HL Deb 25 June 1858 vol 151 cc380-94

said, that it was not from any feeling of idle curiosity that he rose to call the attention of their Lordships to the present state of the River Thames, and to ask Her Majesty's, Government what steps had been taken by the different Boards which took particular charge of the sewerage and the health of the metropolis, whether the Board of Health, the Metropolitan Board of Works, or the Commissioners of Sewers—with a view to purifying and improve it. Their Lordships had some general knowledge of what they had proposed to do from time to time, but nothing of what they had done. He understood that the Metropolitan Board of Works had made a proposal for conveying away the sewage of the metropolis, and that that proposal had nut been approved of, but had been referred back to them for further consideration; but whatever steps had been taken, or whatever had been the course of action pursued, one fact was certain — nothing practical had yet been done. Now he believed he was somewhat entitled to bring this subject before the House, because it was not one which affected himself as a private individual alone—although unquestionably the present state of the river was a great and grievous annoyance to him on account of his living close upon the banks of the Thames; but, happily, he was in the position of being able to free himself of the annoyance whenever he liked by simply going elsewhere. Unfortunately, however, there were large bodies of people who were not so situated, and who could not move from their residence at the river side. He would not lay particular stress ever upon the inconvenience which their Lordships suffered in this House, or which was experienced by the other House of Parliament. They, too, so far as they were individually concerned, might remove away from the evil; and even, if they deemed in necessary, meet in some other locality at a distance from the Thames. But those of whom he wished especially to speak were not in that position; he alluded to the large mass of persons of the poorer classes who had not the means of removal at their command, and could not protect themselves as their Lordships could by living in larger houses or more capacious apartments, and keeping the stench of the Thames out of their dwellings by closing their doors and windows. He had heard it said, "Oh! the river is not so bad to day as it was yesterday;" but why was that? Simply because there was a northerly wind blowing which freed one side of the river at the expense of the other. But let the wind shift to the south-east or south, and they would find it as bad as ever, and the inhabitants of Lambeth and Southwark would be relieved of the nuisance at the expense of the inhabitants of the opposite shore. The foul state of the Thames had been gradually increasing, and during the last two or three years it had been of more rapid growth than at any former time, and he had no doubt that the extension of the drainage in the upper parts of the metropolis, although it had tended greatly to improve the health of those districts, was one of the main causes of it. Another thing to be considered was the enormous increase which had taken place in the population, the result of which was that houses were springing up in all directions, and the drainage area was very much extended, whilst the whole of the sewage matter flowed into the Thames. The evil at the present moment might also be attributed in some measure to the extraordinary dryness of the season, by reason of which the sewage came down in its natural state, and was in no way diluted with rain. Besides this, there were a number of factories in which employments of an unwholesome nature were carried on—soap-boiling, bone-boiling, and potteries—some within a short distance of their Lordships' House—and the refuse and waste of different trades flowed into the river and assisted in adding to its foulness. Some persons appeared to imagine that the offensive stench of the river was worst at low water. Now, having been a resident upon the banks of the Thames for the last thirty years, generally in the summer time of the year, he might reasonably be supposed to have a little experience upon that subject. Formerly he certainly thought that it was most offensive at low water, but of late it was not so, and he thought it was now worse a short time before and a short time after high water. Owing to the constant action of the steamers, leaving a heavy swell behind them, and most of them running on this side of the river, the quantity of mud on the shores between Westminster and Waterloo Bridges had greatly decreased in depth within the last ten years, whilst during the same time, from the constant additional scour that had been going on, the bed of the river had been much deepened; so that when the tidal water went out the river itself was confined to a much narrower channel. Various modes had been suggested for remedying the evil. Some persons said, "Embank the river, and get rid of the nuisance at once;" and he readily granted that by that means they would get rid of the mud which was exposed at low water. But would that purify the river? He did not see that it would, or that there was any advantage to be gained by it. It was also said that the annoyance only existed in the neighbourhood of the upper part of the river; but upon looking at the weekly return of the Registrar General, he observed that the medical officer of the Dreadnought Hospital Ship, which was moored in the river as far down as Greenwich, complained of the dreadful state of the river, and stated that it seriously affected the health both of the patients and of the medical officers on board. He understood, too, that, owing to the pestilential state of the water, the number of passengers by the steam-boats navigating the Thames had considerably diminished; and one gentleman had informed him that on going down the river in a steamer he was so affected by the nauseous state of the river, that he vomited; and he had heard that many persons had been carried on shore in a fainting state from the same cause. It also appeared that a Waterman bad recently died of Asiatic cholera, brought on from inhaling the noxious gases which arose from the river; and there was the case of a young woman who had recently attempted suicide by throwing herself over one of the bridges, and whose life had been more endangered by the poisonous nature of the water she had swallowed than from being immersed in it for the few moments that elapsed before she was rescued. Now, supposing an epidemic were to break out, which was not impossible during the present hot season, what he (the Duke of Buccleuch) dreaded was the effects which would be produced by this abominable effluvium of the river. He did not mean to say that such an event was likely to occur, but in case it did he should be fearful indeed of the consequences. He thought, then, that their Lordships were bound to press upon Her Majesty's Government that they must take the matter in hand themselves, and adopt strong measures respecting it. It would be difficult perhaps to say what those measures should be, to what extent they should go, or how the expense should be provided. But the evil was such that it must not be slurred over, or left in the hands of the Metropolitan Board of Works, or any other corporation. The executive Government must themselves direct their attention to the subject, and be prepared, without delay, to submit some strong and well-considered measures to Parliament respecting it. Let them do so, and Parliament, he was sure, would not withhold its assent and assistance.


