Sewers in the 1800’s

Doncaster in the 18th century, like most towns, gave little regard to what happened to the by products of human existence. The dirt and filth that came from the privy’s and washrooms of the community flowed and overflowed onto the crowded streets. Open ‘soughs’ or drainage channels ran along the side of pavements emitting “powerful” odours and pollution into the very air that was breathed. Not only was the air dangerously polluted but the ground under foot was hazardous to the pedestrian so that accidents were commonplace. Broken limbs, fractured bones, or disfigured faces caused from slips on the raw sewerage became almost a fact of urban life.

Under-drainage, that is to say ‘underground’ sewers, were unknown to Doncaster before 1802, when on May 5th of that year, plans were ordered to create such systems from ‘wolfindale’s corner (Baxter Gate, opposite the News Room) to Dockin Hill, and from Mr. Sherwood’s corner (Scot Lane, opposite the Mansion House) to Laith Gate corner’.

On August 28th, 1811, The Corporation ordered “that a public drain of sufficient depth, width, and dimensions, for conveying sewerage from the streets to the river Don shall be properly made and executed from the said river at Dockin Hill to Mr. Morris’ shop corner at Sunny Bar in the course of the present year”.

The corporation saw fit to have the town’s sewers run out into the river beside the water wheel, so that “though we defiled the stream, we actually retained under our nostrils the filth” of which they were supposedly trying to rid themselves. The river Cheswold had become a stagnant cesspool. One man remarked, “the Cheswold would be pure if we would let it alone, and all we have to do is refrain from pouring filth into its waters. On 14th June, 1819, it was unanimously decided by the corporation that Baxter Gate, St. George Gate, and the Shambles (stood in line with the north side of the old market hall), be drained of sewerage. In 1835 it was decided to construct an underground ‘sough’ (sewer) from Cleveland Street to Duke Street. One author of the time writes, “a circular half-bricked drain 3 feet in diameter from St. Sepulchre Gate, French Gate, and Silver Street was proposed to be made, this work however, was avoided due to its expense. In 1836, Mr. Milner proposed that a drain be constructed to carry sewerage from the top of Hall Gate to the bridge. Again the corporation attempted to dodge the expense stating that it would create a “mammoth financial burden for the taxpayer.”

Mr Edward Sheardown suggested that all the wines be sold from the Mansion House cellar to help with the cost but the rest of the corporation wasn’t quite ready for such an act of sacrifice, they considered the Mansion House stocks far more important than the health of the towns folk. It was decided later that same year that a compromise was to be reached. They were prepared to start the proceedings by obtaining “estimates for making a common town sewer from Mrs. Vavasour’s corner in Hall Gate to the Friar’s Bridge, and that such be commenced out of the first available funds of the Town Council.”

On July 9th, 1836, a favourable quote was submitted by Mr. Joseph Lockwood and the work was not to exceed £750. The quote went this way:

  • “For the 2 ft 6″ culverts at 9s. 10d. per yd. For the 3 ft culverts at 11s. 3d. per yd.”

The work was still stalled, waiting for a time when more money was available! The proposals were time and again thwarted by the likes of Sir William Bryan Cooke, Bart. Messrs. Chatham, Dale, Goodwin, Dunwell, Parkinson, Carlton, and Armstrong, until finally in the latter part of 1837 and on into 1838, at a cost of £300. 10s. 10d. French Gate and Silver Street were drained. After this work the system gained momentum so that in 1839, the main drain was continued as far as Princes Street. This was followed by Hall Gate and High Street, which took from the Borough fund, £332. 14s. 6d. and then by the East Laith Gate sewer.

After still more outbreaks of the Cholera, it was clear that more needed to be done with the town’s drainage and sanitation which led to “an effort to rescue St. Sepulchre Gate from its pestilential atmosphere in 1844 as, before this time, the sewer only started from the corner of French Gate and ran to the gaol on Factory Lane. In 1849, Messrs. Charles and Robert Lister undertook for £484. 3s 6d. to lay down a sewer along Factory Lane, and St. Sepulchre Gate without-the-bar to St. Thomas Street. In April, 1852, “a 12-inch pipe drain, with two branches, two grates, two traps, and junctions for private drains, was laid at the depth of 12 ft in St. Thomas Street.

Spring Gardens came next at the cost of £44, followed by Cleveland Street, and Marsh Gate. During the construction of the Spring Gardens drain, “an attempt to recover a wooden ten-feet measure, washed down by a heavy fall of rain to the mouth of the main brick sewer, opposite The Good Woman Inn, St. Sepulchre Gate, created fears for the safety of the two individuals, viz. Henry Butterfield and his elder brother Edward. The hazardous feat was rendered dangerous from the pipes being composed of strong glazed earthenware and only 18 inches in diameter. They were nearly three hours confined in the narrow channel, and just escaped with their lives.”

