Last edited 17 Sep 2021

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Institute of Historic Building Conservation Institute / association Website

The redevelopment of Leicester's sewerage system by Joseph Gordon

The story of the comprehensive redevelopment of Leicester’s sewerage system shows a direct relationship between civil engineering projects and quantitative measures of public health.

Abbey pumping station.jpg
Abbey pumping station, Leicester, is now a museum. All four steam engines remain in working order (Photo: Alex Liivet, Wikimedia).



Mortality rates in Britain began to fall long before there had been significant progress in the treatment of disease, reflecting improvements in nutrition, sanitation and other environmental factors in the 19th century. It is, however, seldom possible to show a direct relationship between specific civil engineering projects and quantitative measures of public health in a defined geographical setting. The case study presented here of the comprehensive redevelopment of the sewerage system of Leicester by Joseph Gordon between 1881 and 1891 can plausibly make that claim.

The registration of births and deaths began in England and Wales in 1837. These data made possible for the first time a comparison of mortality statistics for the major towns. Infant mortality (the number of deaths before the age of one year, expressed per thousand live births) is a particularly robust metric since it makes no reference to cause of death, which is subject to changes in disease classification and diagnostic accuracy over time. On this measure, Leicester was among the very least healthy of the industrial towns throughout the Victorian period, with infant mortality some 35–40 per cent higher than the national average year after year. This unenviable position was the cause of comment in the national medical press and speculation as to the cause.

In 1874, a particularly bad year, the then medical officer of health for the town studied the recorded causes of death in the infants. The two (almost equal) leading diagnoses were ‘atrophy and debility’ and ‘diarrhoea’. It is likely that most cases of the former were simply more protracted or recurrent manifestation of the latter. Moreover, the deaths from infant diarrhoea were highly seasonal, almost 90 per cent occurring during the summer months of July, August and September.

Medical science of the time offered no adequate explanation. We now know that infant diarrhoea is generally caused by oral ingestion of gut organisms such as the bacterium Escherichia coli through contamination of food or oral fluids by faecal material. This can arise when sewage penetrates the water supply, or by transfer of organisms from faeces to food or drink by the agency of flies – the reason for the seasonal pattern of infant diarrhoea. Diseases now known to be infectious were widely attributed to ‘bad air’ – the miasmatic theory – which dominated thinking almost to the end of the century until the new science of bacteriology succeeded in identifying causative bacteria.

The birth of epidemiology

The worldwide spread of cholera from the Indian subcontinent, starting in the early 19th century, caused great loss of life. Cholera is caused by the bacterium Vibrio cholerae. Spread by the faecal-oral route, it causes massive loss of water and salts. Without treatment, death can occur within hours from dehydration. It therefore has certain features in common with infant diarrhoea. Crucially, however, it spreads through exposed populations in major epidemics of a few years’ duration, striking victims of all ages and with a high mortality rate. In 19th-century Europe it was a new and terrifying disease, unlike the endemic summer diarrhoea of infants which could be seen as a ‘normal’ hazard of childhood.

The impact of cholera stimulated the development of public health. Dr John Snow (1813– 1858) pioneered the scientific investigation of disease patterns in the population, now known as epidemiology, in his meticulous investigation of cholera in London during the second and third of the listed epidemics. He was able to show repeatedly that outbreaks could be traced to sewage contamination of water supplies, whether it be a single water pump in a community (the famous Broad Street pump in Soho) or, even more tellingly, by comparison of disease rates among customers of different water companies drawing their water from heavily polluted or (relatively) clean points of the Thames.

The impetus for major sanitary engineering projects was to remove the ‘miasma’ in increasingly populous conurbations where the streets, cesspits and local rivers had been the traditional conduits for sewage disposal. The huge project led by Joseph Bazalgette in London was prompted by the ‘Great Stink’ from the Thames in the hot summer of 1858, which caused the temporary suspension of Parliamentary business. Even when the ambitious system of sewers and pumping stations was completed in 1875, the miasmatic theory was only slowly giving way to the evidence from epidemiology and bacteriology. It was an example of the right thing being done for the wrong reason.

Beginning around 1850, a system of sewers was laid with an outfall and sewage works on the River Soar north of Leicester. These works were intended to recoup their cost through a patented process to manufacture fertiliser from the effluent. The design was heavily criticised from the outset and proved to be a failure. The sewers themselves were inadequate for the rapidly growing population and had to be supplemented by pail closets. The anticipated market for the fertiliser did not materialise. Infant mortality worsened in the town over these three decades.

Joseph Gordon, borough surveyor

In 1881 the death in service of the borough surveyor led to the appointment of Joseph Gordon (1837-1891) as his successor. It was an inspired choice. Like John Snow, he was a self-made man. Born in the village of Haltwhistle, close to Hadrian’s wall, his formal education had finished at a young age and he had trained under the city surveyor in Carlisle. After broadening his engineering experience in other northern towns he moved to Germany, where by the time of his Leicester appointment he had spent 15 years carrying out several major urban sanitary schemes.

He conceived an ambitious programme of work in Leicester which attracted national attention among his fellow civil engineers. There were three elements. The first was to lay an extensive new system of sewers, of a design and capacity to serve the needs of the town. The second was to create a sewage farm on land purchased at Beaumont Leys, to the north-west of the town. This was described in the Proceedings of the Institution of Civil Engineers as ‘1,375 acres in extent, this being the largest area in England, and exceeded only by the sewage farms of Paris and Berlin‘.

The third element was the construction of the Abbey pumping station, capable of raising the town’s sewage 164 feet at a rate of 208,000 gallons an hour through two 33-inch rising mains. It was powered by four Woolf compound steam engines built by Josiah Gimson and Co of Leicester. Uniquely, all four steam engines remain in working order, having been in continuous service from 1891-1964 and carefully maintained since then. The building in which they are housed, designed by the Leicester architect Stockdale Harrison, is now a fine museum.

Leicester’s public health improved sharply following the completion of Gordon’s scheme in 1891. Infant mortality fell rapidly in the closing years of the century to levels close to the national average, where it remained through the 20th century. In his annual report for 1905, the medical officer of health Dr Killick Millard was able to write: ‘What was at one time the great blot on the sanitary statistics of the town, viz the excessive infant mortality, is being wiped away’.

Joseph Gordon did not live to see the fruition of his work in Leicester. In 1889 he was appointed to take Sir Joseph Bazalgette’s role in London but died a few weeks after taking up the post, while on the morning bus from home in Hampstead to his office in Vauxhall. His grave is in Leicester’s Welford Road cemetery.

His obituary in the ‘Proceedings of the Institution of Civil Engineers’ testifies to the high regard in which he was held by his fellow engineers: ‘Mr Gordon may be described as a favourable example of this country’s self-made men, not spoiled by success or good fortune, and regarded with deep respect and affection by those whose lot it was to work with or under him. His genial and modest manner never failed to inspire a sense of confidence which was at all times justified… [his] wide and diversified experience and restless activity, combined with his methodical habits, enabled him to compress within the comparatively brief span of his existence a large amount of work of the highest character.’

The full impact of that work only becomes clear from the analysis of Leicester’s mortality data and deserves to be better known.

This article originally appeared as ‘Civil engineering and the health of a Victorian town’ in IHBC's Context 159 (Page 21), published in May 2019. It was written by Sir Kent Woods, emeritus professor of therapeutics, University of Leicester.

--Institute of Historic Building Conservation

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