said, the noble Duke had certainly not exaggerated the unfortunate state of the river in this vicinity, and he could not but feel, in common with their Lordships, that it was a disgrace to the country that in the middle of this century so much mismanagement —there was no other word for it—should have taken place that the great highway of the Thames was rendered almost useless for that purpose, and dangerous to the health and even to the lives of the inhabitants of the metropolis. It was no doubt the duty of the Government, if possible, to apply a remedy; but their Lordships were aware that an Act of Parliament would be necessary to give to the Government such a power as he believed could alone remedy the existing evil. His own opinion was, that no body of men formed as a corporation—that no power subdivided as that must be—was sufficient to undertake the remedy which was required. He had stated that an Act of Parliament was necessary; but before Her Majesty's Government proposed that or any other course, he thought their Lordships must bear with patience the evil from which they suffered until the Committee of the House of Commons now sitting had considered the matter and reported.


expressed his disappointment at the answer which had been returned by the noble Earl to the observations of his noble Friend. They had now been going on for a series of years with Commissions and Committees, and at this moment the table of Parliament was overloaded with evidence upon the subject, which nobody had read or ever would read. He did not know what was the immediate object of the Committee to which the noble Earl had referred; but considering that they had now reached the end of June, he felt certain that that Committee could do no more than previous Committees and Commissions had accomplished; and that when their Report was made, which probably would not be until nearly the close of the Session, they would find themselves precisely in the same position in which they were now. Let the Government be courageous in dealing with this matter. They had not power to do much, but here was a great opportunity for them to distinguish themselves. The Legislature was, in fact, reduced to such a position that if the Government chose to save them they would be only too happy to be saved. The evil had now reached a magnitude such as none but those who resided in London could conceive. Every step that had hitherto been taken, however, had been in the wrong direction. It was only last year that Parliament handed over the conservancy of the Thames to the hands of the Corporation of the City of London; and when he (the Puke of Newcastle) entreated their Lordships not to pass a measure which had complicated the evils under which they were suffering, he could only get five noble Lords to join him in his opposition. It was late in the day to say it, perhaps, but that measure ought never to have been passed; and he believed that Parliament would have to repeal it before they obtained any effectual remedy for the evil of which they complained. An arbitrary act had become absolutely necessary. They would never accomplish their object without it, and he felt confident that Parliament and the country were ready to give the arbitrary powers which were required for the purpose. Nothing had been done for the improvement of our sanitary condition without arbitrary measures. Great as had been the evil of the burial-grounds in the metropolis, it was nothing as compared with the present state of the Thames. They all remembered the agitation which arose upon that subject, however, but no remedy was found for years until power was given to the Secretary of State to close the burial-grounds upon application being made to him for the purpose; and the moment that power was conferred, the remedy was speedily applied, and other places were found where bodies could be interred. In his opinion, they required a short Act repealing pretty nearly all the powers which had been conferred upon rival jurisdictions, such as Commissioners of Sewers, Metropolitan Board of Works, and the like, and confer upon some one or more persons to be appointed by the Government all the powers which were necessary for carrying their objects into effect. He believed that an embankment on each side of the river would be essentially necessary; but then it must be accompanied by intercepting sewers, without which an embankment would only increase the existing evil. No one could doubt that the time at which the river was most offensive was at high tide; and he contended that the state of the river must be restored to what it was in