The Public Health Act

The General Board of Health was established in 1848 by the Public Health Act of that year. Local Boards of Health were set up throughout the country, either by the General Board or by local elections after a petition to the Board by one tenth of a town’s ratepayers. A petition was sent to the Board by the newly formed Wolverhampton Corporation and Robert Rawlinson, the Board’s Chief Inspector was sent to report on sanitary conditions in the Wolverhampton area. His enquiry’s began on 5th February 1849 and his final report was 54 pages long. He noted the overcrowding and had this to say about Canal Street (now Broad Street):

"Many of the poor take in lodgers, and have three beds in one room – father, mother, lodgers and children crowded together. Among the colliers there is frequently a night and day shift, and they use the same bed.

Tettenhall Pumping Station and a borehole.

This overcrowding generally produces fever, smallpox, and other contagious diseases, and spreads them through a whole district."

This is what he had to say about the water supply and sewage:

"The general construction of the privies and ash pits in the poorer parts of the town are open tanks, or receptacles for the soil, which is afterwards covered over until full with fire ashes and other refuse. In very many instances the privies have been built over the ancient ditches or water courses, leaving their contents openly exposed until some heavy falls of rain shall wash away the same, and where such is the case we seldom find any ashpits at all; the consequence is that an accumulation of ashes etc. finds its way into the same reservoir, and the whole becomes a mass of stagnated corruption."

Rawlinson also reported that:

There was "an entire absence of main sewers or leading lines of outlet, and this renders ineffective such drains and sewers as might otherwise be considered useful"

He stated that the general feeling of the Town Council of Wolverhampton and the ratepayers of the district was strongly in favour of the Public Health Act.

The report was completed in 1849 and stated that Wolverhampton was an unhealthy place to live. It contained many recommendations, one of which was "that a full and constant supply of pure water should be laid on at every house, and that there should be a system of sewers and drains, properly arranged and taken into every house, back street, court, yard and alley."

The outcome

The Town Council quickly adopted the Public Health Act in October 1848 but it took nearly twenty years before a proper drainage system was built. The water supply was still inadequate for the town’s needs and the water from the ex-colliery site on the Rough Hills was not suitable for consumption. In 1853, Dr. Peter Bell, a local medical man, sent a letter to Mr. Jeremiah Wynn the Lord Mayor, complaining about the state of the water that was drawn from the Rough Hills site. The following is an extract:

The Manager's House at Tettenhall Pumping Station.

"Sir, Permit me to address you, as the Mayor of this Borough and Chairman of the Local Board of Health, on a subject at the present moment of the deepest import to the inhabitants. I refer to the supply of water to the town by the Waterworks Co., taken in part from a pit in a neighbouring coalfield. Without dwelling on the fact that the use of pure water is safer at all times than impure, especially when the vital principle is lowered by some epidemic, or on the probability that water that has issued from the strata of a coalpit partakes more or less of a character of marsh water, to the unwholesomeness of which the medical statistics of the British Army have often painfully testified, there are some facts connected with the progress of cholera in the neighbourhood during the two former epidemics that are, in my opinion, worthy of serious consideration. In 1832 Bilston, Ettingshall Lane, and the Willenhall Roads were the seats of cholera’s most terrific ravages. I believe that all these places were at that time supplied entirely by water taken from the coalfields on which they severally stand. Further, in 1849, the date of cholera's last appearance, these identical places, with the exception of Ettingshall Lane, which had been raised to the ground, were the spots on and around which the disease raged with the greatest malignity…

I name these circumstances in order that all reasonable precautions may be taken to avoid anything that has proved to be so inimical to human life during two separate outbreaks of malignant cholera; in short, to pump into Wolverhampton the water raised from a shaft in a coalfield, and thereby put ourselves-as to water supply-in the same condition as our neighbours, who have suffered so awfully from a foe that has again invaded our shores."

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