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  • As the Local Board of Health and its officers argue over costs and competence, a French visitor brings Castleford’s shocking state to wider notice.

Continued from Growing Pains 4 (posted April 2013)

By 1854, Castleford Local Board of Health was in its third year of jurisdiction over the town but the unfortunate inhabitants would have noticed little in the way of improvement in their filthy, insanitary surroundings. There had been some attempt to tackle the most visible – and easily removable – excesses through the enactment of local byelaws relating to the cleaning of public streets and the regulation of butchers’ back-room slaughterhouses, issues which came under the remit of the board’s inspector of nuisances. This splendidly Victorian-sounding official was charged with identifying hazards to public health and then – insofar as the board possessed any real powers of enforcement – persuading the owner of the source of the ‘nuisance’ to remove it or, in the case of the filthy streets and public places, arranging for their cleaning at the board’s (and therefore the ratepayers’) expense. Consequently, the putrid heaps of excrement and ashes piled up against walls and the practice of butchers dumping offal in the yards behind their shops had been tackled to a degree, but the underlying evils of lack of drainage, dirty water supply and badly-built slum housing were no nearer being eliminated.

To anyone familiar with the desperate state of Castleford’s roads, yards and houses, then, the following brief report in the 25 March 1854 edition of the Leeds Mercury would have come as little surprise.

Asiatic cholera has again made its appearance in this village in its most frightful form, and is not confined to any class or situation. Already four deaths have taken place since the 16th, and five cases are under treatment in the blue stage, and cases of choleriac diarrhoea are very general throughout the village.

It was based upon an apparently more detailed letter the town’s surgeon, Adam Jessop, had written to the newspaper and it prompted an angry reaction from the Castleford Local Board of Health. Evidently the board had seen this letter: perhaps, for the sake of balance, the editor of the Mercury had shown them a copy before publishing the report or, perhaps, Jessop had sent them a copy himself. It is also tempting to imagine an angry board member, having read the paper, jumping on the first train to Leeds and storming into the Mercury office demanding to see the incriminating correspondence. Either way, the following week’s edition of the newspaper (1 April) carried an indignant letter of response. It read as follows.

Gentlemen – The attention of the Castleford Local Board of Health has been directed to a paragraph with the above heading in your paper of Saturday last, in which it appears your informant (with an entire disregard for the truth, or otherwise labouring under the most wilful ignorance) has thought proper not only to charge our Local Board with having taken no steps to improve the sanitary condition of the place, but also accuses them of neglect, in not administering to any of the requirements, or alleviating the suffering, of cases which your informant alleges to have been of the most virulent and alarming nature, and some in abject poverty.
Although the Board entertain the opinion that as a general rule anonymous publications are unworthy of notice, they have considered that their silence might, in the present instance, be urged as an admission that the charges could not be denied, and therefore they have desired me, as their clerk, to reply to the paragraph in question.

The clerk in question was glassworks owner and solicitor Thomas Sykes, who then went into some detail about the timescale for the board’s formation; claimed that it had been making efforts to remove “such nuisances as the existing state of the sewerage of the district would permit”; and defended the board by saying it had been unwilling to “cause the owners and occupiers of property the incurring of a heavy expense in the construction of permanent works which, without a general system of main sewerage, could only be of temporary utility”. Once again, the financial interest of the ratepayers can be seen to have the upper hand over board members running scared of asking them to dip into their pockets. Sykes then suggested one reason for the delay in laying mains sewerage was that a government inspector from the General Board of Health had said it would not work properly without a supply of running water to flush the pipes out but, nevertheless, Sykes also stated (lack of running water notwithstanding) that “the Local Board have decided to commence the sewerage works forthwith, the contract for that purpose being now in course of preparation”. Finally, in a thinly-veiled attack on Adam Jessop, the letter concluded by denying there had been any cholera in Castleford.