former years, if not made better. Why should not the Thames at London be as clear as the Seine at Paris? The only alternative seemed to be that they must consent either to repeat- ed decimations of the population in the hot season, or to a large expenditure of money. He hoped the Government would not spare the metropolis as regarded the expenditure. If the country were called on to contribute any small portion of the expense, by far the greater portion should be borne by London itself, for that enormously wealthy community ought to be able to provide for such an object as the preservation of the lives of its inhabitants. We had now arrived at such a point that we might expect, not simply typhus or cholera, but a second plague, if the nuisance continued. Even if, by the blessing of Providence, we escaped the curse this year, we might not escape it with impunity next year, and we were probably now at the commencement of a cycle of hot summers. If they waited for the production of the Report of the Committee of the House of Commons, it would be tantamount to postponement of the question for another year. Not a day ought to be lost; and if the noble Earl at the head of the Government would take the matter into his hands, supersede Commissioners and Committees, and all rival jurisdictions alike, and appoint some independent power to perform the works which were necessary, he felt confident that he would receive the cordial support of Parliament and of the people.


said, that Her Majesty's Government were happy to hear any strong expression of opinion such as that which had been pronounced tonight in favour of legislative action upon this subject. They felt with their Lordships that the case was an extremely pressing one, and the only question with them was, as to the propriety of the course which they ought to pursue in reference to such action. A Committee of the other House was now sitting, not upon the general subject of the drainage of the metropolis, but the actual condition of the river, and he had no doubt that their Lordships would soon be put in possession of the conclusions of that Committee. The real cause of the present state of the river was, he believed, the improvements which were now going on in the metropolis, and in the carrying out of which they appeared to have begun at the wrong end. Any labourer in the country would tell them that if they had to make a drain, they should begin at the lower end; instead of which, in the case of the metropolis, they had begun at the upper end, and had, consequently, made the Thames the main sewer for the whole of London. The consequence was inevitable, as anybody might perceive who thought about it for a single moment. There was a beautiful system of "scour" in operation in the sewers themselves, by which they were no doubt perfectly cleansed and purified; but inasmuch as they ejected all their filth into the Thames, that river was converted into a most abominable ditch. The Thames now held in solution the whole of the sewage discharged in the metropolis; the gaseous matter flowed along with the river, and at high water the state of the atmosphere was worse than at any other time of the tide. The state of things was such that the speedier the action in providing a remedy the better it would be for the metropolis; for without pretending to be an authority in reference to the effect of these pernicious gases upon the human system, he did fear that typhus fever must be the result of its longer continuance. He ventured to say that there was only one mode of dealing with this question, and that was—at a very large cost indeed —to carry the sewage by the shortest possible route to the sea. Any system that might be adopted for the construction of large cesspools would, in his judgment, be utterly worthless. The materials which those cesspools would contain would be of no value whatever to agriculture; and he confessed that be saw no other measure that would be effective than that of cutting off the mouths of the sewers which now discharged themselves into the Thames, and constructing, at a cost of £3,000,000 or £4,000,000, one enormous sewer, that should carry the whole of the sewage matter of London into the sea. Do that, and the river would speedily resume the purity and healthfulness of former years. In putting forward these views he must be understood as giving expression only to his own individual views; and he might be permitted to add, that the outlay to which he had just referred must be looked upon as one which would be conducive, not solely to the advantage of the metropolis, but of the country at large.


