In transcribing the following passage from the online version I have expanded abbreviations and added paragraphing, subtitles, links, and illustrations. The illuminated initial letter with which the article begins comes from the original, though I have added red to it. — George P. Landow

Sewage Systems and the Pollution of Waterways

Decorated initial T

he first note of a long and tedious discussion on the pollution of the streams into which the sewage of Birmingham was poured, was sounded in 1854, when the Earl of Bradford, Lord Leigh, and other land-owners called the attention to the fouling of the river Tame as the result of the formation of a sewer outlet at Saltley in 1852. This was followed, a few years later, by still louder complaints from Mr. C. B. Adderley (now Lord Norton), through whose park the river ran, and from the residents on Gravelly Hill, in whose neighbourhood the Corporation had made an ineffectual attempt to deal with the sewage matter by irrigation, on a plot of land about 200 acres in extent. Injunctions were obtained against the Corporation by both parties in 1870, and the question began to assume a serious and perplexing aspect, involving the possibility of a writ of sequestration in case the injunctions were not complied with. An elaborate report was presented to the Council by the Public Works Committee, recommending a scheme involving an expenditure of £275,000.

The Council, however, felt that the subject had not eebn fully considered by the committee, and that their scheme was impracticable, and thereupon a special committee was formed to consider and report on the best mode of dealing with the sewage. The result of the committee’s enquiries was published in 1871 in a volume of nearly 300 pages, which has been regarded by engineers and authorities on sanitary subjects as a most important contribution to the question. As a result of the recommendations of the special Committee, the Corporation decided upon the gradual abolition of middens in the town and the substitution of a new privy system, whereby a weekly collection of the contents might be practicable; the acquisition of a larger area of land whereon the sewage matter might be treated by a system of filtration through the soil, so that the liquid, before being turned into the stream, might be rendered comparatively pure and unobjectionable; the establishment of a large sewage farm, “converting what was at present a dismal swamp into a thriving market garden”; and the formation of a Joint Drainage Board, upon which all the adjacent districts draining into the river Tame might be represented. A bill was introduced into Parliament during the session of 1872 empowering the Corporation to carry its scheme into execution, but it was defeated on the third reading, mainly through the exertions of Sir Charles Adderley and Sir Robert Peel, who objected to it as likely to prove injurious to their property. Matters continued in an unsettled condition until 1877, when a Joint Drainage Board was formed under a provisional order of the Local Government Board, constituting the Borough of Birmingham, the Urban Districts of Aston Manor, Balsall Heath, Handsworth, Harbome, Smethwick, and West Bromwich, and the Unions of Aston, King’s Norton, Solihull, and West Bromwich, a United Drainage District, with eleven representatives from Birmingham, two from Aston, and one each from the other districts. A larger area of land was secured at Tyburn, forming a sewage farm 807 acres in extent, and the necessary designs were prepared by the borough engineer and the farm manager for its Row.

Colmore Row, from St. Philip’s Churchyard. (From a photograph by T. Lewis.).

At that time Colmore Row was little more than half the width of Ann Street, and consequently only lined with one side of that street, while Ann Street itself formed an elbow running down almost level with the front of the Town Hall (as it appears in the engraving on page 241), so that only the roof of that building could be seen from the middle of Ann Street or Colmore Row. The first stage of the improvement consisted of the removal of the old buildings at the corner of Colmore Row and Newhall Street, and the setting tack of the row* to the line of the northern side of Ann Street. On the site thus cleared a fine club-house was erected, in the Italian style, as the new home of the Union Club, from designs by Mr. H. R. Yeoville Thomason. This was followed by other handsome buildings in a similar style, all having stone fronts, until, in 1874, the last two projecting houses were removed and the new line of Colmore Row was entirely constructed in accordance with the original scheme, the north side lining with that of Ann Street. Meanwhile a number of the houses on the same side of Ann Street were rebuilt in a similar style (the southern side having been rebuilt, as we have seen in a former chapter, in 1825); and the land purchased by the Corporation as the site of the Municipal Offices was at the same time cleared, and the crooked line of the lower end of Ann Street set back to line with the upper portion. Thus, within the space of eight years, two narrow, crooked streets were transformed into a broad, handsome thoroughfare, bordered by stately buildings, banks, offices, hotels, and handsome shops, such as would not do discredit to the principal thoroughfares of the metropolis.

