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Bovril Boats

& Electric Poo

The solution to dealing with the failings of Bazalgette’s sewer designs and the issues of the tide were eventually dealt with by bringing in sludge vessels.

Bovril Boats or Marmalade Boats were nicknames given to these.

specially designed sewerage dumping vessels, also known as "Sludge vessels". The vessels operated on the River Thames from 1887 to 1998. Their task was to remove London's sludge waste from Beckton and Crossness for disposal on the ebb tide at sea, at Black Deep, an extremely deep part of the North sea located fifteen miles off Foulness, on one of the main approaches to the Thames Estuary.

When we interviewed those who had taken trips on these vessels and those working in the industries, they reported that the ‘Bovril Boats’ were surprisingly spotless and clean on board.

Cesspools & Nuisances

The growth of population of Barking during the 19th century was not at first accompanied by any improvements in sanitation. In 1848 the vestry set up a committee to investigate ‘nuisances’. At the time much of the sewage ran along an open drain and later complaints led to a public enquiry in 1853. It was not until 1882 that the local board initiated a sewerage scheme for the town ward at a cost of £21000. In 1910-1911 the urban district council sewered Creekmouth. Housing development after the first world war, caused the formation in 1930 of the Ilford and Barking Joint Sewerage Committee and in 1930-1935 this completely reorganised the local sewage system to provide for the total population of 320000. By 1935 there were hardly any houses without a main drainage. The new arrangements included the use of the great Northern Outfall Sewer.

Inspectors of Nuisance where also appointed in Barking in , with a Board of Public Health dividing the town into 5 districts to be inspected. Records at Valence House show local residents being issued with instructions such as:

“Cleanse the drain. Remove cod oil casks, cleanse ditch next to field. Remove manure. Empty dustbin. Remove dung and cleanse yard. Cleanse piggeries and yard.”

“The presence of more filth in the river, more complaints about stench from increasingly turbid waters, was proof that miasma was being carried away from the home. But the stink increased year on year, and by the late 1850s, “Why , asked Londoners, was ‘miasma’ from the Thames any better off than that of the household cesspool?” The Thames diluted filth to some degree, but did not carry it swiftly downstream. On the contrary, the estuarine tide kept the contents of the capital’s privies bobbing back and forth for days on end. London seemed to possess the world’s biggest elongated cesspool- hardly a proud boast. This did not seem like progress.”

Lee Jackson, Dirty Old London

“The town of Barking is in a most deplorable state of sanitary destitution. That a town so situated, so near to a great river, and quite within an hour’s reach of London, should be the seething and abominable cesspool that is is, is most extraordinary.”

The Builder, 1870

Between 1888 and 1889, unemployment dropped and poverty was already endemic in Barking. The fishermen’s cottages as well as larger houses in Heath Street and Fisher Street once inhabited by smack-owners (fishing boat-owners) - the Hewetts, Morgans, Marchants, Earles, and their kind- had deteriorated equally into slums.

Dr Gwynne Harries, sent by the Local Government Board in 1873 following the typhoid epidemic, had reported that many houses were then ‘unfit for habitation’ and painted a grim picture of the poor sanitation. Several sewers discharged crude sewage straight into the Roding, often to be backed up again by the rising tide. Many houses depended on cess-pits, some emptied only at 6 monthly or even longer intervals. Although South Essex Water Company were supplying nearly half the houses by then, many people still used their own shallow wells or water by the pailful from water carts which filled up from the ‘town well’.

This was a pump standing ‘in a slop puddle at the head of a very dirty yard’ found fouled from surface drainage. The water from which seems to have acquired legendary tea making properties! By 1889 considerable improvements had been made, but there had also been a marked increase in population, even in the mid 1880s some terrace houses were still being built with cess-pits in certain roads in Barking.

Another problem was highlighted by a letter from Mr Arthur Webb, in a letter to the local newspaper written in 1968 about his childhood in Fisher Street area. He said the house beyond the old Barking gas works, where he lived as a child, was “running alive with vermin of all types”. In fact he remembered as a child boasting: “Garn ...we’ve got more bugs than you. My mum sweeps ‘em up in a shovel.

Even into the 1950s, local people living by the riverside at Creekmouth reported issues with rats and vermin:

“There used to be rats that came up from the river. I was scared of them as a child. They were really big ones, you know the sort of size of cats. We used to have a dog that used to catch them. And the men used to sort of make a game of it. I mean it's something you don’t want in your homes, and therefore they had to be caught. But living by the river it was just constant. And I just remember one of the rats being killed and someone just picked it up by the tail and just threw it over the fence, by Lawes factory. That corner must have been getting quite deep with vermin. It was quite horrible, you know the way they used to catch them sometimes, really yuck.”

