Lighten Our Darkness

by Cliff Burd, 1998

The period 1830-1860 was one of the most politically and socially agitated of the century. In 1832, many believed that England had come as close to revolution as at any time in her history. As the reform bill of 1832, the Chartist riots and the agitation of the period swept away the idea of the graded hierarchical agricultural community as a microcosm of the nation, England entered a new industrial age of change and uncertainty. The economic and social infrastructure was changed forever.

New industries, such as textile and iron, led to massive population movements from the country to the towns, Between 1821 and 1831 Liverpool grew by 46% and Manchester by 40%.

In 1829 over 500 coaches covered some 12,000 miles of road and employed over 30,000 men and 150,000 horses. Steam power came in and miles of rail network, Add to this the Penny Post and improved telegraphic communication, and a picture of a new era of human mobility emerges.1

Before then the Enclosure Acts, 1760-1820, had brought about an improvement in agriculture, but were a mixed blessing for the poorer classes. Medieval strips and common grazing were gradually phased out, to be replaced by more compact farming and better hedging and ditching. However, quite apart from the large-scale changes, with the removal of whole villages in some areas, the social consequences were harsh.

Smallholders, agricultural labourers and those, such as the squatters, on the fringe of agriculture enjoying some of the privileges of the old system, found themselves unable to survive in the new. Consequently there was a migration from the countryside. In 1800 over seven million people lived and worked in the country, and there were about three million in the towns. By 1850 there were eleven million in the towns and cities, putting an enormous strain on the infrastructure. While most large towns could accommodate this expansion, mainly by building back to back housing, Tewkesbury was limited by its geographical location, with the rivers and natural floodplain, so there was little room for development.

In 1842, a report was commissioned on 'The Sanitary Conditions of the Labouring Population of Great Britain', and this brought about the Public Health Act of 1848, which established a Central Board of Health, with three members. This body proved ineffectual, due to opposition from local authorities, who were resistant to the tactless approach of the three members. Authority was then transferred to the Committee of the Privy Council, which the authorities seemed more inclined to accept.

Although the Industrial Revolution did not benefit Tewkesbury there was much social distress, as experienced by other towns following their expansion. The population of Tewkesbury rose from 4,199 in 1801 to 5,878 in 18512 as a result of the migration, and the only way to accommodate such an increase in a small town like ours was to build down the alleys and courts initially, giving virtual back to back development, mainly of local brick. These properties were constructed in the main without water supplies or sanitation.

At a meeting of the Town Counci13 a resolution was passed calling for an inquiry into the water supply and the sewerage in the town, stating that "the filthy state of the alleys, in which the poorer classes live, and the bad ventilation, is no doubt in great measure the cause of the high rate of mortality". There were two major areas of concern, the lack of real drainage, and the shortage, or absence, of unpolluted water.

Some time later, a Mr. Abel Poynter of Worcester was contracted to construct a covered drain system for the main streets. At that time there were only open gutters in the streets, flushed only by heavy rains! The areas in greatest need, however, the alleys and courts, and the other areas occupied by "the poorer classes" remained drain-free areas.

Houses fronting the three main streets, occupied, of course, by the better-off, had access to these gutters, some of the more enterprising even constructing their own culverts, leading mainly to the rivers and brooks. It is quite impossible for us even to imagine what the atmosphere must have been like, especially on a hot summer's day! Small wonder that almost every garden plot grew lavender, whose oil was reputed to ward off infection!

In the light of these conditions, consider the plight of those living in cramped conditions, where some two hundred properties had no privy, and where, if one was available, it was generally shared and then allowed to overflow. When these privies were emptied the contents, night soil, so- called because it was generally removed at night, was usually dumped in the alleys in the hope that the scavenger employed by the council would fulfil his duties and remove this deposit between midnight and four a.m..

Being aware of these dreadful conditions, the Relieving Officer for the Poor, William Brydges, advised that "The privies of the homes of the poorer classes are in many cases a nuisance. I do not know what advantage it would be to the town for the poorer houses to be provided with privies. The filth in the alleys is a nuisance only to those living in the alleys, not to the town in general". Imagine the headlines in today's newspapers!

