Heritage: A smelly crisis tested Romford’s Board of Health

PUBLISHED: 14:13 20 April 2018 | UPDATED: 14:13 20 April 2018

In the mid-19th century much of the sewage produced in Romford ended up in the River Rom. Picture: Ken Mears

In the mid-19th century much of the sewage produced in Romford ended up in the River Rom. Picture: Ken Mears


Disposing of sewage was a big issue in the area 150 years ago, says Prof Ged Martin

There was no Havering Council 150 years ago, but the area’s first elected body, Romford’s Board of Health, faced a crisis in April 1868.

Don’t read this over breakfast. With around 6,000 people, Romford produced masses of sewage. Much of it ended up in the River Rom (downstream, in South Hornchurch, called the Beam).

In 1858, Chelmsford had completed a filtration scheme, pumping its sewage through a series of tanks, finally discharging the purified liquid into the Chelmer.

Complaints from Dagenham forced Romford’s penny-pinching Board of Health to build a primitive sewage works at Oldchurch in 1861.

The Chelmsford scheme involved spraying fresh water into the tanks. No such system was used at Romford, where “foetid and offensive matter” simply sat in the Oldchurch reservoir for a few days until, suitably ripened, it was dumped in the Rom.

Unlike the navigable Chelmer, the Rom is not a major river. In summer, it often ran dry. The result was an open sewer, “the stench unbearable for miles around”.

Fish died. Cattle refused to drink the water.

In 1868, a resident of Havering Well – the area now called Roneo Corner – took legal action to stop the Board of Health polluting the Rom.

On 20 April 1868, the Board held a crisis meeting. They had just four days before the case came to court.

The Board’s engineer, Mr Russ, had a scheme.

Two miles south of Romford, an ancient mansion, Bretons, with fifty acres of land, could be leased to become – literally – a sewage farm.

A sewer down South Street and along Upper Rainham Road would carry the effluent by gravity, eliminating the cost of pumping. The sewage would then be spread around the farm, like compost.

The Board’s chairman, High Street innkeeper William Cowland, tried to get some sense from members.

Thomas Haws, a Rush Green farmer, warned against covering the same farmland with sewage year after year.

“It would be just like feeding you on roast beef and plum pudding always,” he explained. “You would get tired of it, and so would the land.”

It was a vivid image.

Another member wondered whether fifty acres would be enough.

Haws favoured creating a pumping station at Oldchurch. Mains water had reached Romford in 1863. It could be sprayed to cleanse the sewage.

Samuel Springham, a gentleman resident of London Road, thought the Board was being bounced into Russ’s scheme. Why not send a deputation to Chelmsford to study their system?

After much discussion, chairman Cowland reminded the Board that they faced legal action.

“Something must be done, gentlemen.” He suggested the immediate adoption of the Bretons project.

“I can’t make up mind to think about it at all,” Springham unhelpfully replied.

Another member, Mr Marrett, exploded at this. “Really, Mr Springham, it is no use our sitting here night after night, talking incessantly, like old washerwomen, saying ‘This is no use’ ‘I shall oppose that’ ‘look at the expense’ and such stuff.”

“We are now in this position,” Marrett insisted: “Something must be done.”

Of course, the crunch meeting dodged making a decision, but Romford was moving towards an inevitable solution.

Bretons was purchased in 1869. Eventually, the sewage “farm” became the location of a treatment plant.

Overloaded and smelly thanks to suburban growth, it closed exactly a century later, in 1969.

It’s now Elm Park’s outdoor recreation centre.

A year later, Councillor Springham complained that a local newspaper (not the Recorder!) had wrongly reported that he’d backed the appointment of an extra council official.

In fact, “he was dead against such an appointment”.

Barely bothering to apologise for the mistake, the reporter curtly explained that four members had been speaking at the same time.

Local communities get the representatives they deserve.

Make sure you vote on Thursday May 3rd.

Related articles


Welcome , please leave your message below.

Optional - JPG files only
Optional - MP3 files only
Optional - 3GP, AVI, MOV, MPG or WMV files

Please log in to leave a comment and share your views with other Romford Recorder visitors.

We enable people to post comments with the aim of encouraging open debate.

Only people who register and sign up to our terms and conditions can post comments. These terms and conditions explain our house rules and legal guidelines.

Comments are not edited by Romford Recorder staff prior to publication but may be automatically filtered.

If you have a complaint about a comment please contact us by clicking on the Report This Comment button next to the comment.

Not a member yet?

Register to create your own unique Romford Recorder account for free.

Signing up is free, quick and easy and offers you the chance to add comments, personalise the site with local information picked just for you, and more.

Sign up now

Latest Romford News Stories

23 minutes ago

The annual Christmas Cracker returned to Hornchurch this weekend as residents gathered to watch the moment this year’s Christmas lights were turned on.


Childhood friends were delighted when they more than tripled their target to raise funds for Children with Cancer UK with a special haircut in Upminster.


A 33-year-old man has been charged with drink driving following a car crash with an ambulance in Romford.

Havering and Redbridge’s London Assembly member, Keith Prince, has been officially reselected by the Conservative party to contest the seat in the 2020 elections.

Yesterday, 12:00

Letters, contributions and comments sent in from Recorder readers this week.

Yesterday, 10:16

A police cordon and crime scene remain in place this morning.

We all know that London is experiencing a violence epidemic, with knife crime up by 50 per cent since September 2015.

Saturday, November 17, 2018

When the fighting ended in November 1918, Havering’s prisoners of war came home. As Prof Ged Martin reports, many had suffered a hard time


From November, The Mercury in Romford begins to celebrate Christmas. The mall has plenty of gift ideas, fun events and activities for everyone

Vauxhall has completed its sport utility vehicle range with the third, and largest, Grandland X. We put the SUV, now available at Tony LeVoi in Romford, to the test.

“The time to repair the roof is when the sun is shining,” so the saying goes. So if some warm weather is making your conservatory uninhabitable, think about replacing its roof with a flat one and adding a roof lantern instead.

Newsletter Sign Up

Romford Recorder twice-weekly newsletter
Sign up to receive our regular email newsletter

Our Privacy Policy

Most read news

Show Job Lists

Education Promo

News from your area


A Romford photographer impressed the judges of a national creative photography competition with a picture of a stunning sunset.

Digital Edition


Enjoy the
Romford Recorder
e-edition today


Education and Training


Read the
Education and Training
e-edition today

Read Now