said, he was glad to find that the noble Earl was prepared to bear testimony to the enormity of the evil which the present state of the Thames involved. He regretted, however, that the noble Earl, instead of confining himself to a statement of his own individual opinions as to the best mode of getting rid of that evil, had not informed the House what the steps were which the Government pro- posed to take with that object, and he trusted that at the next sitting of the House Her Majesty's Ministers would be in a position to state how it was they meant to deal with the all-important question under discussion.


said, he had been exposed to very serious inconvenience and annoyance from the state of the river when sitting in the court over which he had the honour to preside. In fact, proceedings in Westminster Hall could not be carried on without danger alike to witnesses, attorneys, counsel, and Judges; and if the present state of things continued much longer it would become necessary to remove the law courts either to Oxford or St. Alban's. There were no powers which the Government could ask which he would not be prepared to grant them in order to enable them to get rid of so great an evil.


said, that owing to an arrangement which had been carried into effect within the last few years, 82,000,000 gallons of pure water were taken out of the Thames per day; that before they were poured back into the river again they had to pass through all the waterclosets in London; and that, therefore, while such a process continued, it would be no easy matter to restore it to its former state of purity. It was, however, he contended, absolutely necessary that some steps should be taken in order to abate the evil complained of, and that object could, he thought, be best effected, not by a Commission consisting of many persons, but by intrusting the matter to the hands of one person, or as few persons more than one as possible. These persons should institute a thorough investigation into the subject and prepare a comprehensive plan to be submitted to Parliament. Four or five millions of money could not, of course, be laid out upon any project of that description without the supervision of Parliament; but the Government would, he trusted, at once procure the sanction of the Legislature to a measure enabling them to appoint some small number of persons whose duty it would be to prepare a plan for the purification of the river, and to submit it immediately to Parliament. He did not believe, as seemed to be the opinion of some noble Lords, that we were on the eve of a great calamity owing to the present state of the Thames. The stench which arose from it was, no doubt, most offensive and prejudicial to health; but nothing, he thought, could be more dangerous than to spread a panic among the inhabitants of the metropolis by magnifying the evil. He hoped some medical men who were conversant with the subject would take steps to remove the fears which an undue alarm was calculated to create.


agreed with the noble Lord (Lord Portman) in thinking that nothing could be more injurious in the present state of things than the dread of a panic, or the public being led to believe that a pestilence was at hand. Whatever measures were now adopted for the purification of the Thames, they could not be immediately productive of the results all were so anxious to see brought about. But the subject was one of most serious importance. It was only three years ago that the General Board of Management for the metropolis was appointed, and since that time new sewers had been in course of construction all over the metropolis, the contents of which had been discharged into the Thames, and unfortunately converted into its present filthy condition. He could assure their Lordships that the nuisance had not escaped the notice of the Government. On the contrary, it had been, and it now was, under their serious consideration. A Committee had also been appointed in the House of Commons, with their approval, to investigate it, and he hoped the Session would not pass away without, at all events, their perfecting a scheme to be hereafter submitted to Parliament.