Avril Miller

The Harries Report on public health, mentioned above, followed up on reports of poor health and sanitation to make some impact on improvements to conditions. George Godwin’s highly critical ‘Bark at Barking’ in The Builder, had eventual results too. The Local Board began as an Urban Sanitary Authority in 1883. Within a couple of years £18000 had been spent in laying a new main sewer down North Street and through the town to an outfall with a large precipitation tank near the Jute Works. 116 cesspools had been filled in by 1887 and by the beginning of 1889 the Board could boast that every street in Barking town had been sewered and supplied with water mains. In 1873, the town’s streets were described as ‘ foul, wet and unwholesome’, as during 1888-1889, the Board shifted its efforts to surfacing and draining the streets and creating pavements.

The River Roding frequently would cause flooding to riverside housing:

“Sometimes there would be very high tides and the river would flood, causing water to rush down our street. Furniture was taken upstairs, doors barricaded and carpets and floor-covering taken up”

Florence Rowe, remembering her Edwardian childhood in Barking

Creekmouth Village by Barking riverside many years later also suffered The Great Flood of 1953, causing the village community to move and the area to disappear after this flooding damage.

A Drop of Thames Water illustration from Punch Magazine (1850)
Lighterage Advert | Photo:Valence House (Re2600)
Loading of goods on Barking Creek | Photo: Valence House
Dirty Father Thames illustration from Punch Magazine
London Nightmen transporting night soil
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A Drop of Thames Water illustration from Punch Magazine (1850)
Lighterage Advert | Photo:Valence House (Re2600)
Loading of goods on Barking Creek | Photo: Valence House
Dirty Father Thames illustration from Punch Magazine
London Nightmen transporting night soil

The Great Stink

Victorian Historian and author Lee Jackson describes evocatively London’s Great Stink in his book Dirty Old London:

“High temperatures, naturally enough, made matters worse. June 1858 was particularly warm- an ‘Indian heat’ - and the river responded, generating an aroma that became known as The Great Stink. The public baulked at using Thames steamboats, ‘afraid not only of prospective disease but of immediate nausea, headache and giddiness.’ Parliament, on the banks of the river, was possibly the worst situated building in the capital. In 1857, members of Parliament complained of poisonous ‘effluvia’ giving headaches, nause and loss of appetite as the reeking stench of sewage filled Parliament -and people feared they would contract illness via smell.”

Further down the river a watermen was declared to have died from cholera, brought on by “inhaling the noxious vapours of the Thames”. The Stink was debated in the Commons and a system of ‘deodorisation’ of the Thames was ordered as a temporary solution- placing lime at a costly amount at the mouth of all sewers, to mixed results.

Human waste was reported as being discharged into Barking Creek:

“Witness saw last year excrement floating in the creek; at low water there is a sewage deposit on the banks of filth and mud and slime, which stinks too badly to be mud. He experienced in 1868 the ill effects of this, having to to go away for the benefit of his health; nothing of the kind occurred before the London sewer started. The state of the creek is both a nuisance and an abomination.”

The Memorial report, page 395

Complaints about the smell of sewage from Beckton Sewage Works and the Northern Outfall continued into recent times, as reported by those we interviewed in 2019:

“Beckton Sewerage, they're the smells I remember mostly. They were awful, and they followed us to Thames View up into our teens and our 20s and 30s. And every time the sewerage at Beckton was let out, so the smell just came over Thames View. And, I think someone once described it as chewable, it was so awful, it really was. You had to walk along with a handkerchief over your mouth it got so bad at times.”

Avril Glyne-Miller, ex-Creekmouth Village resident

The Princess Alice Disaster

River Casualties & a Memorial Report

SS Princess Alice was a passenger paddle steamer. She was sunk in a collision on the River Thames by the collier Bywell Castle, in 1878. There were 650 lives lost, the greatest loss of life in any Thames shipping disaster.

“The gases seemed to explode in the bed of the river and come up like mud volcanoes…”

Daily News, 19 August 1881

On 3 September 1878, Princess Alice was making what was billed as a ‘Moonlight Trip’ to Gravesend and back. A routine trip from Swan Pier near London Bridge to Gravesend and Sheerness. That evening, on the return journey, within sight of North Woolwich Pier were many passengers were due to disembark, the vessel sighted the Newcastle bound vessel Bywell Castle. A coal carrier on her way to pick up cargo. Both captains were experienced Thames river pilots and followed protocol of the river. The tide was strong and despite both captains efforts to avoid a collision, the Bywell Castle was brought into the path of Princess Alice. The Bywell Castle split in two after the collision and sank within 4 minutes of the impact.