The Local Board, having made inquiries at some of the houses where the deaths from cholera of cases under treatment in the blue stage are alleged to have taken place, have reason to doubt the existence of any real case of Asiatic cholera in the district, during the present year.
In concluding these remarks, I am instructed to add that the Board are ignorant what cases are referred to as being “in abject poverty”, but they cannot doubt if such had really existed, and had been made known to Mr. Winterbottom, the Guardian of the Poor, they would have received his attention.
I am, Gentlemen, yours most obediently,
Clerk’s Office, Castleford, 29th March, 1854.

A week later, the 8 April edition of rival newspaper the Leeds Intelligencer also reported that a “dreadful visitation” of cholera had taken hold in Castleford, adding a particularly tragic postscript. “On Sunday morning last,” it reported, “a man of the name of William Carpenter, hatter, aged 54 years, put an end to his existence by taking a quantity of laudanum, whilst in a state of temporary derangement. He is supposed to be a native of Leeds.” Although his death may not necessarily have had anything to do with the disease, it can only have added to the morbid atmosphere which must have been pervading the town at this time.

Adam Jessop, as was his wont, once again decided that Whitehall needed to know what was happening in Castleford and so, on 10 April, he wrote to the General Board of Health, recounting how he had written to the Leeds Mercury and how the Castleford board had subsequently denied the existence of cholera in the town. If his next allegation is to be believed, then the Castleford Local Board of Health stands charged with outright dishonesty, since Jessop claimed that “several days before that denial, the Board had issued a Special Notice that the disease had actually broken out in this town – a circumstance reported to your Board by the Medical Officer of the Castleford District on the 11th and 21st ultimo” (that is, the previous month). He suggested, not for the first time, that someone should visit Castleford and “some inquiry should be instituted into the actual state of health in the locality”. He added that there had been seven fatalities from cholera and one from diarrhoea between 14 March and 7 April 1854.

That Jessop, rather than the board, was telling the truth appears to be confirmed by the most unlikely of sources: a Frenchman who is considered to have been the world’s first ‘celebrity chef’. Alexis Soyer (1800–1858), as well as being a renowned cook (at the time he was chef de cuisine at London’s Reform Club) and author of the best-selling book A Shilling Cookery for the People, was also a social reformer who took a keen interest in the plight of the labouring classes. During the spring of 1854 he undertook a tour of England and Wales, looking into the conditions endured by “the cottager and labourer”, and on 4 April visited “the small town of Castleford and the village of Methley”. Writing that evening from his room at the Normanton station hotel, he informed the editor of national newspaper the Morning Post that Castleford was “celebrated for its glass bottle works, which have caused the inhabitants to double their number in the last few years … during a period when the modern appliances for the comfort of the labouring population have been studied”. Despite this, however, he found the place to be “composed of miserable cottages, let at 1s 6d per week, surrounded with mud and filth, and no means of drainage although the site possesses an easy fall into the river. It was, therefore, not surprising to find the cholera raging violently in it, and the town placarded with large bills announcing the fact”.

Given that the only organisation in Castleford with the authority and the means to publish and display these notices was the Local Board of Health, then far from it being Adam Jessop exhibiting an “entire disregard for truth” (the accusation made by Thomas Sykes in his letter of 29 March), it was in fact Sykes and his colleagues who – not to put too fine a point on their behaviour – were lying.

Why would they choose to act in such a dishonest manner – and, furthermore, to broadcast this dishonesty in the pages of a newspaper – when they must have known there was every chance it would rebound upon them? From the distance of more than a century-and-a-half, it can only be guessed that the board members’ annoyance and embarrassment over the results of their wilful neglect being exposed by Adam Jessop prompted them to take leave of their senses and attempt to smear a man who had been a thorn in their side almost from day one. Not only had the surgeon’s efforts brought down Whitehall’s ire upon the board’s lamentable record, but he was still in dispute with them over their refusal to pay his bill for the services he had provided during the 1849 cholera outbreak. More on that particular bone of contention in due course (but suffice to say that Jessop had the last laugh there, too).