said, he thought the speech of the noble Marquess was calculated to create the impression that all effectual remedy for a nuisance which had now become of great magnitude would, so far as the Government were concerned, be indefinitely postponed. The noble Lord (Lord Portman) seemed to think it was dangerous to lead the public to suppose that a pestilence was imminent; but more dangerous still was it, he (Earl Grey) should contend, to underestimate the extent of the evil which their Lordships were engaged in discussing. The noble Marquess had observed, that the subject was not a new one; but he would ask their Lordships whether they ever before experienced so much inconvenience from the stench from the river as at present? He was sure, that if any noble Lord would take the trouble to go into the library of the House, he would find that he had never smelt such a smell as would greet him there before. It was impossible that such a stench should not be exceedingly dangerous; and yet they were told that they must wait for a remedy until a Committee of the House of Commons had reported on a plan. He concurred in the remark of the noble Lord (Lord Portman) that the only way in which the subject could be effectually dealt with, was to place the matter in the hands of two or three men, and to invest them with sufficient power to act in a decisive manner. It had indeed been said, that no money ought to be laid out upon any project of the kind without the supervision of Parliament; but if their Lordships were to wait until a scheme should be devised, which should be discussed by everybody, the result would be, that not only the present Session, but many more, would have passed away before any satisfactory conclusion would be arrived at. The course which, in his opinion, ought to be taken, was to appoint two or three men of great professional eminence—such, for instance, as Mr. Stephenson—to give them authority to prepare, not a plan, which should be the mark for every sort of attack from every sort of rival projector, but one which they could act upon, and for which they, at all events, would be responsible. If some measure enabling the necessary works to be commenced forthwith were not passed during the present Session, the omission would, he thought, reflect great disgrace both upon Her Majesty's Government and upon the Legislature. A short and simple Bill, giving such powers as he had indicated—always, of course, subject to the control of Her Majesty's Ministers—would therefore, he trusted, be passed before the Session terminated.


said, that supposing the plan of the noble Earl (the Earl of Hardwicke) were the correct one—namely, to take the whole of the sewage of London direct to the sea, before any such arrangement could be carried out there must be a considerable expenditure both of time and money. He agreed in the propriety of much that had fallen from the noble Lords opposite as to the desirability of putting the matter into the hands of some person, if any engineer of sufficient eminence would undertake the task. Whoever came forward, however, would have to throw himself, like Curtius, into the gulf, and he must expect to find himself excessively abused. This was a ques- tion which not merely affected London, but all other towns. The condition they had brought London to was rapidly becoming that of every other town. Nearly all the rivers and water channels in the country were being rendered impure; and unless this question was taken up generally, and a new system adopted of getting rid of the filth of towns, there was no telling what the consequences might be. He might state what had occurred this year with regard to Manchester. In Manchester the inferior classes of houses were cleansed by means of cesspools and local arrangements, which, he was informed, were admirably managed. There was a Bill before Parliament connected with that town. It was a Water Bill, and in all such Bills there were certain provisions which he might almost say were sterco-typed; and which obliged the promoters of the Bill to insert clauses, the effect of which would be to make every house in Manchester have a watercloset. The local authorities came before him, and distinctly said that any system of that sort would be prejudicial from the manner in which it must pollute the river; that at present all the filth was removed through the act of the corporation without nuisance, and that Manchester was healthy as compared with other large towns, He said he could not take upon himself the responsibility of placing them in a different position from other towns on their own representations; but, if they would put in the Preamble of the Bill a statement that such was the state of things, and prove those facts before the Committee, he would raise no objection; but he had since been told that the Committee of the Commons would not hear of the provisions of the Bill being different from those of other towns. It might be all right, but he believed that the system of turning all the filth from the sewers, into the watercourses and rivers, would produce in the country evils similar to that which now afflicted London. From having local Bills brought before him, he knew that this evil was spreading. He had had complaints from various districts; there seemed a general desire to get rid of the filth of towns, with a general inability to accomplish the object in any other way. He believed that one of the causes of the increased impurity of the Thames had been the taking away of old London Bridge, and getting rid of the dam which that bridge made. Before that was done, the stream continued to run out much longer than at present, and the tidal water being kept back at the dam for some time, much filth settled below bridge before the tide flowed above it, and was swept far down at the next ebb. Now, the tide flowed quickly a long way up the river and brought back all the impurities. He thought that the expense of the drainage of London ought to fall solely on the district. When they remembered the enormous works now being carried on in all the provincial towns for the improvement of those towns, which did not ask for one sixpence of the public money for those improvements, and would not get it if they did, surely they would not look to any other source than the wealthy metropolis for the expenses of its own drainage.