The water supply for the town varied. There was a reasonably continuous supply of clear water available in the wells supplying the better part of the town. For the remainder, there were public pumps, but they were not always working. The one in Post Office Alley was out of action for three years, whilst the Townsend Alley pump was useless for seven years! As a result people were forced either to beg water or to obtain it from the rivers and brooks, sometimes with frightening consequences.

Mary Hawkins of Smiths Lane4 told the Board of Health: "I get water from the river, and very often find lumps of nastiness in the pail. I went down once to get water for boiling some peas and found a lump of this stuff as I was putting it in the pot". Bad enough getting water from the river when the water level was reasonably high, but when levels fell in the summer pollution from the entry of sewage can hardly be imagined.

The physical difficulty of obtaining water from the rivers should not be forgotten. Mainly in buckets, in winter having to break the ice, carrying them along tiny passageways; how many of us would cope? For those who couldn't, it was possible to have water fetched, and the rate for this was generally ld for three buckets, approximately ten gallons. For the average family, this could amount to 1s. 6d. from the budget.

Mr. Rammell, the Inspector from the Central Board of Health, London, after his enquiry in  March 1848, made the following five recommendations: 

  1. A thorough system of drainage is required. 
  2. Adequate privy accommodation. 
  3. A plentiful supply of water of purer quality. 
  4. Improved ventilation of the dwellings of the poor. 
  5. Increased burial accommodation at a greater distance from the habitations.5 

Another report, surprising with hindsight, came from Dr. Frederick Prior, Surgeon: 

"The more frequent cases of fever in Wilkes Alley (which leads from High  Street to the Mill Avon), I attribute to inferior diet, and that the measures for  improving drainage and water supply will not much improve the character Of  the diseases of the town I have an impression that the Public Health Act is not  calculated to produce any great benefit here and I oppose the introduction of  it. 

Mr Rammell in his inquiry had of course looked at the relevant mortality rates over a seven year period up to the end of 1848: 

BIRTHS DEATHS Deaths Under 1 YR Deaths Under 5 YR From Disease
TOTAL 12951144215403129

He was in no doubt as to the causes and stated that "the figures denoted most unequivocally  show the existence of local circumstances strongly unfavourable to health".

The speed at which the Local Board of Health acted can only be rivalled by the planning  departments of some local authorities of today. It was in 1850 before any serious decisions were  made, and the following actions, among others, were taken: 

  1. That a report on the state of the highways be made. 
  2. That in future works undertaken by the Board of Health, regard should be taken to prevent the discharge of sewerage and drainage into the Avon and Swilgate. 
  3. That floodgates be constructed in the stancheon of the Swilgate in John Martin's property in order to scour the stream by its actions. 
  4. That the Board should contract for the cleaning of the bed of the Swilgate. 
  5. That there should be a survey of the properties referred to in Mr. Rammell's report as having no privies, with a view to ensuring that they are erected. 
  6. That the Scavenger be required to fulfil all the conditions by his contract. 

Following these discussions, action that was almost electrifying by comparison with the  previous several years began to take effect, as the details from the meetings of the Board of Health  show: 

23rd September 1850  "After meeting the Board of Guardians of the Poor, it was remarked that they be exempt from  the levy for the expenses of the floodgate.  The cleaning of the Swilgate was proceeded with and notices were affixed warning persons  against dumping rubbish in the Avon and Swilgate. " 

7th October 1850  "Mr. Fraser submitted a plan for constructing a drain from the Carrant to the Swilgate aimed  at draining the Oldbury. " 

1st January 1851  "The Scavenger was ordered not to use the water cart for other than public purposes".  (One wonder what other uses he put the cart to!) 

7th April 1851  "Two notices were received of the intention to build privies and make drains at premises in  the Oldbury. These were agreed providing they were 'trapped'." At about this time an application from a person in Lilley's Alley for a privy was refused as it  was intended to be built over a well! 

