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  • The board charged with ridding Castleford of its squalor gets off to a slow start as ratepayers prove unwilling to meet the cost

The establishment of the Castleford Local Board of Health was ratified by a parliamentary order of 15 August 1851. Glassworks magnate Edgar Breffit was appointed by the General Board of Health, in Whitehall, as chairman and also as the returning officer to conduct the election of nine members. The ballot took place on 17 September, with twenty-six candidates seeking the nine places. Inevitably there was some controversy beforehand: first over whether those parts of Whitwood Mere and Allerton Bywater which were effectively part of the town were to be included (“no” was the answer from Whitehall); then a dispute over whether certain people were entitled to vote as ratepayers or property owners, particularly solicitor and colliery owner George Bradley who was most affronted to have received his ballot paper as a ratepayer rather than property owner (“let the returning officer deal with it” sums up Whitehall’s answer in this case). Possibly tiring of the Castleford ratepayers’ apparently limitless appetite for disputes, the General Board of Health likewise gave short shrift to a post-ballot allegation of illegality from landlord Thomas Powell, who was also questioning the property owner-versus-ratepayer classification, telling him in a letter dated 24 September that “all questions as to the … validity of votes are left to the decision of the Chairman”.

It was, by all accounts, a hotly-contested campaign and ballot. With most candidates being “persons of great influence in the town” and, furthermore, “personal feelings running very high”, it was little surprise that the 27 September edition of the Leeds Intelligencer should report that “a severe contest was naturally expected … [and] … the result justified the expectations”. The result was declared on 18 September, at Castleford National School (other than churches, this was the only public building in the town at the time), the nine most popular candidates being Rev Theophilus Barnes, Edgar Breffit, Benjamin Byford, Richard Heptinstall, Joseph Horn, James Phillips, Thomas Prince, John Watson and John Winterbottom. The last-named candidate – another of the town’s glass manufacturers and, according to the Intelligencer report, “a gentleman to whose public spirit the present prosperity of Castleford is mainly to be ascribed” – polled the greatest number of votes, in honour of which his supporters “had a magnificent chair prepared in which he was drawn in triumph through the town, amidst the cheers of the greatest assemblage of people ever seen in Castleford”. Winterbottom and his supporters dined that evening at the White Hart Inn (now renamed The Lamplighter, on Carlton Street), after which he was presented with the chair, by then bearing the following inscription. In this chair James Winterbottom, Esq., was drawn in procession round the town of Castleford in celebration of his election as one of the members of the first Local Board of Health, and was afterwards presented therewith by a few of his ardent supporters, as a testimony of their opinion of his abilities, integrity, and public and private virtues. Castleford, 18th Sept., 1851.

Thus ended, on a suitably high note, Castleford’s first encounter with popular democracy. Not too popular, of course: only property owners and ratepayers – very much the wealthy minority – had the vote, but it was a start. Edgar Breffit retained his chairmanship after the election and thus became the first leader of an authority for Castleford with the necessary powers and fundraising ability to tackle the enormous problems which had either overwhelmed or been beyond the remit of previous institutions. However, if those cheering crowds on election result day thought their enthusiasm for the democratic process was about to be matched by their representatives’ zeal for righting the wrongs which plagued the town, they were quickly to be disappointed. Having the powers to undertake these tasks and the will actually to do so were not necessarily the same – and the Castleford board made painfully slow progress in the early years of its jurisdiction, hamstrung by the same fears over costs and the reluctance of ratepayers to meet them which had shaped the response to Benjamin Babbage’s report on the 1849 cholera outbreak. It formed committees to consider the different issues afflicting the town and appointed an inspector of nuisances with a remit to deal with the insanitary excesses but, fundamentally, nothing changed through 1852 and into 1853.

In January 1852 the board placed a notice in the Leeds newspapers inviting tenders for the surveying the township and “the preparation of such MAPS and PLANS as may be necessary for the purpose of providing a complete system of Sewerage” along with “such Working Drawings, Levels, Sections, and Specifications as may be necessary for enabling the said Local Board, at any subsequent time, to carry out all or any part of the works by contract”. In September that same year, further notices invited contractors to bid for carrying out the works according to the plans drawn up in response to the January request, the winning submission coming from a Mr Thornton. However, just as it appeared a degree of momentum might have been building up, the brakes were applied again.

