I’ve lived in northern England now for almost thirty years, and still remember the exuberating sensations of my first few months here, with dramatic historical monuments (Durham Cathedral, Hadrian’s Wall) and wild countryside (Weardale and Teesdale) so much more accessible than when I was in London. This was, in retrospect, a reaction to my formative years spent in the outer London suburbs but, over the intervening years, my feelings towards suburbia have mellowed. The history and wildlife are there, though they do not necessarily reveal themselves as readily.
A case in point: I’m standing beside a busy road on the outskirts of Dagenham, a kilometre or so from the Ford Works, with some blocks of flats on my left and a post-war housing estate to my right. Some of the houses sport flagpoles from which hang limp St George’s flags. You get the picture.
Between the flats and housing estate there is a ribbon of green land, through which a dark, unprepossessing river flows. This is the River Beam, one of many small tributaries of the Thames and the strip of green land is nominally a “country park” though actually part of a wider flood alleviation project, providing a natural reservoir to hold floodwaters and prevent them from damaging houses and businesses in the vicinity. What interests me is neither the river nor even the profusion of wild flowers growing on the grassland in the country park, but the narrow, rectangular strip of open water alongside the river, the long-abandoned Romford Canal.
The Romford Canal at the Beam Parklands in east London. Left hand view shows the rectangular strip of open water close to Rainham Road whilst the right hand picture shows a stretch just to the south that is now overgrown.
My interest in the Romford Canal comes from snippets I’ve learned from books and the internet about it’s role in the evolution of public health policy. London, at the start of the 18th century, had a population of about one million people but no sewerage system. It also had a huge population of domestic livestock – not just horses but also cattle, pigs and fowl – and the sheer quantity of excrement produced presented a major logistical challenge. There were health consequences too, but these were of less immediate relevance, as it would be another 50 years or so before the link between human wastes and disease was recognised. The Romford Canal was one of the earliest schemes to deal with this, aiming to replace the traditional “night soil” collectors, who carried the excrement to the farmland on the outskirts of the city for use as fertiliser. The plan was to carry this in bulk by barge from central London, along the Thames then up the Romford Canal to be used as fertiliser on the farmland around Romford, whilst the barges could, in turn, transport agricultural produce back to the capital. Unfortunately, this grand conceptual thinking all occurred in the first two decades of the nineteenth century but construction of the canal did not start until 1875. By this time Joseph Bazalgette’s sewer network for central London had solved the problem of accumulating night soil whilst the rapidly growing rail network had wiped out the economic benefits that the Romford Canal might have brought and the plan was eventually abandoned.
Bazalgette, by removing our effluvia, unwittingly ushered in a new, less pungent, era. But sewers, in turn, created many of our modern water quality problems. The old night soil men represented a means of tight ecological cycling that the sewers disrupted. On the other hand, the growth of cities in the 18th century magnified the scale of their task and the idea of using canals to transport human waste out of cities did make practical sense. Indeed, the painter John Martin devised a very similar plan also rendered obsolete by Bazalgette’s sewers. There are more glamorous aspects of London’s history, just as there are more attractive areas of London than Dagenham. However, we are now so used to living in a fragrant world with a low risk of waterborne disease that it is easy to forget just how much of an achievement this was.
Paul Talling (2011) London’s Lost Rivers. Random House, London.