“Printing Office Street and Pell’s Close next heard the sound of the Pick-axe and spade. Opposite the Gazette Offices, the pipes were laid at a depth of 15 feet. The ground was found to be treacherous, arising, it is supposed, from the fact of the ancient moat of the Carmelite Friary having an existence close to both thoroughfares. Marsh Gate, or more correctly speaking, ‘The Marsh’, so productive of boyish recollections for its innumerable dykes and stagnant pools, offering full scope for leaping exercise, was in the autumn drained”.

In 1854 came the turn of the top of the town. The drain started near Hall Cross House, along the Horse-Fair, into St. James Street, and terminated opposite the Shakespeare’s Head. A new outlet was provided by an arrangement with Mr. Senior, the owner of Sandpit Lock, who permitted the sewage to pass through his land for the sum of £50, “so that it might pass on to the Carr.” This whole system cost £1924. 2s. 9d. more than the rest of the town had cost altogether!

By the middle of the 19th century, because of the advancements in the towns approach to sewerage and sanitation, “human life was prolonged from 5 to 50 percent, and house and land property was increased in value by 25 percent!  Below is a more comprehensive list of the under-drainage work undertaken by the Corporation during this period:

  • 1837-38 ~ Silver Street and French Gate ~ £300.
  • 1839 ~ East Laith Gate ~ £90.
  • 1840 ~ Hall Gate and High Street ~ £332.
  • 1843 ~ Spansyke ~ £53. 13s.
  • 1844 ~ French Gate corner to the Gaol ~ £100.
  • 1849 ~ Factory Ln and St Sepulchre Gate without-the-bar to St. Thomas Street ~ £484.
  • 1852 ~ In St. Thomas Street, 300 ft long 12 inch pipe-drain with two branches, two grates, two traps, and junction for private drains.
  • 1852 ~ In Portland Place, 420 ft long 12 inch pipe-drain, with three branches, three grates, three traps, and junctions for private drains.
  • 1852 ~ In Cleveland Street, 605 ft long 15 inch pipe-drain, with six branches, six grates, six traps, and junction with private drains.
  • 1852 ~ In Spring Gardens, 1072 ft long 18 inch pipe-drain, with eight branches, eight grates, eight traps, and junctions for private drains ~ total cost £290.
  • 1853 ~ Printing Office Street and Pell’s Close.
  • 1853 ~ Marsh Gate to the drain of the Great Northern Railway ~ total cost £175.
  • 1854 ~ Hall Cross House, along Horse-Fair, St James’ Street, terminating opposite Shakespeare’s Head, and to the Carr ~ £1482.
  • 1855 ~ St. James’ Street, Cemetery Road, Baker Street, and West Street ~ £442
  • 1857 ~ High Fisher Gate, Low Fisher Gate (or Friendless Street), and Church Street ~ £378.
  • 1858 ~ From Cemetery Gates to Pinfold ~ £34.
  • 1861 ~ Water House (North-East corner of Regent Square) to the Low Pasture.
  • 1861 ~ Bass Terrace, Lawn Road, and Christ Church Terrace to East Laith Gate ~ total cost £1456. 8s.
  • 1862 ~ Regent Square, east and west sides.
  • 1862 ~ Pipe-drain from Cheshire Cheese into the River ~ total cost £21.
  • 1864-65 ~ The Grand Stand to the Low Pasture ~ £105.

Finally, the link was made between good sanitation and healthy homes. The population of Doncaster began to grow, wealth doubled and quadrupled, every decade has seen fewer funerals in proportion to the living.

At long last, Doncaster “heard more and more merry bells for weddings and christenings.”

4 responses to “Sewers in the 1800’s

  1. It’s interesting that there’s a reference to Mr Senior (i.e. Henry Senior, of Sand House fame) being the owner of Sandpit Lock. In fact, the parcel of land through which the 1854 drain was laid was Sandpit Key. There was a Sandpit Lock too, but it was further out of town alongside what is now Balby Road, near Carr Hill. If anyone knows of a definite link between Sandpit Key and Sandpit Lock, I’d be very interested. One feels that there should be such a link.


  3. Catherine Grocock.

    The two brothers Henry and Edward Butterfield. Was these two boys chimney sweeps?. The pipes being so small got me thinking . My ancestors was Butterfield the chimney sweeps. There was two brothers Edward and Henry. Could this be a coincidence.

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