Friday 26th October 2018 marks the 160th anniversary of the first water to be pumped from Sandfields Pumping Station, Lichfield to the industrial Black Country in the industrial Midlands.
The nineteenth century witnessed significant changes to the landscape. With the industrial revolution driving the economy, urbanisation of the industrial towns reached an unprecedented level that was not equalled or surpassed in any other European country until the mid-1950’s. The existing water supplies could not meet the demands of the people and sewage disposal systems were woefully inadequate or even none existent.
Infrastructure could not support the vast growth in the population or could the technology deal with it’s needs. People were drinking water from the canals in desperation. Malnourishment, ineffective sanitation and a lack of clean water made the area susceptible to disease and ill health. Then in 1832 a new and deadly disease arrived.
Cholera decimated the Black Country, within six weeks over 2,500 people were dead. Known as a ‘filth death’ the victims died in utter squalor and agony. With no known cause or no known cure panic and terror ensured. The cemeteries were overwhelmed, and a shortage of coffins added to the misery of body’s piling up in the streets. Significant numbers of people were buried in mass graves or cholera pits with no epitaph or recognition of their lives.
Cholera became the regular unwelcome visitor to the industrial towns and cities. It would take back with it people from all walks of life. No one was safe from the insidious tentacles that would snatch a family member or two when their attention was momentarily distracted. Their voices drowned in a sea of squalor, despair and anguish.
Fortunately, human ingenuity prevailed. Victorian culture bought with it a curiosity and challenge to the acceptance of things happen due to the will of god. Critical thinkers started to challenge conventional wisdom and ask profound questions that would dig well beneath accepted cause and effect. Questions that would enhance our understanding of the world we live in…. the origin of our species…. the inner working of the human body…
Scientists like John Snow questioned and challenged the well-established miasma theory of diseases by using oral study and statistical analysis of epidemics. His work gave birth to the science of epidemiology and proved a link between water and cholera. This opened the discussion on how overcome the technical challenges of moving water from a city with an abundance to an area of water shortages 11 miles away and 400 higher. Engineers like John McClean and Francis Croughton Stileman not only found solutions, they also put up their own money to build a scheme to deliver it.
The technical challenges of moving the vast quantities of water required were to say at least very challenging. It would need the collaborative working of a team of people to build two vast impounding reservoirs, a ¾ mile long tunnel, an engine house for a giant of an engine that would lift the water 400 feet high and then push it along an 11-mile-long pipeline to a further impounding reservoir in Moat End Walsall. At the time, it was one of the largest water infrastructure projects built.
As with all project that stretch the mind and imagination, technical challenges had to be resolved on route. But resolve them they did. Bringing in the collective minds and cooperation of others eventually bought the scheme to a conclusion, on 26 September 1858 the first clean water was pumped from the now picturesque reservoirs of Lichfield to the industrial towns of the Black Country.
Clean water bought about significant social and economic benefits to the community. Within a few years, cholera was a thing of the past in the UK, and the average life expectancy had been extended by twenty years. The establishment of organised water supplies gave legitimacy to and underpinned the principals of public health, bringing wellbeing to many. It paved the way for the NHS.
So, on this significant date of 26 September 2018 let us take a moment to look back at the objects and people from the past and learn from them so that we may pave a way to our future.
Sandfields Pumping Station played a key part in these remarkable events. Deep within its foundations it holds the stories of the scientific and medical discoveries of the past. It shows us the remarkable feats of Victorian water engineering, and how engineering technology overcame the challenges of bringing life preserving water to communities. It records in depth and detail the skills and labour of the everyday people who sweated on the building sites, the tunnels and boiler rooms to build and maintain in perfect working order this giant of a machine. These endeavours give very simple message. “Some people have done well for themselves, but the most admired people of this world are those who do well for others”.
Its sad that on this special date our remarkable waterworks and its giant engine that gave so much, is still at risk of permeant loss. Not because of willingness or because of money, but because a small number of individuals don’t care about it. They do not wish to see the remarkable story that this building tells, and why it is important. They do not wish to see that there is anything we can learn from our past, that would help them do well for others. It is purely a commercial decision.
The Lichfield Waterworks Trust will with continue with its best endeavours to tell the story of this building and its giant of an engine. The trust will continue to research and tell the stories of the people who made it happen.
The trust will also continue to research and tell the stories of the people who died in the dreadful cholera epidemics of the mid nineteenth century so that this building can hold their stories too and give them voice. We do this because when these stories are told, they will add to and enhance our understanding of our own lives, they will become our ‘Voices from the Past’.