A report on conditions at Epsom was prepared for the Government's General Board of Health in 1849 by William Lee, and published for circulation to local inhabitants and others. They must have read it with dismay since, without any excuses or evasion, it paints a picture of how degraded the conditions of life could be in the back yards and alleyways of a small town. For the full text of Lee's report, see
Other reports like this were being made at the time; they were a response to problems which were being encountered nationally. The Industrial Revolution and the growth of towns in the nineteenth century had brought new problems of housing, water supply, sanitation, and roads. There was no single overall authority in any area to cope with these problems. The Surveyor of Highways, funded by the rates of householders, and the Turnpike Trusts, raising funds by tolls, had responsibility for the upkeep of roads but no legislation laid down standards for the construction of houses or for the provision of a water supply and the removal of sewage, or even of the dead.
In 1834 Edwin Chadwick became an assistant commissioner to the new Poor Law Commission and as a result developed his lifelong interest in public health. Severe outbreaks of cholera in 1832 and 1837 led to Government enquiries, and Chadwick's report for the Royal Commission in 1842. He concluded that disease was preventable, that bad physical conditions of life led to bad moral habits, and that legislation was necessary to effect reform. The passing of the Public Health Act in 1848 set up a General Board of Health with powers of inspection, audit, and recommendation. Most importantly the Act empowered a local area to set up its own Board of Health, although there was no compulsion and only about two hundred did so. Epsom was the first area in Surrey to request that the Act be applied to it.
Victorian towns were full of unsanitary conditions behind the scenes.
The process of setting up the Local Board of Health was initiated by a petition to the General Board of Health, signed by not less than one tenth of those paying the Poor Rate in the district. In Epsom the number of petitioners was reported as 'greatly exceeding thirty'. Presumably three hundred householders paid the Poor Rate. The petition gave powers to the General Board of Health to send one of their inspectors 'to visit the parish and to make public inquiry, and to examine witnesses as to the sewage, drainage, and supply of water, the state of the burial grounds, the number and sanitary condition of the inhabitants'. The Superintending Inspector was William Lee, Chartered Engineer, who wrote his report from the headquarters of the Board, Gwydyr House, Whitehall, London, on 16 August 1849.
As soon as Lee's report had been received, the Epsom petitioners asked for authority to elect a Local Board of Health for the better administration of conditions in the town. The revelations of filthy and diseased conditions in the town cannot have come as a surprise ? if you read the report carefully, it turns out to be full of submissions from people like Everest, Langlands, Andrews and Dorling, who were already involved in plans for the improvement of the area.
The first election for places on the Epsom Board of Health was held on 2 May 1850, with 22 candidates for 9 places. William Harsant, an Epsom chemist, topped the poll. The officers of the Metropolitan Police assisted in the delivery and collection of the voting papers. The Minute books of the Board of Health are preserved in the County Record Office at Kingston, and these record that the first meeting was held in the Board Room of the Union Workhouse in Epsom on 13 May 1850 at 12 noon. George Everest took the Chair, acting under an Order in Council of 9 March 1850 which put the Public Health Act 1848 in operation in Epsom, and the members then elected Sir Richard Digby Neave as their Chairman, although Everest was asked to assist at the next two meetings. The Guardians of the Union were thanked for the use of the room and were asked that this might continue. Unfortunately they refused, so the use of the Magistrates' Room was offered and accepted. Already letters and applications for posts in the employ of the Board had been received, and the Surveyors of Highways were asked to attend the next meeting with a statement of accounts, since the upkeep of roads now came under the jurisdiction of the Board. Only accounts after 25 March were required, as well as a list of all tools, equipment, and materials. The Board resolved to appoint a Superintendent or Inspector of Nuisances to oversee the roads at a salary of £ 25 per annum. On 24 July Henry Andrews was appointed Surveyor and Inspector of Nuisances, for the time being only relating to roads, at a salary of £ 40 per annum, and it was agreed to rent an office from him for the post, for £ 10 per year. Everest was also asked to continue as Clerk to the Board but the Magistrates, to whom he was also Clerk, considered the two posts incompatible and he had to resign. Joseph Gritton was appointed in his place.
