Friday 24 January 2020

Sewage at Holywell

In 1849 there was a report to the General Board of Health on a Preliminary Inquiry into the Sewerage, Drainage and Supply of Water, and the Sanitary Condition of the Inhabitants of the town of Watford ( by George Thomas Clarke, Supt Inspector).

The subject of drainage had frequently been discussed in the five or six years previously at various meetings and the 'existing evils' had been fully admitted, but a want of legislative power had always prevented the application of an effectual remedy. After the passing of the Public Health Act, a meeting was called to consider the propriety of putting in force the "Nuisances Removal Act", but such was the bad condition of the town and the want of the necessary powers in the Nuisances Act to carry out permanent remedies, that, after a long discussion and two adjourned meetings, the petition upon which the inquiry proceeded was determined upon. 

Watford was composed principally of one street about 1½ miles long, built on a ridge sloping southwards to the river Colne. There were scarcely any cross streets, just mainly yards and alleys. There were privies with open cesspools, pigsties, dung heaps loaded with decaying vegetable and animal matter and the slops were generally thrown into the main road. One overflowing cesspool flowed down into another covered with trap-doors in the open foot-way of the main street. There was more than one pond in the town, but these were usually in a dirty state at all times, dried out in summer and offensive. There were also slaughterhouses and along the margins of the town were a number of stagnant ditches and catch-pits. It is not surprising that fever was prevalent at several locations throughout the town. With no main supply, water chiefly came from wells varying from 10 to 60 feet deep worked with buckets and rain water was largely collected from the roofs and stored in butts, tanks or pans.  

Yet due to its position and the great extent of meadow land abutting the Colne, Watford was in an excellent position for the distribution of its sewage as liquid manure. In the early days of the Board of Health, the Earl of Essex took all the sewage of the district, which was distributed over his land at Harwood's farm, being pumped up by steam power from the pumping station in the Colne Valley, just below the workhouse. Yet when the the Earl discontinued to use the sewage on his farm, the Board bought the site, along with the machinery, sheds etc., and the surrounding land and formed tanks for filtration and precipitation, pumping the effluent water on to the land. This continued for a time, but the town and district was growing and inevitably more land was required. This was again acquired from the Earl of Essex and the amount of sewage sent down to the outfall works increased accordingly. This state of things was to attract the attention of Mr Snewing, the owner of Holywell Farm, an estate near the outfall premises. He considered the sewage was not disposed of in a legal manner and obtained an injunction against the Board, restraining them from turning the sewage into the stream. The injunction remained in place for some time, but one assumes was eventually resolved, as more land was purchased and the whole area laid out in terraces. (This land stretched from the Colne below the Holywell farm, right across to Cassiobridge, covering the entire area where now is the residential Holywell Estate, Croxley View, the playing fields and schools). 

By the early 1900s Watford was viewed as a desirable place in which to set up business. The Urban District Council's Municpal Water Works was supplying particularly good water and in addition the Authority was attracting engineers and observers from different parts of the world to view and inspect the by now efficient and well-run sewerage disposal works. The town's drainage system had been designed to take storm water to natural water courses, while sewerage was treated at both Holywell and Cassiobridge Farms. The fields on which the effluent was discharged produced excellent crops of mangolds, oats, rye grass and clover. The 'resting' fields produced maize and vegetables. The farms were also operating at a profit; the collected refuse was burned by a refuse destructor and the heat generated was used to provide power to pump the liquid sewage, with the unburnable 'clinker' sold, again at a profit. 

By the end of the 1800s, under the Allotment  Act, land was being given over to allotments and in October 1895 a scheme was agreed to let the sewage farm and then in March 1896 a special Council meeting discussed the negotiations with Lord Ebury for a lease of Brightwells Farm. This would enable the re-siting of the existing sewage farm, setting free that portion of the farm nearest to the town for allotments. **

**For more information on the allotments in West Watford, please refer to the drop-down menu "A History of Allotments in Watford" by Mary Reid.

In January 1951, it was reported in the Watford Observer that thirty-two years of pig breeding has come to an end with the disposal of the Corporation's pigs at Holywell Farm. At a meeting of Watford Borough Council, Councillor Haines said "thank you" to the man who had been largely responsible for the fame the Watford herd had gained. That man was Mr F Farquharson, and the Parks and Recreation Grounds Committee recommendation to give him a £25 honorarium for his work in this connection was agreed to by the Council. Councillor Haines mentioned that the main reason for the disposal of the pigs was the loss of the sewerage farm. He then went on to tell how the herd had been in being since 1918.

In January 1952 under the heading "Holywell's Murky Past", the following appeared:
'It is not the intention of the Corporation to retain the unsalubrious title "Sewage Farm" for the housing estate mentioned in the plan. "Holywell Estate" is the distinctly more prepossessing name chosen by the Council. 
Holywell House is still the property of the Council, though the famous herd of Wessex Saddlebacks which they owned at Holywell Farm has now been disposed of. These prize pigs were exported to many countries in the world, earning laurels for the then bailiff Mr F Farquharson and the Borough.
Controlled tipping has taken place for years at Tolpits Lane and this area has now been practically levelled off. Eventually it will become playing fields. The Council now use Radlett Road for tipping and are engaged in gradually raising the level of the ground, which is low-lying and in danger of flooding from the Colne. 
By the way, experts made 100% certain that the Holywell estate area is healthy. Some of the earth is being removed for topsoil elsewhere. What is left should be ideal for gardeners, they declare."

By 1954 the first residents were moving into houses on the Holywell Estate.

References:  History of Watford and Trade Directory - Henry Williams published 1884
                      A History of Allotments in Watford - Ann Reid - a talk given to WWHG
                      The Book of Watford - Bob Nunn
                      The Watford Observer
See also photos in Gallery - Holywell Estate

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