In October 1852, Rev Theophilus Barnes, as chairman of the sewerage committee, wrote to the General Board of Health asking to borrow money, to be recouped through a special rate – but not for a “complete system” of sewers as envisaged in the January 1852 tender invitation: instead it was merely to improve the drainage of houses in what he described as “the Bean Field”. This was most likely Waring’s Houses, a row on what is now York Street, in which three people had perished from cholera in 1849 and where an open drainage ditch and pool of stagnant water left the properties in a “distressing state”. However, on the wider question of providing a proper sewerage system the board was still looking to minimise its financial commitment, for the same letter enquired whether all the necessary work for “this rather scattered town” should be undertaken as one contract and paid for accordingly, or whether separate areas should be tackled in isolation and the cost of each job charged only to the ratepayers of that district. The reference to the “scattered town” reflects the fact that at this time there was not an unbroken line of development along the road through Castleford but, instead, three still distinct clusters of buildings: one around the church and along what became Albion Street; another opposite the predecessor to the current Queen’s Mill; and a third along what is now Bridge Street up to and beyond the railway station, which was located there from 1840 until 1870.

The lack of any real progress being made by the board on sanitary and drainage issues did not escape the attention of Dr Adam Jessop, the town surgeon who had previously been an outspoken critic of the way in which the Local Board of Health’s predecessor sanitary committee had attempted to water down the implementation of the 1848 Public Health Act to Castleford and thus to delay the measures necessary to ensure it was never again struck down with disease in the way it had been afflicted by cholera in 1849. His letter to the General Board of Health, dated 9 November 1852, pulled no punches as he complained that “not a single advance has been made in the sanitary improvement by the Local Board, which has been in existence nearly two years, with the exception of levying and collecting a rate. The village is in a most deplorable, dirty and neglected condition and it is absolutely requisite that an inspector should be sent down, for should the cholera visit us again the result is frightful to contemplate; 50 to 100 houses having been built within the past two years, but from none of which is there a drain to take away the refuse water”.

Along with the letter he sent a document signed by himself and a former senior physician at Leeds General Infirmary, Dr Richard Hooper, which stated that the pair had inspected several houses and found cellars still full of stagnant water and, furthermore, reported “the surface of the roads covered with filth and other refuse matter which in our opinion is highly detrimental to the health of the inhabitants and sufficient to generate disease”. Although the Castleford board had passed byelaws clamping down on backroom slaughterhouses and promoting the cleaning of the streets, on the basis of Jessop and Hooper’s allegations it had evidently done little to implement at least one of them. This, remember, was the same board (or at least many of the same people) who, as the pre-1851 sanitary committee, had claimed it was only the need to wait for the recommendations of Benjamin Babbage’s report and the permission of parliament which had prevented them from tackling many of the town’s ills immediately after the cholera outbreak – yet two-and-a-half years later they were still prevaricating. It is impossible to know how far those hundreds of families still enduring squalid living conditions were aware of the arguments going on around them which condemned them to a continuation of their miserable lot: perhaps it was the knowledge that most of Castleford’s poor were too preoccupied with the challenges of everyday existence which allowed those charged with relieving their suffering to get away with such a lamentable effort.

The exact sequence of events prompted by Adam Jessop’s letter is difficult to piece together from records still surviving more than 150 years later. However, on 15 November, the General Board of Health ordered a Leeds-based inspector by the name of R D Granger to “visit that town as soon as possible” and report to them with his findings, while two days later it wrote to Jessop to inform him his letter had been passed to the Castleford board seeking comments on the doctor’s claims. Possibly Granger’s mission was meant as an initial assessment of the physical state of Castleford two years after Benjamin Babbage’s inquiry, for the next time the town appears to have been on Whitehall’s agenda was four months later, when the minutes of a General Board of Health meeting on 7 April 1853 noted it had considered the Jessop letter and requested its consulting engineer Mr Austin “to visit Castleford in order to examine the circumstances of the case, and to communicate with the Castleford Local Board of Health thereon”. This evidently provoked a response from the latter, for in May 1853 the General Board of Health received a list of byelaws which had been passed by the Castleford board: frustratingly, none of the surviving records indicate specifically what these were.

