Lichfield Water: The Fight against Cholera

The title of the talk might not have suggested a stimulating night out, but a warm July evening saw a packed attendance at St Mary's Centre for a fascinating talk by David Moore on Lichfield's role in tackling the nineteenth century scurge of cholera. Looking back to the Industrial Revolution, David recalled that the tremendous strides towards industrialisation were bought at a heavy human cost. The populations of our towns and cities rocketed, but basic services were either non existent or just couldn't cope. Cities became breeding grounds for disease, and cholera, endemic in the tropics, found an easy breeding ground in the vulnerable populations of our towns and cities. The first outbreak occurred in Sunderland in 1831 and by 1832 it flared up in Bilston, killing one fifth of the population in 6 weeks. Thereafter, it continually recurred in the Black Country. Medical understanding of diseases was weak. Many physicians believed that the air we breathed carried these diseases and so suggested purification of the air as a solution. The link between cholera and water contamination was suspected by John Snow, a London physician, who plotted the locations of deaths and sought out a pattern, often betrayed by the distribution of public water pumps. It was to take him and others twenty years to definitively prove the link between water contamination and cholera outbreaks.

So where does Lichfield fit into this story? It became clear that the residents of Bilston and the wider Black Country would continue to be at risk from cholera, because the quality of the water drawn from local wells was suspect. A new source was required. Throughout the 1850s, the newly created Sanitary Boards turned their minds to the provision of clean water supplies. John McClean, the engineer to the Dudley Waterworks Company was also engineer to the South Staffordshire Railway Company. He persuaded the directors of the latter to agree to the construction of a water main, conveniently along the Walsall to Lichfield railway line, to supply Walsall and the wider area with pure water from the Lichfield area. Thus, the South Staffordshire Waterworks Company came into being.

The project had a significant impact on Lichfield, for the source of the supply was to be Stowe Pool, and the streams flowing into it. The Pool was dredged and enlarged to take the form that we see today. It was in effect a reservoir gathering water which flowed via the Minster Pool into an underground tunnel (the Hanch Tunnel) to a pumping station constructed close to the railway line. This pumping station is the one we know today as Sandfields Pumping Station. Its Boulton and Watt beam engines pumped 2 million gallons of water daily to Walsall. Later, this was increased to 4 million gallons a day when a third "Cornish" beam engine was installed. These engines continued working 24 hours a day until 1927, when the Boulton and Watt engines were replaced. The "Cornish" engine survives to this day, although, like the Pumping Station building itself, it is out of use.

Sandfields Pumping Station, with its fine Italinate architecture still stands, but now lies under threat, since the South Staffordshire Waterworks Company ceased operations on the site and sold the building, its contents and associated land to Persimmon Homes. New housing development now surrounds Sandfields, but the obligations entered into by Persimmon Homes to conserve the building and pumping engine and establish a Trust to manage it, have not been complied with. The engine stands rusting in the building; an engine and building which is every bit a part of Lichfield's economic and social heritage as the Cathedral. David Moore leads the Friends of Sandfields Pumping Station, who are seeking to ensure that Sandfields is not lost, despite it being a Grade II listed building. Progress with Persimmon homes has been slow and there appears to be no immediate prospect of any action. The longer time passes, the more the building and its contents deteriorate. Let us hope that sense prevails and that Persimmon Homes eventually take the view that public opinion and a respect for history comes before enhanced profits.

Roger Hockney
July 2014