Returning to Alexis Soyer’s encounter with Castleford, he also saw “rows of new cottages, erected for the colliers’ families working in the neighbouring coal pits”. These may well have been the same recently-built houses condemned by Adam Jessop in his November 1852 letter to the General Board of Health (see Growing Pains 4) for having no means of drainage, despite the cholera outbreak three years previously demonstrating the deadly consequences of such primitive arrangements; they would certainly be among those dozens of insanitary new buildings complained of by landlord John Waring when the Castleford Local Board of Health’s predecessor sanitary committee met in January 1851 (see Growing Pains 3). Yet if it is tempting to place all the blame for dangerously poor standards of post-cholera outbreak new houses on rapacious landlords, it is also worth noting that July 1850 had seen work start on Castleford’s first houses for working class owner-occupation, funded by the recently-established (February 1849) Pontefract, Castleford and Knottingley Benefit Building Society. Although described in a newspaper report as “superior dwelling-houses” there is no reason to suppose that, in reality, they were any better than their neighbours or that they were not among those houses which, Soyer recorded, “possessed receptacles for ordure [i.e. ash pits and privies] within two yards of their back doors.” He continued: “The poisonous gas which emanated from these places was so bad that one robust man told me, in his broad Yorkshire, that it made him sick in the morning and he could eat no breakfast.”

Clearly, the job of turning round this state of affairs was going to be a daunting one, regardless of the attitude of the local board, and one which was increasing in magnitude with every month that went by as more and more inadequately-drained houses were built alongside roads which still possessed no sewerage system. The return of cholera to Castleford in 1854 demonstrated the frightening consequences of delay – but it seemingly had little effect on the consciences of the people who were supposed to be doing something about it.

As well as the local board’s all-pervading reluctance to raise and spend money, another reason for the slow progress toward even the relatively inexpensive objective of cleaning up the town must have been a lack of time for the inspector of nuisances to do his job properly. The 1848 Public Health Act created three main positions in which local boards of health could employ officials to carry out their tasks: as well as the inspector of nuisances there was the surveyor, whose job was to specify, oversee and enforce the building and engineering works required to bring about the necessary sanitary improvements; and the collector of rates, whose role was to gather the money required to fund the other two officers’ work. In Castleford, however, the board had decided in 1851 that Peter Sharrock should do all three. Perhaps they considered him a man of multiple talents and remarkable time-management skills: then again, it was more likely the idea of paying only one salary instead of three which appealed. What is not in question is that the combined task was proving beyond him, for as well as ‘nuisances’ not being tackled, rates were going uncollected and the accounts were not kept in proper order.

Despite this, however, in the autumn of 1854 Sharrock finally got the go-ahead to start work on laying the sewers, the key to any serious attempt to clean up Castleford and improve the health of its inhabitants. Main sewers were installed along Bridge Street, Carlton Street, Church Street and Aire Street – still very much the only roads of any consequence in the town – with a branch running along Wheldon Road to an underground collecting tank (situated where the former Nestlé factory now stands) from where the sewage was pumped into the River Aire. From the main network, various short feeder sewers ran into the yards and soon-to-be side streets where houses and commercial premises were concentrated. The sewers themselves were of brick construction with stone flagged bases. The work also included culverting Willow Beck from where it passed beneath the railway line, just west of the station, to the river: this grossly-polluted watercourse had been the source of much disease when it had been used as an open sewer by the inhabitants of the houses behind which it flowed. Most of the cost was met by a £1,500 loan to the board by pottery owner Thomas Nicholson.