23rd May 1851  "Mr. Potter applied for permission to raise the level of the ground floor a step above the  pavement of the street and to build a privy for use of the house, upon a piece of ground at the  bottom of Fish Alley."

16th September 1851  "A notice was received from Mr. Sam Garland who intended to build a culvert drain from a  water closet to the public sewer in Barton Street. The surveyor stated that such water closet  was infact a privy and consent was refused.  The Surveyor was instructed to ascertain the expense ofa drain or culvert along the Swilgate  at the back of Barton Street and Church Street, of ten inches and a drain of ten inches in  diameter. 

So drains and sewers were gradually introduced around the town, but it was only a beginning, and there were still many properties in a desperate condition. A series of Bye-laws was passed, regulating street cleaning, refuse removal, the emptying of closets, privies, cesspools, etc., as well as the whitewashing of house interiors to reduce offensive smells.

One, which affected the minority of the population, regulated the scavenging or removal of refuse, and read as follows:

"That a cart shall at least once in every twenty-four hours pass through every street in the district with the words Scavengers Refuse Cart painted in legible characters, (the driver shall ring a bell before each house), into which the Scavenger shall place all the refuse, animal and vegetable matter and all house refuse whatever, which may have accumulated since the last passage of the cart, and access shall be given to such scavengers to all places where such refuse is deposited, provided always that where such dust boxes as are described in the next bye laws have been provided by the Local Board it shall be sufficient to place such refuse in such boxes for collection.' 6

Further to this it was declared that:

"No night soil, sewage or other content of cesspool or other noxious matter shall be conveyed through the streets or through fares between the hours of five in the morning and twelve in the evening, except in the cart properly covered and secured against escapes Of the contents or any issue of offensive smells from the same to the satisfaction of the Inspector of Nuisances."

There were several other bye-laws covering the cleaning of cesspools, spillages and the fines for offences against the bye-laws.

Further enactments covered the control of slaughterhouses, the movement of beasts and the regulation of lodging houses within the Borough. For the first time there was a requirement to provide a water closet or privy for every lodging house. Whereas in the past lodgers in some houses slept on the floor, now bedsteads and bedding had to be provided in every room. By 1853 things were beginning to improve, albeit gradually. Applications began to be received for the building of privies at various locations around the town, a Street and Nuisances Committee was set up and a Highway Rate was introduced with a view to repairing the roads and pavements. In September of this year the Surveyor was authorised to employ additional men for cleaning the back lanes, the Oldbury and the alleys.

Alive to the fact that cholera was still a major threat to the town, the Committee on September reported that at the first intelligence of the appearance of cholera in the country, a notice should be issued advising residents of the fact and of the importance of using the recommended preventative measures, such notice to be signed by the Mayor. The notice was entitled 'Plain Advice during the Visitation of Cholera' ,

A survey of the town at this dine showed that there were 60 homes with neither water nor privy, and a further 91 houses which had water but no privy. During the month of October the Board of Health pressed forward with marked enthusiasm. Notices were issued to houses in almost every alley and court in the town to whitewash, cleanse and purify the houses to prevent or check contagious or infectious diseases. Thirty persons were ordered to remove the pigs they were keeping 'such as to be a nuisance'. This must have caused some hardship for the families concerned as the keeping of a pig usually ensured what was likely to be the only source of meat throughout the hard winter. A public toilet had been erected in St. Mary's Lane, the surveyor being directed to ensure that the keys were accessible to all the people; no reports had been received that the facility had been kept locked.

The introduction of improved drainage, sewers and individual privies continued spasmodically throughout subsequent years, with the Local Board of Health taking a firmer line with property owners. However, the local newspapers in 1865 were prepared to offer £1,000 for the best means of drainage and purifying the Swilgate brook from Orchard Court to the river, demonstrating that there was still a long way to go.