said, he was exceeding glad that the noble Lord (Lord Redesdale) had called attention to this point, because it was not London only, but a great many other towns in the kingdom were suffering from the impurity of the rivers, which were polluted with drains. Two or three years ago a Nuisance Removal and Prevention Bill was recommended to the House of Commons by a Committee, which sat, for a long time and entered into a variety of details, and in that Bill a clause was inserted that no manufacturer should be allowed to discharge the offensive matter produced in the manufactory without using the best-known remedy for rendering the matter so discharged innocuous. With regard to gas, there were stringent provisions in the various Gas Acts to prevent the discharge and the refuse, and if the House would, in the next General Health Bill, insert a similar clause with regard to other manufactories, they would do a great deal to remedy the evil they were now complaining of. Until within the last ten or twelve years they had Commissioners of Sewers for the various districts of London, whose duty it was to prevent any one turning filth into the sewers; but the Legislature chose to insist on a different system being adopted; and now, instead of no private individuals being allowed to drain their houses into the sewer, they were all compelled to do so. They must not blame the local authorities too much, because it was only lately that this system had been adopted, and it was Parliament that had compelled them to adopt it. With regard to the Board of Works, he did not think any persons could have been more laborious and painstaking than the gentlemen com- posing that Board had been. They had examined plans and consulted engineers, and they went to the late Government and said, "If you will give us a little assistance by a guarantee, so that we shall not have to borrow money at a ruinous interest, we can proceed at once." But the Government had not acceded to that request. Whether the scheme of the Board of Works was the best or not he could not say, but he thought if the report of the Commission were carried out, it would give satisfaction; and if the two schemes could be combined it would be advantageous. He thought, that by embanking the Thames, and allowing the people free access to the banks of the river, they would do more to promote the health of the metropolis than by any scheme of public parks.


said, that pestilential as were the gases from the sewage that flowed into the Thames, they were not so pestilential as those noisome trades which were carried on at the other side of the river, and with which there was no interference on the part of any municipal authority.


said, he thought much good might, without a very great delay, be effected by carrying down the sewers from high to low water mark. It was admitted that any system of carrying off the sewage of the metropolis by another course than the Thames must involve the spending of a considerable time in the construction of works; and he was of opinion, that the existing evils might, in the meantime, be much mitigated by the plan which he had just mentioned.


said, he was very much obliged to the noble Lords who had brought this subject under the notice of their Lordships. Noble Lords on the opposition side of the House seemed to think that Her Majesty's Government had been asleep; but he had to mention this fact, that no less than eighteen months ago the Chairman of the Metropolitan Board of Works addressed a letter to the late Chancellor of the Exchequer, suggesting that the Government, of which that right hon. Gentleman was a Member, should assist, with their security, in raising a sum of money for the purpose of remedying the evil which was now complained of. That letter was dated in January, 1857; but from that till the present day, the Chairman of the Metropolitan Board of Works had never received the slightest answer. said, that after the receipt of the letter alluded to by his noble Friend (the Earl of Malmesbury) the First Commissioner of Works in the late Government appointed an engineer to examine the plan of the Metropolitan Board of Works. Another more comprehensive plan was subsequently suggested, and was under the consideration of the late Government at the time they retired from office.


said, it would be convenient if the Government stated their intentions with respect to this matter on an early day next week.

House adjourned at Seven o'clock, till To-morrow, Half-past Two o'clock.