Heritage: Tragedy at the Upminster sewage works

A map of the Upminster sewage works' pump house

A map of the Upminster sewage works' pump house from 1921 - Credit: Andy Grant

Historian Andy Grant tells the tragic story of workers at a sewage works west of Berry Farm.

With the rapidly growing population of Cranham and Upminster, it became increasingly necessary to build a sewage disposal facility for the area.

By 1921 Romford Rural District Council had identified a site west of Berry Farm in Great Warley to build the treatment works, being close to the confluence of two watercourses feeding into the Mardyke.

On Monday, March 13, 1933 a terrible tragedy took place at the works. A group of four RRDC employees, led by 44-year-old William Nightingale of nearby Berry Farm Cottages, were due to undertake their weekly check of the storage well beneath the pumphouse.

The other members were 45-year-old Douglas Ruffle of Kyme Road, Romford; his brother-in-law Alfred Leggett, also of Berry Farm Cottages; and 61-year-old William Huckle of Park Cottages, North Ockendon.


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At around midday, two of the team were working six metres underground in the storage well, with Nightingale at the end furthest from the access shaft, near the pump intakes and Ruffle on the platform in the access shaft.

Map of Upminster sewage works

A map of the Upminster sewage works from 1933 - Credit: Andy Grant

It was not long before Nightingale was overcome by noxious gasses and collapsed into two feet of mud and water. Calling out to the others, Ruffle went to his assistance, but he too was rendered unconscious by the gasses.

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Leggett and Huckle had been checking the sprinklers and immediately ran to the top of the access shaft. With no responses to their calls, they descended into the well to see what was wrong.

Huckle evidently collapsed near the access shaft and Leggett also started to suffer from gas inhalation. He struggled to climb to the surface but blacked out and fell, striking his head against an iron grating.

Although dazed and bleeding heavily, he managed to crawl around half a kilometre to his house.

In a confused and incoherent state, with his clothes soaked in blood and covered in mud, he had difficulty in conveying the dire situation at the works to his wife and neighbour John White.

White’s son cycled to Upminster Police Station to raise the alarm at around 1.45pm. They in turn notified both Upminster and Romford Fire Brigades. When four members of the Fire Brigade arrived on the scene, second officer Gordon Dowsing and fireman Cyril Davis, equipped with Salvus breathing apparatus, tied ropes around their waists and descended into the well.

They managed to tie a rope around the body of Huckle and raise him to the surface, but Dowsing subsequently collapsed on the intermediate platform and also had to be hauled to the surface.

Davis had managed to get the lifeless body of Nightingale to the access shaft before he too had to be assisted to the surface. PC Priest, wearing an army respirator, made an attempt at retrieving Nightingale’s body, which appeared to be snagged on the ladder.

He managed to free it with a broom and haul it to the surface, but also became badly affected by the fumes. Huckle was still breathing when examined by Dr AA Bain, but despite continuous artificial respiration and oxygen, he died in the ambulance before arriving at Oldchurch Hospital.

According to the doctor, the rosy colour of the faces of the deceased men indicated a likelihood of carbon monoxide poisoning. Further rescue attempts were postponed until 6pm, when a metre of water had been pumped away.

Fireman Frederick Carter found Ruffle on the far side of the tank, lying face-down in a foot of water and mud at the bottom of the sump, and managed to raise him to the surface.

For their part in the rescue, Gordon Dowsing of Linden Street, Romford; Cyril Davis of Pettley Gardens, Romford; and Frederick Carter of St Mary's Lane, Upminster, were awarded the bronze medal of the Royal Humane Society, in recognition of their bravery attempting to save the lives of the three victims at great personal risk to themselves.

  • More Andy Grant articles can be found on the Romford History Facebook group. 

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