Installation of sewers in Castle Street near Chantry

In an interview given to the Thornbury Oral History Society, George Excell recalled moving into a house on The Plain in Thornbury during the 1920s.

It had no tap water, no proper sewerage, a man used to come round with a horse and cart and empty the bucket toilet, and gas was used for lighting and cooking.  Water was obtained from a hand pump from a tank under the scullery and drinking water was obtained in buckets from the mains water tap across the road which had replaced the old hand pump.”

Thornbury appeared to be having some difficulty in entering the Twentieth Century with regard to public health and still relied heavily on earth closets, cesspools and bucket toilets.   This is despite the Public Health Act of 1875 which was established in the United Kingdom to combat filthy urban living conditions which

caused various public health threats, the spreading of many diseases such as cholera and typhus .. because sewage was flowing down the street daily, including the presence of sewage in living quarters.  The Act required all new residential construction to include running water and an internal drainage system.” (Wikipedia).

Thornbury for quite some time appears to have been a very smelly place indeed and “sewage flowing down the streets” was indeed the problem for very many years.

It was the subject of a letter of complaint from the vicar of Thornbury, William Holwell, who accused the local Steward of blocking the flow of sewage down Castle Street and into the Pithay behind the church.

There is directly before the Parochial Church, and close adjoining to my dwelling house, a most insufferable nuisance which has been long a real subject of complaints and which is daily increasing by unusual, and, as I apprehend, illegal encroachment. Your Grace’s Steward, Mr James Vaughan, who seems by his conduct to set every thing and person at defiance, has made the Church Way, and the King’s Highway, and part of the Green before the Church, the Common Receptacle of all the Filth of the Town.  Ancient water courses (contrary to express laws) have been stopped up, which used either to receive part of the washings, or decently to carry off the remainder into one of your Grace’s grounds, called the Pitties.  Thus the King’s Highway is destroyed, and the Church insulted; my house is become offensive and the whole Parish scandalized by an instance not to be paralleled in this Kingdom.  The Filth thus collected, and after some months offensive continuance, dug out, and laid in heaps by the Church and before my windows”

A petition signed about 1873 by the owners and occupiers of houses in Thornbury to the Sanitary Authorities of Thornbury Union had some very graphic descriptions of these “nuisances” as they were always called in the newspaper reports.  The petitioners in this case requested that the problems should be remedied, not as one might expect by having sewers installed, but by the simplest and cheapest method – proper cesspits.

They asked; “That the owners and occupiers of property having overflow from cesspools and slop-drains running into the street should cut them off and provide properly constructed cesspools for such drains to empty into……..These cesspools to be emptied in a proper manner at seasonable times and a sewage cart to be purchased by the inhabitants for the use of parties to clean their cess pools.

This did not seem an unreasonable or expensive request as the inhabitants were prepared to buy their own sewage cart.

Their next request was that in the cases where rainwater from the roofs of houses was directed into the cesspool the downpipes should be altered to make the water run into the gutters instead.  It seems that in wet weather the cesspools flooded and the sewage simply ran through Thornbury down the street gutters.

A cesspool was a dry well lined with loose-fitting brick or stone, used for the disposal of sewage.  Liquids leached out if soil conditions allowed, while solids decayed and collected as composted matter in the base of the cesspool.  As the solids accumulated, eventually the particulate solids blocked the escape of liquids, causing the cesspool to leach out more slowly or to overflow.  When this happened the solid waste had to be dug out.  The cesspool was always vulnerable to overloading or flooding by heavy rains or snow melt because it was not enclosed and sealed like conventional septic tank systems.

On 20th August 1873 the Rural Sanitary Authority received a report from Dr Bond the Medical Officer of Health which led the members to conclude that a Special Drainage District was to be set up to remedy the problems in Thornbury in this respect.  In 1877 Frank Sturge representing Thornbury’s taxpayers objected to plans to spend money on bringing mains water to Thornbury (see the section on piped water) – presumably similar considerations delayed the improvements in sewage.

In the meantime cesspools continued to present problems in Thornbury.  Householders were summonsed from time to time for the “nuisance” they caused.  One of these was Hester Cullimore in 1883 who had been ordered to convert the cesspool in her house in St John Street into an ash closet (see below for an explanation of this term).  Hester was represented by Frank Sturge who seems to have some personal interest in the subject. The case was thought to be important as many houses in Thornbury had covered cesspits and their owners were reluctant to undertake the expense involved in changing the arrangement.  Dr Bond the Medical Officer of Health thought all cesspits were a nuisance and injurious to health.

Despite, or perhaps because of, the opposition from the taxpayers progress, was made in 1884 when it was announced that it was intended to comply with the regulations of the Public Health Act of 1875 and for that purpose a charge would be made on the Special Drainage District.  This appears to be eleven years after the original proposal along the same lines.

Paying a little extra to keep Thornbury cleaner did not seem to work.  Alfred Burchell appeared in court in 1894 for keeping a cesspool at three of his cottages which had the very problem that was complained of in the petition twenty years earlier; when it rained they overflowed and presented a nuisance and a danger to health.

In July 1894 the Bristol Mercury reported on a meeting of Thornbury Highway Board at The Swan.  The problem under discussion was that of the gutters.  The paper says that

“there was no available water in Thornbury for flushing gutters regularly. The only way seemed to be to have them swept more often and the catch pits cleaned out so that no offensive matter could collect in them.”