At their meeting on 17 July, the Board resolved to offer £ 50 to engineers or surveyors for the best and most economic plan for sewerage and water supply for Epsom. By 2 September ten plans had been submitted and William Lee had offered to look them over. Four were selected to be sent to the General Board of Health for the opinion of the central authority. However, it replied that any construction would be better under the control of a local surveyor with the temporary assistance of a consulting engineer. The Epsom Board therefore asked the General Board to nominate an experienced surveyor or engineer, and they named a Mr. Rawlinson. He immediately gave his opinion that the water supply should be based, not on Lee's estimate of the average rainfall, that is 25 inches per year, but the minimum available for use, that is 9 inches. Lee's firm was accepted by the Board to design and supervise the installation of a water supply and sewerage system, but before this could be done a new map of the town at a scale of 44 feet to the inch was needed.
Maintaining a Victorian main sewer.
On 3 March 1851 Lee came to Epsom and viewed the Common with Henry Andrews, and later the same day met the members of the Board. He estimated that there were 191 acres of gathering ground on the Common, and if 100 acres were drained this would be sufficient for the estimated annual water needs of the Town. A 2½-acre reservoir would store water for the dry season. The entire cost of the water supply would now be £ 4,405, which would be borrowed over 30 years at 5%. The various water sources in the Town had been analysed for their hardness.
On 5 October Lee wrote to the Board that the survey should be completed in three months. However, on 22 January 1852 the plans were still with Henry Austin, the Secretary to the General Board, and Lee complained that he had been asked for much additional information but could submit final plans to Epsom within three weeks of receiving them back from Austin. On 25 March the clerk, J.T. Gritton, called on Lee at his London office in Duke Street, and then went to see the Assistant Secretary to the General Board, who agreed that the delay was due to Austin. At last, at their meeting on 12 May, the Board heard that the survey and plans made by Lee had been approved. A letter was written to John Ivatt Briscoe, the Lord of the Manor, for permission for a trial drain to be dug on the Common, but no reply was received. Work had still not begun on 11 August although the cost was now estimated at £ 7,301, so the General Board was asked to sanction a loan of £ 7,000. At that time they informed the Epsom Board that the Preliminary Inquiry had cost £ 77 12s 8d, and it was resolved to pay this off over five years. On 8 September the General Board was still considering the sanction for the loan, and finally on 29 September allowed Epsom to borrow £ 5,000.
On 13 October 1852 an entirely new problem arose. A letter was received from the solicitor who was the Agent to Briscoe, the Lord of the Manor of Epsom, pointing out the liability of the Board if they erected works on the Common without his consent. The Board replied that it was their intention to erect such works. It appears that the Board had not determined the views of Briscoe before this stage. The firm of Lee and Stevenson produced sketch drawings of the works on the Common for him, but at the meeting with his stewards Lee was informed that Briscoe would not allow the works to be constructed. Finally on 3 January 1853 Lee and Briscoe met. The latter said that he had received so many objections from influential people in Epsom that he could not give his sanction. By this time the Board had already put advertisements in the Times, Midland Counties Advertiser, and Builder for tenders to supply and lay iron and earthenware pipes.
Lee appears to have been prepared for this setback, because at the meeting at which he reported Briscoe's refusal, he produced a detailed alternative scheme. He recommended that water should be sunk for in a field below the National School at the junction of Hook Road and East Street. Two 10-horse-power engines would be needed to raise the water at a cost of £ 2,000, but they might also be used to raise sewage. A committee of the Board inquired into the best site for the water works and the reservoir, and reported that one acre of land belonging to Laurence Langlands (himself a member of the Board), should be purchased for £ 300, and land for the reservoir on the Downs, from George Harrison for £ 60. Charles Young, the nurseryman of East Street, was Langland's tenant, and it was agreed to pay him £ 100 to cover the cost of removing his glasshouse and stock. He would also be able to continue to use part of the land for a further year. However, Young was not satisfied and eventually the Board agreed to pay him £ 385. Land belonging to Frederick White at the back of the Eagle Inn (this would be the Spread Eagle) was rented from April 1853, for £ 8 for nine months, for the deposit of pipes while work was carried out in the Town. Lee had already had discussions with the firms whose tenders had been accepted for the previous scheme, so it appeared that work could now begin.