Birmingham’s Water Supply

In 1890 the Water Committee of the Council, feeling the heavy responsibility which rested upon them, in the maintenance of a proper supply of water for the large area which is dependent upon Birmingham for this prime necessary, began to entertain fears as to the future sources of supply, as, while the demand had for some years been increasing at the rate of three per cent, per annum, the possibility of obtaining new supplies of water in the immediate neighbourhood of Birmingham seemed more than doubtful, several recent borings having proved unsatisfactory. At that time the existing sources of supply were as follows : Wells:

Making a total daily supply of river water amounting to 74 million gallons.

Thus the total daily supply available at that time amounted to 18 million gallons, while the daily average consumption reached 17 million gallons, and on some days reached a total of 22 millions, a condition of affairs well calculated to render the committee uneasy as to the future, especially in view of their engineer’s estimate that twenty-five years hence the demand of obtaining any large increase of the water supply from that source. Under these circumstances the engineers were driven to extend the field of their enquiries, in search of the nearest gathering ground fulfilling the requisite conditions, viz.:

1. That the quality of water must he exceptionally good, and not likely to deteriorate.
2. That there should be a sufficiency for the district fifty years hence at least.
3. That it must be taken from a region high enough to supply the city and district by gravitation as far as possible.

Finding no water eastward or southward within reasonable distance, and that which existed northward being unsatisfactory both as regards quality and position (as to supply by gravitation), the engineers looked towards the west, and after examining one source after another, discovered a source to which all the experts without any hesitation gave the preference on every ground. This was the basin of the Elan and Claerwen streams, in the neighbourhood of Rhayader, in Radnorshire, the spot chosen for the operations being the point at which the two streams unite at Nant Gwyllt, where the combined river takes the name of the Elan.

This district was visited by the members of the Water Committee, and after spending several days in a careful examination of the gathering ground, they came to the unanimous conclusion “that it answered the whole of the necessary conditions, and might be termed an ideal watershed” (The Future Water Supply of Birmingham, by Councillor Thomas Barclay, p. 15. We are indebted to this interesting pamphlet for most of the facts in relation to the Corporation Water Scheme). This extensive moorland, which presents many picturesque features, is situated in Cardiganshire and Radnorshire, about eighty miles due west of Birmingham. The water is of a high degree of purity, and the situation of the watershed, at an altitude varying from 800 to 2,100 feet above sea-level, will allow of its being brought to Birmingham by force of gravitation, although it may be necessary to use other power in the distribution of the supply to various parts of the town and neighbourhood.

The scheme for the acquisition of the land and the carrying out of the necessary works for bringing the water to Birmingham was approved by the Council at a meeting held April 21st, 1891, and the Water Committee was authorised to obtain details, plans, and estimates, and to engage professional assistance with a view to promoting a bill in Parliament to carry out the scheme. A public meeting of ratepayers was held in the Town Hall on the 5th of December in the same year, for the purpose of authorising and empowering the Council to make application to Parliament for the necessary act, and on a poll being demanded and taken, 7,837 votes were given in favour of the application and only 997 against that course.

The scheme met with considerable opposition from the London authorities, who claimed that the requirements of the metropolis should be considered by Parliament before granting powers as to possible sources of water supply, but on the assurance being given by the Birmingham authorities that they had no intention of forestalling the metropolis in their scheme, and clauses being introduced in the bill guaranteeing the metropolitan authorities to cross the proposed aqueducts, the bill was allowed to be read a second time. Opposition now arose in a new quarter, and an outcry was raised by some of the Welsh members that the interests of the Principality would suffer if the bill were allowed to pass. On the motion of Mr. T. Ellis the bill was referred to a hybrid committee, where the London County Council again offered opposition to its progress. At this stage Mr. Mansergh, the engineer to the scheme, presented his Parliamentary estimates, whereby it was shown that, including all works and contingencies, the construction of 3½ miles of railway to facilitate construction and maintenance, the Water Scheme was estimated to cost £5,851,000. Clauses were agreed to by the promoters of the scheme providing that the Corporation should grant leases of 999 years to the owners of property in the watershed, and of twenty-one years to tenants, also securing common rights; and the bill was read a third time and sent up to the House of Lords on June 21st, and was successfully piloted through its subsequent stages by the date of the dissolution of Parliament, receiving the Royal assent on June 27th.