Austin headed north in the summer of that year, visiting Darlington and Hull as well as Castleford to check on the progress being made in the respective towns toward eliminating the sources of cholera. He reported back to the board in October, declaring that, in Darlington, “active measures were found to have been adopted by the local board in clearing away nuisances” and “the town appears to have been placed in a condition as satisfactory as present circumstances will allow”. Regarding Hull, “it was gratifying to find that in this town also, works of cleansing had been carried out with energy, under the direction of the local board, and that the worst courts and streets were in as good a state as it seemed practicable to place them temporarily, pending the execution of the proposed permanent works of improvement”. He concluded: “The local authorities, both of Darlington and Hull, appeared to have availed themselves with vigilance and ability of the means in their power to meet the threatened attack.”

He had no such praise for the efforts of Castleford Local Board of Health, however – in fact his report stated just the opposite. “The condition of the small town of Castleford was found in strong contrast to these larger places. The local board, apparently satisfied that nothing could be done in the way of improvement until their proposed plan of drainage had been carried out, had taken no steps whatever under the regulations of the general board. Foul middens, dung heaps, and collections of decomposing refuse abounded in all parts of the town, and the liquid filth and house refuse stagnated on the neglected surfaces of yards and streets. At a meeting of the local board, this dangerous condition of the town having been strongly urged, immediate instructions were given to their officers to take the earliest and fullest measures for the removal of all nuisances, with proper precautions, and for placing the town in as good a sanitary state as the circumstances would permit, pending the execution of the proposed works under the Public Health Act.” It was in this report that Austin revealed Castleford had been the second worst-affected place in the country, measured by deaths per head of population, in the 1849 cholera epidemic.

By now under no illusion that central government was watching – even though the 1848 Public Health Act gave Whitehall no power (beyond, perhaps, that of embarrassment) to compel it to act – the Castleford board asked its surveyor, the local builder and contractor Peter Sharrock, to provide an estimate for laying down a comprehensive sewerage system for the town. The quote of £1,517 12s was made up of £413 10s for drains at the west end of the town (today’s Albion Street area); £1,111 16s 6d for Bridge Street, Carlton Street, Aire Street, Church Street and Wheldon Lane; and £32 4s 8d for culverting Willow Beck. Incidentally, this is the first time any of these street names, with the exception of Carlton Street (which is mentioned in the 1851 census return), appear in the records. A copy of the quotation was also forwarded to Austin at the General Board of Health, along with a letter from Peter Sharrock which suggests that, despite all the criticism it had attracted and pressure it was under, the Castleford Local Board of Health was still objecting to the cost of the work it was supposed to be carrying out and still stalling on getting it started. Sharrock refers to the board complaining that his estimate was almost twice that given by Benjamin Babbage in his report on the 1849 cholera outbreak, but explains this by stating that “building has gone on to a very considerable extent since that report was submitted”, implying a more complex and higher-capacity sewerage system would now be necessary. He adds that his price for the west end of the town is similar to that quoted by Mr Thornton “in September last, when it was intended by the Local Board to commence the drainage of that district immediately” – which, quite evidently, it had not. And then, in a single sentence, Peter Sharrock’s letter sums up everything that was wrong in Castleford when he states “the Local Board was most anxious that everything should be done at the least possible expense, as the town generally is opposed to expenses of every sort”. This letter suggests that there was a strained relationship between Sharrock and members of the Castleford board, a suspicion which is borne out by the fact that he was relieved of his post in 1854: more on this event in due course.

Nevertheless things were – at least by the pitifully slow Castleford standards – now starting to move. In November 1853, the Castleford Local Board received permission to take out a loan of £1,500 for the sewerage work, which was to be repaid through the rates. Furthermore, the previous month it had formed a three-man committee to commission a survey on the best way of getting a supply of drinking water to the town. However, even with the best will in the world (something far from evident among the Castleford ratepayers) such projects would take a long time to come to fruition and thus, with day-to-day standards of sanitation still no better and the rush of incomers to the town showing no signs of abating, the risks to public health were undiminished. With depressing – and fatal – inevitability, these risks were soon to be realised once again.

Continued in Growing Pains 5 (posted January 2014)

SOURCES

Documents and correspondence in the Public Record Office, Kew, in file MH13/46. Copies of the Leeds Intelligencer and Leeds Mercury are on microfilm in Leeds Central Library.

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