Thursday, September 3, 2015

Underground Manchester: A Pitstop

Through a bit of poking around on National Rail I discovered it's often cheaper to break a train journey up than buy a direct ticket. It's a win win for me because there are so many places in the UK I want to visit. So heading back down from Edinburgh today I had a 2 hour stop-over in Manchester which I had arranged with the express purpose if visiting the sewer section of the Museum of Science and Industry.

Between slightly delayed trains and the museum being farther from the station than I had estimated I ended up with less time than I had planned, so I spent my 20 minutes dashing frantically through the exhibit pushing small children ruthlessly out of the way to take pictures of as many of the signs as I could. One more place added to the "must re-visit" list. For now, here is a regurgitation of some of the things I picked up on my visit.

The museum gives a comprehensive overview of everything from the Romans through modern day Manchester.

The Northwest of England was not one of the wealthier parts of the Roman Empire, and consequently has fewer bathhouses, but a fair few have still been discovered... at least 18 according to the museum's map. Aqueducts carried water into towns and forts, where it was distributed through lead and wooden pipes. Sewers carried it away after it had been used, and some still function to this day!

Of course no exhibition on the Romans would be complete without a bit about their toilets, and this exhibit even has a small reconstruction. Note the channel in the floor, which would have held the water to wash the infamous sponges on a stick.

Fast forward through 1066 and all that to the Medieval period. Though few houses had public latrines standards of cleanliness were rising somewhat, and a towns were starting to build public latrines. The
best place to go however was probably the monastery where the Roman system was still used (though without the sponges as far as we can gather.) Germ theory was still a distant dream, but there was enough awareness of waterborne disease that the lining of cesspits was required, and carting of night soil was regulated to night time hours.

By the 17th century, though regulations were in place, councils had not taken over the running of sanitary services, so it was up to households to make their own arrangements when it came to disposing of Night Soil. This meant Nightsoil Men might promote themselves with beautiful cards like the one below:

In the early 19th Century Manchester faced an even more rapid expansion than London with the population quadrupling in the first half of the century. "By the 1840's Manchester stood firm as a miracle of the industrial age and a wonder of the modern world. Yet it faces a health crisis that might have rocked its foundations."

Manchester was hit by a Cholera epidemic in 1832 which killed 674 people. Manchester was home to Edwin Chadwick (one of my favorite sanitary reformers) who authored the 1842 report on The Sanitary Condition of the Labouring Population and spearheaded public health reforms. The Manchester and Saliford Sanitary Association was formed in 1852.

In 1847 egg shaped clay sewer pipes were introduced. These were easier and cheaper to install than the Georgian brick ones which had been installed from the 1790's. They were still draining directly into the river... with an increasing number of domestic water closets, along with refuse from slaughterhouses and industrial waste.

Toilets themselves were another story. For the first have of the century the most common toileting facilities were middens: simply a privy over a pit. These generally allowed liquids to seep into the soil, while the solids were collected periodically by nightsoil men every few months. By 1868 Manchester had approximately 10,000 flushing toilets, but the majority of people were starting to use the pail closet system... with a pail placed below the toilet seat which was emptied once a week. Other people had "Improved middens" which didn't allow for leakage, and therefore had to be emptied every few weeks. The complete transition to water closets came around 1914.

Apparently Manchester had its share of sewer scandals. Building standards were very poor. When bricklayers learned that the inspector (the Clerk of Works) was coming they would quickly increase the brickwork along that section of sewer. In 1890 an investigation was carried out, and legal action was taken (though the posters didn't specify against whom)

In the 1940's the benefits of sewage farming were well appreciated. Effluent that was allowed to flow through the soil improved its fertility. Muck-spreading had been appreciated since the middle ages, when gongfarmers would collect the contents of privies in their carts, and sell it on to farmers. The council saw this as a potential business opportunity, and when when the population got too large they started sending Manchester's night soil throughout Yorkshire, Lancaster and Cheshire... and sometimes as far away as Jamaica for agricultural use.

But as the population grew the amount of land required to successfully process the sewage became to vast. Neither night soil men nor microbial processes could keep up with the demand. "Dilution is the solution to pollution" doesn't work in densely populated areas. So new methods had to be found.

In the 1890's a chemical process involving coke was used to separate sludge and liquid. Sludge was either pressed into cakes as landfill or taken out to sea and dumped. Liquid was put back into the canal. These processes were generally considered to be "expensive and inefficient."

In 1914 two scientists working at Davyhulm developed a the 'activated sludge' process which used a combination of air and bacteria to purify waste water. This system forms the basis for much modern sewage treatment.

Today Davyhulm serves a population of approximately 1.2 million and treats 88 million gallons of water per day.

En route back to the train station I had just enough time to make a flying visit to the Temple (of convenience), one of those underground toilets turned bar. It's been a bar for about 17 years, so must have been one of the first (before toilet bars were cool!) A bit more grunge than most of the ones I know in London, but nice all the same, and you can't argue with a nice cup of tea for £1!


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