The report of the Water Committee as to the result of the application to Parliament was presented at a meeting of the Council held July 26th,-and a resolution passed authorising the committee to take steps for the acquisition of the necessary lands, and to proceed with other works in furtherance of the scheme.

Several important changes have come about within the last few years in the constitution and position of the town. Under the Redistribution of Seats Act of 1885 the Parliamentary Borough was enlarged by the inclusion of Harborne, Balsall Heath, Saltley, and Little Bromwich. In 1888 Birmingham was constituted a County Borough under the Local Government Act, thus severing the last link with the county authority. On the nth of December, 1888, formal intimation was received from the Home Secretary that “Her Majesty had been graciously pleased to signify her approval that the Borough of Birmingham shall be raised to the rank of a City”; and the charter conferring this rank was granted January 14th, 1889. This change was signalized by the resolution, on the part of the Council, to obtain a proper grant of arms from the Heralds’ College, the old arms having been adopted without authority. In compliance with this request, a grant was made of armorial bearings in which, over the old arms of the borough, a fess was emblazoned ermine with a dexter arm embowed of the second. A crest and supporters were also granted, the former consisting of a mural crown from which issues a dexter arm embowed of the second, the hand holding a hammer, and the latter of two figures, on the dexter side a man habited as a smith, representing industry, and on the sinister side a female figure, representing art. An engraving of the new arms of the city is given on the first page of this work.

Efforts had been made at various times to extend the area of the Municipal Borough so as to include the surrounding suburbs, all of which had become independent Local Board Districts; but until 1890 none of these efforts had been successful. At a special meeting of the Council held on the 25th of November in that year it was resolved to make another effort, and a representation was forwarded to the Local Government Board, in favour of the extension of the city by making the municipal boundary coterminous with that of the Parliamentary Borough—in other words to include within the city the Local Board Districts of Harbome, Balsall Heath, and Saltley, and the Hamlet of Little Bromwich. This application was acceded to, and the enlargement on these lines took effect on the 9th of November, 1891. No effort was made on this occasion to take over the adjoining Local Board Districts of Aston, Handsworth, and Smethwick, as it was understood that these authorities were unwilling to become merged in the corporate area, and it was known that Parliament was indisposed to sanction the annexation of any suburban district against the wish of the inhabitants. Thus these districts were left undisturbed, nor is it likely that any attempt will be made in future by Birmingham to take them over. It may be, indeed, that in the near future these districts may become boroughs themselves, with as great an ambition to annex the more remote suburbs beyond them as the city authorities have manifested to include these and other districts within its own boundaries Greater Birmingham is now an accomplished fact. A still greater Birmingham is destined yet to arise on all sides of the existing city, which, although it may not legally lay claim to the name of Birmingham, will yet form a part of the great province w’hich had its beginning when the sons of Berm planted their ‘ham’ in the forest clearing on the banks of the Rea.


There is little worthy of record in the annals of the Council during the period of petty warfare which followed the accession of the economical party to the council (outside of the subjects reserved for future chapters) until 1859, when the question of providing a borough cemetery, which had been under discussion for some time, was brought to a satisfactory issue. It had at first been thought advisable to provide four cemeteries in different parts of the borough, but at a meeting of the Council held on the 24th August, 1859, the Estates Committee recommended, as a more economical and convenient course, the purchase of an estate of 105 acres at Witton, which had been offered at £150 per acre, making a total of £15,750 for the whole. The report was approved, the purchase made, and estimates were obtained for laying out the land, building chapels, etc.

Two chapels were at first built, from the designs of Mr. R. Clarke, of Nottingham, one being intended for the use of members of the Church of England, and the other to be used jointly by Nonconformists and Roman Catholics. This arrangement, however, was objected to, and the Roman Catholics applied for the erection of a separate chapel in the ground which had been allotted to them, which, after some delay and opposition, was granted. The cemetery was opened on the 28th of May, 1863, the Church of England portion having been consecrated by the Bishop of Worcester on the 23rd of the same month. The ground was subsequently enlarged, and in 1868 a chapel erected for the use of the Jews. The total cost of the cemetery, including laying out and erection of chapels, amounted to £46,397.

Related material


Dent, Robert K. The Making of Birmingham: Being a History of the Rise & Growth of the Midland Metropolis. Birmingham: J. L. Allday, 1894. Birmingham: Hall and English, 1886. 398-403. HathiTrust online version of a copy in the University of California Library. Web. 4 October 2022.

Last modified 14 October 2022