The gutters, it was decided, should be swept twice a week.  This report sounds innocuous but it should be remembered what was in the gutters of Thornbury.  The “offensive matter” in question was sewage.

In 1911 the first steps were taken to create a sewage works and to install pipes for this purpose.  At this stage only the Workhouse was linked to the sewage plant.  Click here to read more about SEWAGE WORKS

Almost twenty years later the problem was still being discussed but not acted upon.  The Gazette of 15th May 1915 had a report of a Council meeting at which Mr G B Symes drew the Council’s attention to the fact that some people in Castle Street and the High Street threw sewage matter into the gutters.  The response of the Chairman of the Council was interesting as he “deprecated the bringing of the nuisance too prominently before the notice of the public for fear of a sewerage scheme being forced on the parish.”  The thought seems to have been that one should try and ignore it, as solving the problem would cost money.  One Councillor had the temerity to ask where people could throw their sewage and it was admitted that there was “nowhere else in some cases.”  The Council chose the cheap if somewhat ineffective solution of dealing with the problem.  It decided to issue warning notices to the culprits without suggesting what was to be done with the sewage instead.

Amazingly the problems of sewage in the street continued even after the the first quarter of the twentieth Century.  The Gazette of 31st October 1925 quoted the report of the County Medical Officer who said that out of the 340 houses in the special drainage area 35 allowed their sink waste to flow into street gutters and then into streams near the Institution (this was in Gloucester Road and the stream in question is the Streamside that is now a popular walk).  It was admitted that untreated sewage found its way into the stream this way but the defence was that probably half of the 33 houses lost their waste water in the ditches behind Castle Street and unless there was heavy rain only “infinitesimal amounts” of that sewage appeared in the stream.  It is hard to believe that 16 or 17 houses discharging sewage into ditches behind Castle Street should be regarded as a a good thing, even though it might be marginally better than letting it go into a stream.

The minutes of the meeting of Thornbury Parish Council in December 1930 record some progress in the sewerage scheme after what appears to be help from central government.

Mr Weatherhead and Mr Pitcher strongly supported the scheme for while it was impossible for the town to bear the expense in the past, with the help of the promised grants with very little expense to the rate payer the scheme would be of great asset to the town and would find employment for many who were now unemployed.

Mr Pitcher’s family business was to have quite a lot of the work installing these pipes and it may be felt he had some interest in promoting the scheme.  However it must be admitted that sewers were greatly needed.

On February 9th 1935 the newspaper finally announced the opening of the sewage works on the road to Oldbury and the completion of the work to bring main sewers to Thornbury.  The work took a lot longer than expected and was more expensive than anticipated because of the difficulty of cutting through the famous Thornbury rock (the seam of dolomitic conglomerate on which the centre of Thornbury was built).  The image shown here is of Gloucester Road in Thornbury during the pipe laying at this time.  The photograph was taken outside what was then Thornbury Grammar School and is now Castle Sixth Form Centre.

The records of the Pitcher family business show some examples of the conditions that people in Thornbury had to endure.  For example, on 25th January 1937 an invoice was created for work done in October 1936 on sewage work to six houses later numbered 1 to 11 Gloucester Road, Thornbury (these were the cottages demolished in the 1960s).  The bill says that the work at Monk’s house involved filling up the open drain under the living rooms and laying a four inch glazed stoneware drain – to cure smells from the street drain outside front window!

Honey Buckets

Another system used in the Thornbury area, which will be familiar to many older people living in rural areas especially, was the collection of sewage from “honey buckets” in carts or waggons.  A honey bucket was a bucket used as a toilet in communities that lacked a water-borne sewage system.  The bucket sat under a wooden frame with a toilet seat lid on top.  Usually this was in the garden.  It was emptied regularly by a man who had to come through the house in many cases as these houses were often in terraces and then carry the brimming bucket back through the house to tip it into his cart or waggon.  “Honey waggon” was the traditional general term for a cart, waggon or truck for collecting and carrying this excrement.

Gloucester House (number 2 Gloucester Road) may have a visible reminder of this part of Thornbury’s past.  There is the outline of a round hole in the wall which has been filled in and a square area towards the bottom of the wall.  On the other side of the wall is the garden.  Ground level on the other side of the wall is higher and we have been told by a previous owner that there was probably an outside toilet with a “honey bucket” on the other side of the wall.  The round hole was probably the window or ventilation for the toilet.  The lower hole probably had a door on it so the bucket could be emptied from the Gloucester Road side without walking it through the house.

Although this practice became obsolete in Thornbury itself in the rural areas it continued.  The creator of Thornbury Roots actually accompanied the council employee whose unenviable task it was to empty these buckets on his rounds as late as the 1960s and early 1970s.

The Earth Closet and the Ash Closet

We are grateful to Wikipedia for a description of the use of Earth and Ash Closets.  One traditional solution to the problem of sewage disposal was the earth closet, which was also in the garden for obvious reasons . Layers of earth were dumped on top of the waste in order to soak it up and prevent smell.  This waste would then be dug out and sometimes collected as it could be reused as manure.  An alternative was found in replacing earth with ash.  Ash was one thing that all Victorian homes had in great supply since fire was used for all heating a cooking.  However, ash did not produce as good manure as earth.

Laying sewer pipes in Gloucester Road 1932


The new sewage system can still be seen on the road to Oldbury.  Above another photograph shows some of the upheaval the work caused  for the people of Thornbury.