Lighting The Town

I suppose that the closest we might come to knowing what it must have been like to walk through the streets of the town on a winter's evening would have been during the war at the time of the blackout regulations, or more recently during the power strikes of the late sixties.

That street lighting was considered necessary can be seen from a Bye-law of 1687, which required that

"every manner of person being one of the common council within the town and every Taverner, Innholder, Chandler and Victualler within the town shall, at their proper charges, set or hang forth before their houses next unto the street side, one lantern and candle lighted, beginning on the eve of All Saints Day until the morrow of Candlemass Day, and there do burn from beginning of night until eight of the clock except at the time of the moon shining, and the same be done in the neighbourhood called Several friars upon their common charges and at such special houses as the bailiffs shall agree upon pain of every person offending to lose for every time, sixpence." 

Whilst an Improvement Act was granted to the town in 1786, it was not until 1791 that the council decided to take action to light the three main streets.8 A plan submitted by one of the Street Commissioners for lighting the town and for the design of the lamps for this purpose, manufactured locally, was considered. There were to be eighty lamps, lit by oil, set some thirty yards apart. John Stephens, Victualler, was employed as the lamplighter in 1791, "to light the lamps for the ensuing winter, the said John Stephens to find oil and wick and clean the lamps, to put them up in the winter and take them down in the summer at his own cost, he to be paid one penny per lamp per night." 

Prior to this, in 1786, Stephens had been contracted to light and clean the lamps at two shillings per week "in that part of the town where work was going on, for the safety of the inhabitants and travellers". He carried on as lamplighter for the next five years, "lamps being lit until seven nights before the full moon, the night of the full moon and one night after the full moon, the lamps being put out at 2.00 a.m.". This kind of economy continued well into the nineteenth century.9

During the three years up to 1798, one William Couldery10, an oil merchant from London, was contracted to light the lamps at a yearly charge of fifteen shillings. In 1804, however, Samuel Vaughn became the lamplighter after John Stephens refused the job at twelve shillings per week. He was no longer requested to find oil and wick!

Some time later. in 1807, a demonstration took place in London of the possibilities of lighting the streets with gas. This was so successful that by 1820 many cities were lit by this new medium. These lamps used simple burners, just slots in the end of a length of pipe, called by the shape of the flame being produced Batwing, Ratstail, Fishtail, etc.. A Tewkesbury lighting contractor in 1866 specified Batwing burners rated at four cubic feet per hour, but the major leap forward in this type of lighting was the incandescent mantle in 1855, an invention that many people remember well.

Gas lighting in Tewkesbury was first considered at a meeting of the Street Commissioners in November 1827, when they considered a plan by Mr Hill of Worcester. Such was the importance of the proposal that a public meeting was called for the 20th December 1827. A vote showed that 48 persons were in favour of gas lighting and 16 against. 64 people at a meeting of this importance! The following year the Street Commissioners examined the cost of lighting in other towns and cities, and three weeks later reported that "that three pounds or three guineas per lamp per annum would be a fair charge".

Showing their usual indecision, the contract with Mr. Hill was not concluded due to a disagreement, so the matter was duly abandoned. It was not until July 1832 that there was a proposal by Mr Winterbottom that Mr Morely Stears of Leeds, gas engineer, was a fit person to be treated with. Showing almost indecent haste, the Commissioners had selected a site at the top of the Oldbury, and shortly thereafter contracts were signed. The sum of £4,00011 was raised by issuing four hundred shares, and the Tewkesbury Gas Company was formed with Mr. Sears holding almost one third of the shares. On 21st' January 1833 Bennett in the Yearly Register noted that, "The gas works having advanced towards completion, the greater part of the town was now brilliantly illuminated".

The contract with the gas company for lighting the streets was for twenty-one years.12 Negotiations for renewal, however, were fraught with problems. A small group, five persons in all, after attending a meeting at the Swan Inn, requested the Board of Health not to sign a new contract with the gas company. The aim of this small group was to form a separate company to supply gas lighting! One can only assume that this was a ploy made out of mischief or malice, as it would have been unlikely in the extreme for them to form a company, build the necessary plant and manage it in the production of gas in a time scale likely to suit the local authority. Meanwhile what would have happened to the street lighting?