It was over his quotation for this work, submitted in 1853, that the board had first taken umbrage with Sharrock when they considered the estimate of £1,517 to be too expensive – although, regardless of their complaints, this is evidently the price they accepted. Nevertheless, despite him completing the sewerage installation before winter set in, this was not enough to redeem him for his other perceived inadequacies in the eyes of his employers who, at a meeting on 8 January 1855, passed a resolution to dismiss him. In their letter to the General Board of Health, seeking approval to terminate his contract with effect from 9 April, the Castleford local board said they had “for some time past been dissatisfied with the manner in which the said Peter Sharrock had been and was performing the several duties attached to the respective offices”, especially those of surveyor. They alleged he had been too slow to repair the road surfaces after digging them up to lay the sewers and complained that “we have no pavement and they will take three or four coverings of broken stone, put on at different times, before there will be a sufficient solidity to carry the constant heavy traffic there is on them”. Sharrock may have been given an impossible job to perform but, even so, with a harsh winter doing its worst, the state of the town’s roads in the early weeks of 1855 must have been so bad that the board felt under pressure to be seen to be taking some decisive action.

The decision to sack Peter Sharrock prompted an exchange of letters between himself, the Castleford board and the General Board of Health. Writing to the general board on 16 March, Sharrock attempted to defend himself by claiming “some members of the Board may have interested reasons for removing me” because he had told some of the ratepayers (who, it can be guessed, were grumbling to him about what they were having to hand over to him in his role as collector) it would be an expensive job to get the roads into the condition the board required. He then alleged that “some time afterwards I found a decided change towards me at our meetings of the Board. I may be wrong in my surmises, but I certainly have my suspicions”. He sent a selection of references and testimonials from previous employers but the civil servants declined to overturn the Castleford board’s decision. They did, however, tell him “we do not intend casting any imputations whatsoever on your character or conduct”. Because nineteenth-century central government was infamously reluctant to intervene in local affairs, the General Board of Health must have been uncomfortably aware that it had been compelled to go against this instinct too many times for comfort in the case of Castleford during the preceding three years or so. Consequently, this was clearly one argument it had no intention of getting involved in.

While letters were passing back and forth between Castleford and Whitehall, the following advertisement appeared in the Leeds Mercury on Saturday 24 February 1855.

WANTED, by the above Board, a Person to perform the respective duties of SURVEYOR, INSPECTOR of NUISANCES, and COLLECTOR of RATES within the district of Castleford. The candidate must be competent to conduct surveys, take levels and sections, prepare plans, drawings, and estimates for works of water supply, drainage, sewerage and surface cleansing, and able to superintend the execution thereof, test the materials, and see to the fulfilment of the conditions of the contracts for executing such works. He will also be required to report upon any new buildings within the district as to drainage, levels, and other conveniences, and also upon cases of nuisances, to possess a thorough knowledge of the repairs of highways, to prepare, make out, and collect all rates levied by the Local Board, and generally to discharge all the duties assigned by the Public Health Act to such offices respectively. The person elected will be required to devote the whole of his time to, and to give satisfactory security in the sum of £250 for the due performance of the duties of the said several offices, the particulars of which, in detail, may be inspected on applying personally to the Clerk of the Board, or a copy will be forwarded to any candidate on receipt of eight postage stamps. Applications with testimonials of qualifications and competency, stating the age of the candidate, previous occupation, and the salary he would expect to receive, addressed to “The Chairman,” and marked “Application for Appointment of Surveyor, &c.,” must be forwarded to me on or before Friday, the 16th day of March next. By order,
THOS. SYKES, Solicitor, Clerk of the said Board.
The Clerk’s Office, Castleford, 21st February, 1855.

The fact that the board were still looking for one man to combine the roles of surveyor, nuisance inspector and rate collector confirms that they believed Sharrock had failed them, rather than they having set him up to fail by making unreasonable demands upon him. Whether anyone else would prove equal to the task, only time would tell.

To be continued…


The majority of the documents and correspondence are in the Public Record Office, Kew, in file MH13/46. Copies of the Leeds Intelligencer and Leeds Mercury are on microfilm at Leeds City Library. Alexis Soyer’s letter to the Morning Post was reprinted in the Leeds newspapers.