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

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

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

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”.

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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.