spot; but the wells were so shallow that they did not afford a supply of water for more than a few minutes at a time.
Several of the wells were pumped dry during the first half hour the engines arrived, and a considerable time elapsed after their arrival before a continuous supply of water was obtained from a well at a considerable distance from the fire, and when that was obtained the fire was gradually got under.”
Until about 1800 there were little if any infrastructure within the town to deal with human & animal wastes. Animal wastes were a very valuable resource, and it known that horse muck was collected by farmers from neighbouring farms including Quickswood, who spread it on the fields to fertilise their arable crops. The urine simply soaked away into the ground. From 1800 onwards in the larger houses water closets began to be installed, and cesspit pits began to be constructed. During the taking of evidence for the River Pollution Commission in 1871, the following evidence for the “sewage system” as it existed before 1850 was recorded.
“Wm. Richardson, carpenter and builder, of Baldock: I remember the decree for the water-closets being cut off. I cut off as many twenty of them. I should think that fifty were cut off. I don’t think any are not cut off.
The sewers were put in before I went into business. I don’t recollect the first sewer being made. I should think they were built 60 or 70 years ago. I remember a pond in the field at the lower end of the town. There is connection between the pond and the sewer; it has been dry for some years. I am not aware that the sewage ever went into the pond. I made cesspools, cut in the chalk rock; there is no brickwork; I have made them years ago; I could name one without referring to my book; I made my own 25 years ago; it is eight feet deep, and four feet by three feet. I empty it once in three years. I use it for manure. I frequently empty other peoples. It is perfectly dry when emptied. We have overflow from these cesspools. My well is within 20 feet of the cesspool; it is 28 feet deep, the water rising 8 to 10 feet; when it is at its height we have about 18 feet to draw it. Our wells run from 12 feet to 50. We draw the water from level spring. The adjoining house is Mr. Thoday’s. There is a cesspool within or 8 feet of the well, which does not affect the well.”
Up until 1848 (see Figure 3.) the conditions remained relatively benign, as the population was small, and the flow into the River Ivel was unrestricted and only had relatively low flows that the ground water from Ivel Springs was able to dilute.
In 1848 construction of the London to Cambridge through Baldock commenced. The railway line through Baldock required the building of a railway embankment that was to have disastrous effects on the future health of the Baldock community. This was because the embankment’s foundations extended for several metres into the ground, acting as a semi permeable dam, that prevented the surface water and sewage soaking through the ground from reaching the Ivel Springs.
The population of Baldock had also grown by 58% by 1871, as many poor people from nearby villages moved into the town, mainly into the poorest houses at the bottom of Norton Lane and along Deadman’s Lane (as Icknield Street was known).
“By the Commissioner; The population of Baldock in 1851 was 1971; in 1871, 2031). The area is 143 acres. Three or four hundred persons belonging to other parishes live in our parish. Their drainage unites with us. The rateable value of the parish is £5,074. We collect about 6d. in the pound for poor and gas, The town is supplied with water by wells and pumps. We find the water from about 10 to 40 feet. I use 20 or 30 gallons a-day for my family. The water closets were not done away with. The cesspools have never been cleaned out.”
Local government in the town was in the hands of the parish vestry and county authorities and was run by the Rector. In 1850 the Rector was Rev. Thomas Rigby Kewley (1821-1885), and he and his fellow vestry members were soon faced with a very serious public health disaster.
“Sheweth, —That the river Ivel or Rhee rises by numerous springs of most excellent water at spot on the borders of the parish of Bygrave, in the county of Herts., adjoining on its north side the embankment of the railway from Hitchin to Cambridge, and till within a recent period the stream was perfectly pure, and its use freely enjoyed by the occupiers of the numerous mills upon the river and the neighbouring district.
“On the south side of the railway embankment and a few hundred yards from it is situate the town of Baldock. Twenty years ago, or thereabouts, the vestry, or the sewer authorities of the parish of Baldock, constructed a sewer from the town, which is carried under the railway embankment into an open ditch in the neighbourhood of the springs, and subsequently the vestry, or sewer authorities, constructed a second sewer, which is also curled under the railway embankment into open ditch adjoining the springs.
By means of these sewers the sewage of the town of Baldock has ever since been conveyed into the springs, and thereby the river has become greatly polluted and a great nuisance created to the serious injury of your memorialists and others. From this cause the water in the river has gradually become so offensive that for many years it has been unfit for drinking purposes, and latterly also for culinary and other domestic purposes at the mills and the neighbourhood of the upper part of the river, and to obtain wholesome water deep wells have had to be sunk, some instances at considerable expense.
Great inconvenience and suffering is also experienced from the poisonous smell of the water, and the effluvium from the scum which rises on the mill pools and collects above the mill wheels, and these at times, when the wind is in particular quarters, are so offensive at the mills as to render it necessary to close all the windows, and the illness of some of the inmates has been by medical men, to their exposure these injurious influences.”
The experience of people living in the villages of Norton, Radwell & Stotfold, became awful, especially during summer low water flows.
“Mr. Charles Christian, owner and occupier of Norton Mill, deposed: I am owner and occupier of the Norton Mill, the second mill on the river Ivel. It is about half a mile below the springs. I have been owner and occupier since 1862. When I came there the water was foul, but not so bad as it is now. The river was full of weeds. It was offensive. I don’t think it was so bad now. It has continued offensive ever since. There has been no perceptible improvement since, except that I have never smelt it so bad as it has been this winter. I use the water, except for mill purposes, for watering the garden and for the horses to drink. I have lived at the mill four years. I have had to sink well when I built my house. I sunk my well in the kitchen, about twelve feet deep. We have ten feet fall. The well goes into the chalk, which is the lower strata. This is from the level of the ground. It would be 15 feet below the mill head. I raise the water by a pump. I use that water for all purposes. It is not quite good. I think it is stained by iron. We seldom drink it without boiling. I think it is connected with the stream. It tastes and smells nasty. It is 25 feet from the river. There was a heavy storm four or five years ago, in the summer, and the mill head at Mr. Iredale’s overflowed. The water came into the ditch at the back of my house. There is a spring near Mr. Iredale’s, which runs into that ditch, which runs about four or five feet from my well. On that occasion the water in my well was polluted, so that we could not use it at all. I attributed that to it passing out of the ditch. I pumped my well dry two or three times. After doing that the water was in its former condition. That was when the overflow had subsided. I have, a few times since, when Mr. Iredale’s mill head overflowed, found my well polluted. In the mill and outside the water at the mill head is offensive when the mill is at work. There certain accumulation scum, of nasty, offensive stench. We get some of it out with a rake, and use it as manure, to get rid of the nuisance. We should not be able to bear the place from the manure if did not take it off. There are three breweries at Baldock, which are large. There are extensive washings of barrels, which come down the mill head. We see a good many corks coming down. There is direct communication between the breweries and the river. I, with Mr Flitton, visited the springs three or four years ago. We examined the ditch into which the sewer runs through Bygrave. The contents of the sewers from Baldock come by two culverts under the railway. We visited the ditch into which the eastern sewer enters. It was filled with foul sewage of some depth. It was deep, and was penned up with pieces of wood. I think we went twice. I went with Mr. Fletton and yourself. I have frequently visited the spring head, and have seen the foul water flowing into the fresh water. I have seen the dark and clear water running side by side for some distance.”
By 1870 serious outbreaks of water borne diseases were occurring within the town, caused by the pool of effluent that was present, on the surface, or just beneath it, that was polluting all of the drinking water supplies in the lowest lying and houses occupied by the poorest members of the community.
Produced by Nicholas Balmer March 2022