Plumbing; or, Wolverhampton’s Great Stink

Poor housing in North Street, Wolvherhampton, 1870 – the communal pump is in the centre of the picture. Photo (c) Wolverhampton City Council.

I am in no way, shape or form a practically-minded person. So when last weekend was dominated by some DIY plumbing I felt fully out of depth, although as a team (my wife, me and Youtube) we managed to get the job done. The upshot was that we had to close the water off for the night and most of the next day, and during that time really think about our use of each drop of water in the house.

These are first world problems, of course. We have clean, hot and cold running water piped straight into our home. There’s no meter so I can have a bath, flush the toilet, or water the garden with hardly a thought. If disaster (aka my lack of plumbing skills) strikes, I can buy bottled water, I can visit family or friends with a shower, I could go to the pool 5 minutes walk from home, I can even call a plumber who’ll come out 24 hours a day. Like many situations, it made me stop and reflect on my research.

In June I blogged about my first experience doing proper camping, and how lucky I was compared to the subjects of my research to have a flushing toilet and running water without leaving the house. The same is even more true when I’m in my own home without simple access to water.

The politics of water in the nineteenth century are way too large to cover here. Suffice to say, nothing was ever simple, particularly where there was a potential profit to be made. In Wolverhampton, as in many towns, access to water was semi-public – town wells and pumps were communal and free to access, and if you were near one of the few streams in this high up town, you could help yourself there too. This was all dirty water though – rivers were contaminated by pollutants added upstream, wells and pumps by the proximity of the primitive sewerage system. In an investigation in 1873, a subcommittee appointed by the towns Streets & Sewerage committee closed the pump in Canal Street because of unfit water.[1] This sort of investigation was infrequent and strangely coincided with the anticipated visit of Dr Edward Ballard, the Local Government Board’s Inspector of Health.

Some 15 years earlier, residents of the whole district from Canal Street to Littles Lane to Stafford Street reported at least four days’ worth of water stoppage in the pumps in that vicinity: “the insufficient and irregular supply of water in that locality has become a general complaint and the want of it, is very much felt by its inhabitants.” The Waterworks Co. blamed the general hot weather, which is something we know pretty well from recent years; but also the town’s decrease in number and availability of wells, and the illness of the company turncock.[2] It appears that only the Stafford Street area (i.e. one of the poorest parts of town) was affected, which seems hardly fair but hardly surprising either. Residents ended up having to trek to Temple Street or Horse Fair (now Wulfruna Street) from all over this neighbourhood, meaning queues and a lengthy carry home in the hot weather.

Wolverhampton Chronicle, 11th August 1858

1858 was clearly a bad year for this. In London, the heat caused such noxious smells that it was given the nickname The Great Stink. In Wolverhampton, August saw the worst effects as the lack of water in the area hit home. The Wolverhampton Chronicle records “a decent looking Irish woman with a baby in her arms” (a remarkably generous description for this paper) who had been threatened with arrest for “making free with other people’s pumps.”[3] A mother with a baby to feed is unlikely to have been spared the trek to the pump, and it’s little wonder that she attempted to get in on the private pumps a bit closer to home.

Some people had been forced to use the canal water for domestic purposes, which would have been truly foul (this isn’t the first time I’ve come across this).[3] With little understanding of the benefits of boiling ones water, and diagnoses being pretty vague, I would imagine that diseases like Weils, botulism or Hepatitis A were common in such water. I can only be thankful that the cholera epidemics that hit Wolverhampton periodically didn’t coincide with this unhappy drought.

tet waterworks.png
Tettenhall Waterworks, 1940s. Wolverhampton Archives & Local Studies, ref P/1067.

In the same month, no less than eight lodging-house keepers in the vicinity of Berry Street (now Princess Square) blamed the lack of water for their inability to properly cleanse the privies.[3] The prevailing privy-and-ashpit system in the town was highly hazardous to health, with waste leaching into the ground (and thus the water supply). The ashpits (a euphemism) were emptied infrequently at best, with the “nightsoilmen” employed by the Corporation often being reported for slack work. Where it was the responsibility of the building occupier, such as in the much-decried common lodging-houses, it was often done even less. Many of them were found in an “overcharged and deplorable condition”, liable to generate disease.[4] With the addition of surface drainage rather than underground sewers, it’s becoming possible to see why “Great Stink” was a very apt nickname.


Being on the opposite side of town to the Waterworks at Tettenhall, and far from any source of water, clean or not, Carribee Island and its surroundings were low on the priority list for clean, accessible water. The residents, the vast majority of whom were extremely poor, would have had to become used to illness, dehydration, long walks to get water, and the stink that accompanies foul sewers. As so often, the poorest of the town bore the brunt of any problem – in this case, like Southern Trains of late, just too much sunshine.

[1] Wolverhampton Corporation: Sanitary Committee minutes, 16th December 1873

[2] Wolverhampton Corporation: Watch Committee minutes, 6th August 1858

[3] Wolverhampton Chronicle, 11th August 1858

[4] Wolverhampton Corporation: Health of Towns Committee Minutes, 7th January 1853

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