The passengers were dressed in their finery and many struggled to swim weighted down by their dresses, struggling with the strong tides and swim in the water thick with sewage and filth. Despite many passengers being healthy and strong swimmers, women, men and children all drowned and struggled to swim and survive in the water.

Many passengers were trapped within the wreck and drowned.

“Some claimed that the wretched victims drowned in sewage, others that the water poisoned fourteen unlucky souls who died after their rescue.”

Lee Jackson

The twice daily release of 75 million imperial gallons of raw sewage from sewer outfalls at Barking and Crossness had occurred one hour prior to the collision. The heavily polluted water was believed to contribute to the deaths of those who went into the river.

Between 69 and 170 people were rescued, over 650 died. 120 victims were buried in a mass grave at Woolwich Old Cemetery.

The incident described by the log of the Bywell Castle:

“The weather was a little hazy. When about at the centre of the reach observed an excursion steamer coming up Barking reach, showing her red and masthead lights, when we ported our helm to keep out, as the vessels neared, observed that the other steamer had ported her helm. Seeing that our collision was inevitable, we stopped our engines and reversed them at full speed. The two vessels came in collision, the bow of the Bywell Castle cutting into the other steamer with a dreadful crash.. We took immediate measures for life saving by hauling up over our bows several passengers, life bouys, a hold ladder and getting out three boats, at the same time blowing the whistle for assistance. The excursion steamer Princess Alice turned over and sank under our bows.”

The enquiry blamed Captain Grinstead who died in the disaster, finding that “The Princess Alice was not properly and sufficiently manned”. The jury on the Coroner’s inquest held at the same time that ‘The Bywell Castle did not take the necessary precaution of easing, stopping and reversing her engines in time”. The jury concluded that the sufficient lifesaving devices had been aboard Princess Alice.

Locals had a different point of view to the enquiry:

“Many Thames watermen considered that, as all experienced Thames pilots were well aware, the pilot of Bywell Castle should have realised the situation and acted accordingly, but no watermen were called to give evidence at the inquest”.

At this time there was no official body responsible for Marine Safety in the Thames. A major enquiry and Memorial took place to investigate the causes of the disaster and the quality of the water by Barking Creek. The outcome was a new plan was formulated for dumping sewage far out at sea via boat, rather than simply releasing it downriver, however this was not implemented until years later.

Public Health

Cesspools and Sanitation

“The town of Barking is in a most deplorable state of sanitary destitution. That a town so situated, so near to a great river, and quite within an hour’s reach of London, should be the seething and abominable cesspool that is is, is most extraordinary.”

The Builder, 1870

Between 1888 and 1889, unemployment dropped and poverty was already endemic in Barking. The fishermen’s cottages as well as larger houses in Heath Street and Fisher Street once inhabited by smack-owners (fishing boat-owners) - the Hewetts, Morgans, Marchants, Earles, and their kind- had deteriorated equally into slums.

Dr Gwynne Harries, sent by the Local Government Board in 1873 following the typhoid epidemic, had reported that many houses were then ‘unfit for habitation’ and painted a grim picture of the poor sanitation. Several sewers discharged crude sewage straight into the Roding, often to be backed up again by the rising tide. Many houses depended on cesspits, some emptied only at 6 monthly or even longer intervals. Although South Essex Water Company were supplying nearly half the houses by then, many people still used their own shallow wells or water by the pailful from water carts which filled up from the ‘town well’.

This was a pump standing ‘in a slop puddle at the head of a very dirty yard’ found fouled from surface drainage. The water from which seems to have acquired legendary tea making properties! By 1889 considerable improvements had been made, but there had also been a marked increase in population, even in the mid 1880s some terrace houses were still being built with cess-pits in certain roads in Barking.

Another problem was highlighted by a letter from Mr Arthur Webb, in a letter to the local newspaper written in 1968 about his childhood in Fisher Street area. He said the house beyond the old Barking gas works, where he lived as a child, was “running alive with vermin of all types”. In fact he remembered as a child boasting: “Garn ...we’ve got more bugs than you. My mum sweeps ‘em up in a shovel.

