Edwin Chadwick on sewage farms

Today, it is Joseph Bazalgette, father of the revolutionary sewage system for London that gets most attention from the press. But Bazalgette was really building on the earlier pioneering work done by the lawyer Edwin Chadwick (1800 -90), who pushed for sanitary reform from the 1840s, not just in London, where perhaps it was needed most, but in the non-metropolitan centres, and continued to work for the principle of clean water up to and beyond the 1880s, long after he had retired.

Here we have a letter from Chadwick, dated August 21st 1884, to a James Blackburn, who turns out to be the man who in the 1870s was dealing with the sewage coming from Aldershot Army Camp. Blackburn, who was then Ranger of Windsor Forest, had used the effluvia on 100 acres of mainly heather-strewn land, and so successful was he in growing crops on it that in 1879 he entered the Camp Farm for the Agricultural Society’s £100 prize for the best sewage farm in the United Kingdom. He didn’t win it, but Chadwick, evidently impressed by Blackburn’s methods, wrote to him from his home in East Sheen asking if he could visit him to discuss the latest thinking on metropolitan sewage disposal.

‘Could you do with me and my servant for a day or two next week, when I should be pleased to see your educational establishment and be glad to talk over the sewage farm question with you in relation to London.

Would you give a perusal of the enclosed paper on the evils of disunity and on the combined system as applied to the metropolis ?

Yours ever
Edwin Chadwick

If you can do with me will you let me know by what trains I may come?

We don’t know where Blackburn lived, but by 1885 it seems possible that he had moved on from the Windsor area and was running some sort of college—possibly an agricultural or engineering establishment. The story of how London dealt with its sewage in the latter part of the 19th century—a narrative involving the ‘ disunity’ referred to by Chadwick of several competing schemes--is a fascinating one and we would certainly like to know more about the ingenious Mr B. [RR]

One thought on “Edwin Chadwick on sewage farms

  1. Roger Plumb

    There is a letter in the Archives of the Lawes Agricultural Trust from James Blackburn to Dr J H Gilbert at Rothamsted. Lawes and Gilbert were involved in experiments with sewage (mainly at Rugby).
    The Letter is from The Camp Farm, Aldershot and refers to treating 2 1/2 acres of “poor and patchy” potatoes and putting 1200 tons of sewage between the drills. The date of the letter is 24th June 1865.


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