The gas company, however, held all the trump cards, and when the lamps were not lit for several nights in January 1854 the Mayor intervened and made a personal request to the gas company to light the streets until the 31st January, which, surprisingly, they were happy to do. The matter was of such importance to the town that the Tewkesbury Record published a free issue devoted to the dispute, rightly criticising the authorities: "After a whole years consideration of the question, public meeting, deputations and no end of correspondence with the company, those luminous gentlemen, the guardians of the town, the conservators of public health and preservers of the borough's wealth, finished their labours for the year by leaving the town in utter darkness." Agreement for a one-year contract was reached on 1st' February 1854.

The sorry saga continued with the gas company requiring a three year contract from 1855, and the authorities wanting a shorter period.

In March, therefore, a system of temporary lighting was organised with the purchase of twenty lamps from Birmingham, burning naptha. The press followed the ongoing conflict with some relish. The Record commented, "certain expenses ({141-9-9) having been incurred in providing temporary lights, with Mr. Fryzer proposing and Mr. Prosser seconding that the board do not enter into contract until they have saved enough to pay the expenses already incurred. Could anything be more absurd, childish or more illogical than this?" And later, in August 1855, a further attack: "Soon the necessary savings by the use of naptha will be effected and we shall go back to gas. Could we not elect the gentlemen who saved us much by the non-consuming system to carry out their schemes of improvement on a grand scale by doing away with the use of bread in the Workhouse till they have saved enough to bury the inmates?" The Mayor, obviously under some pressure, decided to settle the matter by ordering that the town be lit.

After this common sense prevailed; there were technical changes, with incandescent mantles and by-pass valves and pilot lights, which brought the days of the lamplighter with his taper and ladder to a close. By 1900 all the lamps had been modified, and the introduction of a timing mechanism in 1917 made the lamplighter redundant. In October the Tewkesbury Electric Light Company wrote to the council asking to tender for the lighting in the town. The first suspended light was so successful that by 1922 eleven more lamps had been installed, with the displaced gas lamps being moved to new locations.

In 1931 the Tewkesbury Gas Company was absorbed by the Cheltenham Gas Company and the Shropshire Worcs. and Staffs. Electric Power Company took over the Tewkesbury facility. Both gas and electricity continued in use in the town until 1948.13


Tewkesbury made slow progress throughout the nineteenth century in terms of providing facilities such as lighting, drainage, good quality water, etc., bearing in mind that it was starting from a very low base. 

As a sobering thought, however, consider the following. A couple married had moved into a rented house in Gravel Walk. There was one bedroom and one room downstairs, lighting was by a single gas mantle in each room. In the downstairs room there was one cold water tap, no sink and no drainage. There was a toilet across the yard, a shared facility which in a bad winter froze up. There was one window in each room and one door. Was the year 1854? 

My wife and I married in 1954 and moved into this house in Gravel Walk, and if this proves anything, I suppose it is that Tewkesbury at that time had not moved into the twentieth century as quickly as most people would have thought. 


Note: I am indebted to Mr. R J. Lyon-Smith who allowed me access to his papers produced for the Gloucestershire Historical Research Group. 

  1. Moules County Atlas 1831 
  2. Census Figures GRO 
  3. Town Council Minutes GRO 
  4. Minutes of the Local Board of Health GRO 
  5. Preliminary Enquiry General Board of Health 1850 
  6. Bye-taws Local Board of Health 1851: GRO 
  7. GRO T BR A 1/2 
  8. Tewkesbury Paving & Lighting Commission GRO TBR *47/1 
  9. Ibid Paving & Lighting Commission GRO TBR *47/1 
  10. Ibid Paving & Lighting Commission GRO TBR 
  11. Formation of Gas Company GRO 
  12. Tewkesbury Board of Health GRO 
  13. Tewkesbury Urban Council GRO 1946 

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