Even into the 1950s, local people living by the riverside at Creekmouth reported issues with rats and vermin:

“There used to be rats that came up from the river. I was scared of them as a child. They were really big ones, you know the sort of size of cats. We used to have a dog that used to catch them. And the men used to sort of make a game of it. I mean it's something you don’t want in your homes, and therefore they had to be caught. But living by the river it was just constant. And I just remember one of the rats being killed and someone just picked it up by the tail and just threw it over the fence, by Lawes factory. That corner must have been getting quite deep with vermin. It was quite horrible, you know the way they used to catch them sometimes, really yuck.”

Avril Miller

The Harries Report on public health, mentioned above, followed up on reports of poor health and sanitation to make some impact on improvements to conditions. George Godwin’s highly critical ‘Bark at Barking’ in The Builder, had eventual results too. The Local Board began as an Urban Sanitary Authority in 1883. Within a couple of years £18000 had been spent in laying a new main sewer down North Street and through the town to an outfall with a large precipitation tank near the Jute Works. 116 cesspools had been filled in by 1887 and by the beginning of 1889 the Board could boast that every street in Barking town had been sewered and supplied with water mains. In 1873, the town’s streets were described as ‘ foul, wet and unwholesome’, as during 1888-1889, the Board shifted its efforts to surfacing and draining the streets and creating pavements.

The River Roding frequently would cause flooding to riverside housing:

“Sometimes there would be very high tides and the river would flood, causing water to rush down our street. Furniture was taken upstairs, doors barricaded and carpets and floor-covering taken up”

Florence Rowe, remembering her Edwardian childhood in Barking

Creekmouth Village by Barking riverside many years later also suffered The Great Flood of 1953, causing the village community to move and the area to disappear after this flooding damage.

The growth of population of Barking during the 19th century was not at first accompanied by any improvements in sanitation. In 1848 the vestry set up a committee to investigate ‘nuisances’. At the time much of the sewage ran along an open drain and later complaints led to a public enquiry in 1853. It was not until 1882 that the local board initiated a sewerage scheme for the town ward at a cost of £21000. In 1910-1911 the urban district council sewered Creekmouth. Housing development after the first world war, caused the formation in 1930 of the Ilford and Barking Joint Sewerage Committee and in 1930-1935 this completely reorganised the local sewage system to provide for the total population of 320000. By 1935 there were hardly any houses without a main drainage. The new arrangements included the use of the great Northern Outfall Sewer.

Sanitation

“The town of Barking is in a most deplorable state of sanitary destitution. That a town so situated, so near to a great river, and quite within an hour’s reach of London, should be the seething and abominable cesspool that is is, is most extraordinary.”

The Builder, 1870

Between 1888 and 1889, unemployment dropped and poverty was already endemic in Barking. The fishermen’s cottages as well as larger houses in Heath Street and Fisher Street once inhabited by smackowners - the Hewetts, Morgans, Marchants, Earles, and their kind- had deteriorated equally into slums.

Dr Gwynne Harries, sent by the Local Government Board in 1873 following the typhoid epidemic, had reported that many houses were then ‘unfit for habitation’ and painted a grim picture of the poor sanitation. Several sewers discharged crude sewage straight into the Roding, often to be backed up again by the rising tide. Many houses depended on cess-pits, some emptied only at 6 monthly or even longer intervals. Although South Essex Water Company were supplying nearly half the houses by then, many people still used their own shallow wells or bough water by the pailful from water carts which filled up from the ‘town well’.

This was a pump standing ‘in a slop puddle at the head of a very dirty yard’ found fouled from surface drainage. The water from which seems to have acquired legendary tea making properties! By 1889 considerable improvements had been made, but there had also been a marked increase in population, even in the mid 1880s some terrace houses were still being built with cess-pits in certain roads in Barking.

Another problem was highlighted by a letter from Mr Arthur Webb, in a letter to the local newspaper written in 1968 about his childhood in Fisher Street area. He said the house beyond the old Barking gas works, where he lived as a child, was “running alive with vermin of all types”. In fact he remembered as a child boasting: “Garn ...we’ve got more bugs than you. My mum sweeps ‘em up in a shovel”

The Harries Report on public health, mentioned above, followed up on reports of poor health and sanitation to make some impact on improvements to conditions. George Godwin’s highly critical ‘Bark at Barking’ in The Builder, had eventual results too. The Local Board began as an Urban Sanitary Authority in 1883, Within a couple of years £18000 had been spent in laying a new main sewer down North Street and through the town to an outfall with a large precipitation tank near the Jute Works. 116 cesspools had been filled in by 1887 and by the beginning of 1889 the Board could boast that every street in Barking town had been sewered and supplied with water mains. In 1873, the town’s streets were described as ‘ foul, wet and unwholesome’, as during 1888-1889, the Board shifted its efforts to surfacing and draining the streets and creating pavements.