There was certainly no general agreement in the Town that the application of the Act to Epsom was a good thing, nor were its supporters unanimous in approving Lee's plans. William Everest, who had acted for a few weeks as the first Clerk to the Board, had been elected as one of its members in April 1852. In February 1853 he suggested that instead of providing their own, water could be supplied from Thames Ditton or by the Railway Company, but in the opinion of the Board this would be much more expensive and unlikely to fulfil all the Town's needs. In May 1853 Everest wrote to the Board in his capacity as Vestry Clerk, asking members of the Board to attend a Vestry meeting to discuss the water supply. The Board declined to take part in public discussion although they gave instructions that Gritton their clerk should attend, taking with him all the correspondence with the Lord of the Manor. A week later a committee of the Vestry attended a Board meeting and said they wished to be consulted from time to time, but the members said they were willing to receive suggestions but not to discuss their business. The Vestry deputation immediately handed over a protest (which they had already prepared), wishing all work should cease until the cause of the fatal epidemic in Croydon had been investigated,. No further information is given on this epidemic although it seems most likely to have been typhoid. The Vestry believed that the present plans were inadequate, likely to involve enormous expense, and would produce disease. If the Board did not accede to their request they would appeal to the proper authorities. Subsequently, the Epsom Vestry petitioned the Secretary of State to stop the Act from being applied to Epsom, and also to ensure that an engineer, unconnected with the Board of Health, should be employed. They favoured an engineer called Simpson as consultant.
In the summer of 1853, further tenders for iron pipes were advertised, and Lee was making changes to his plans, the second set of which were submitted to the Board in July. A well from 5 to 8 feet in diameter would have to be sunk on land in East Street, and a pair of 15-horse high pressure steam engines erected to raise the water 220 feet. There was no site, apart from the Common, at sufficient altitude to supply water by gravitation. The Board asked Lee to submit his bill up to the time when the Common scheme was abandoned. Gritton resigned as Clerk in July, since he was now seventy and becoming deaf. It was also obvious that the services of a lawyer were required. George White immediately offered himself for the post, and was appointed at a salary of £ 40 per annum, with £ 20 for the use of his office. One of his first tasks was to obtain a hammer for the use of the Chairman, and at the meeting on 19 September, to report the arrival of a printed circular from the General Board to Local Boards with precautionary advice relating to cholera.
Links between poor water supply and infectious disease were slow to be recognised.
At last, at the end of 1853, four years after the preliminary inquiry, work could begin on the construction that had been recommended. The delay was very largely caused by the lack of experience in the organisation of local government, and in its relationship with central government at the time. The records of the Epsom Board of Health provide an interesting insight into these early years. Although this paper largely deals with the water supply and sewerage, the early minute books also give detailed information on the upkeep of roads, the lighting of the town by gas, and actions taken against rate defaulters and perpetrators of nuisances. The Local Board of Health was the effective governing body of Epsom until 1894, when it was superseded by the Urban District Council. This was chartered as the present Borough of Epsom & Ewell in 1937.
(These notes were prepared by the late Valerie Cox when she was researching the medical history of Epsom in the 1990s. The minute books of the Epsom Board of Health are at Surrey History Centre, 3554/1/1?2 and 3527/1/1?8, as are the letter books, 6053/1/1?5, and William Lee's map, 6158/1/2. The papers of the General Board of Health relating to the Epsom board are at the national Archives, MH 13/70. Many thanks to Sheila Ross, who typed the Report, and Louise Aitken, who did the introductory notes)