Florence Rowe on the River Roding flooding into nearby homes:

“Sometimes there would be very high tides and the river would flood, causing water to rush down our street. Furniture was taken upstairs, doors barricaded and carpets and floor-covering taken up”

Thames Mud Butter

Josh Thames Mud Butter cartoon if can get this from him?

The Princess Alice disaster revealed a rather unusual trade being made from the river’s filth. Men were spotted in boats with nets catching fat on the surface of the water, by the Outfall. Reports were made of the people selling something called ‘Thames Mud Butter’ - essentially human fat that was skimmed off of the surface of the water. It was a rather gross means of people making a living. Thames Mud butter was sold to grease engines and machinery to industries. brought to light this grisly means of making a living, selling it to grease engines and machinery.

The Memorial report described this gruesome and opportunistic profession:

“If you go there on the flood tide you will see plenty of birds there when the London sewer is open: you will see men on the shore collecting the fat in baskets, who get their living by it. They take it on the shore and boil it, and it is taken back to London. I have seen scores of them doing it; baskets and baskets of solid fat are taken off the shores of the Thames.”

 

Working River

Watermen & Lightermen, Cargo & Dockers

Barking was ideally situated for factories to be located along the riverside, allowing the transportation of cargo, fuel and finished products up and down the Roding and along the River Thames into London and beyond.

Raw materials were brought in on the River Thames and finished articles conveniently shipped out the same way. There were railways and roads leading to London, and Barking Creek running through the heart of town. Homes, small businesses and local shops were demolished to make way for these industries and, as they were, the Creek’s waters get ever more polluted.

What is the unique smell of the river? And the different cargoes and products carried?

Those working on the river offer a unique perspective on the industrial history of Barking and the smells connected to it. We interviewed people who were part of the close knit community of families who worked on barges and tugs, as lightermen, watermen and dockers.

 

Lightermen & Watermen

“There would be distinctive smells of the cargoes that my father worked with – particularly when he worked as a lighterman, so he was up and down in the barges. And sometimes he was filthy. He would be black from head to foot if it was a cargo that was particularly dirty or sooty or whatever,” recalls Mike Kelly who grew up in Barking in the 1950s and 60s. Apparently Mike’s father favoured dealing with asbestos as it was odourless and light, even sometimes taking naps on it.

“The Roding itself was pretty much out of bounds. You couldn’t actually get to it because the factories in Hertford Road backed onto it. You could see the Roding when you crossed over, you could smell it, but you couldn’t access it. There was a kind of access at what was called the Town Quay where there was a lock which was colloquially known as The Rushing Waters or The Russian Waters, a kind of mispronunciation I guess. And the barges came up from the Thames and the lightermen would bring them up, and then they rode them through the lock and up to the factories. You couldn’t get a tug up there to pull them,”

remembers Mike.

 

The Smell of the River

“The aroma of the River was absolutely unmistakable. The River from Brentford to Tilbury smelt, the background smell was always of sewage because of the outfall works at Barking and at Crossness over on the other side of the River, as well as the various industrial pollutants. The lightermen used to wash it down with tea and all sorts of things to get rid of the smell, and of course once you were on the tug, the smell of the diesel then blotted out the smell of the River.”

The community of those working on the river was a close knit one, all sharing a close relationship to the river Thames:

“My father worked on the Thames, so did my grandfather, and so had his father. So lighterage was in the family blood almost, and almost our entire social circle, or my parents’ social circle, were made up with people – made up of people in one form or another, connected with the river with lighterage.”

Bob Prentice is an ex-lighterman and waterman that we interviewed. He worked along the River Roding, first visiting on a barge with his father when he was young. Bob remembers Barking’s scented factories and fumes. As well as the indescribable yet distinctive smell of the river Thames itself:

“It was in my family- my grandfather, my great grandfather was all lighterman. Up and down the river, you would get, if you like to call it ‘the River Smell’, and the reason being was because you get the high and the low water… It’s history isn’t it? Things have to change, some things change, change for the good. Lots of things change for the good.”

 

Dockers & Wharves

“My granddad used to be a docker down at the Royal Docks. He used to bring a load of stuff home that he – you know, you’d get the sailors on the boats, all hand carvings and all this sort of thing. Used to bring them home. So he was a right old character. He was unloading bananas and he’s kind of putting the crates on or something, and this great tarantula’s come crawling out across his hand.

It’s just some of the stuff that dockers got up to. Like Arthur Daleys of their time like, you know, a bit of a rogue. You know, what they get off the boats and they can flog.”

Jim Albert, Oral History interviewee

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