Keeping the River Clean

‘The special conditions in the geology and surface configuration of the Thames Basin render the water singularly pure for so large a river. The water, as it flows gently down has also the power of becoming oxidized and purified to a considerable degree’

Statement by the Revd James Clutterbuck, vicar of Long Wittenham and Thames Conservator, and Professor John Phillips, Reader in Geology at the University of Oxford, in the Report of the Royal Commission appointed to inquire into the Best Means of Preventing the Pollution of Rivers, 1866, D/TC/I1/1/1 
Sepia photograph of Professor John Phillips dressed in smart attire and sat on a chair with folded arms, looking away from the camera.
Professor John Phillips as photographed by Ernest Edwards, 1860s (reproduced under a creative commons licence, courtesy of the Wellcome Collection) 

Controlling pollution in the Thames became a priority in the Victorian era, and from the beginnings of the Conservancy it was a key function. 

The upper Thames had traditionally escaped the pollution experienced in London.  There, drinking water from the river killed thousands, and misguided attempts to route more sewage into its reach only worsened the problem.  In 1858, the ‘Great Stink’ enveloped the tidal river and an Act was passed to move the foul pipe outlets nearer to the sea. 

Black and white drawing of a large old, bearded man with a tin bucket hat representing ‘Father Thames’ leans his forearm on a water pipe with water flowing out, a smaller individual stood facing him holds a paint brush and has a bucket which reads: Lime. In the background is a clown like person with a top hat and exaggerated nose on a ladder peering over the edge.
Limewashing Old Father Thames during the Great Stink, as drawn for Punch, 1858 (Wikimedia Commons)

But the growing use of flushing toilets alongside basic sewer systems meant that many places on the upper river were also discharging untreated waste directly into the river.  This was a national problem for safe drinking water and many towns and cities sought powers to improve it.  After persistent lobbying, the Government established a Royal Commission on the Pollution of Rivers and this delivered its first report, on the upper Thames, in March 1866.  This report concluded that: 

 ‘With regard to the state of the Thames, the evidence shows that all towns and places situated on its banks more or less pollute the river water with sewage. The amount of pollution from un-sewered and un-drained towns, such as Cirencester, Cricklade, and Lechlade, is apparently small, though it is impossible to estimate the amount of liquid which finds its way from cesspits into the river. Towns like Oxford and Reading, although not systematically sewered and drained, add largely to the pollution of the river. Windsor and Eton, which have been more fully sewered and drained, pour out continuously a much larger proportionate volume of sewage’. 

Report of the Royal Commission appointed to inquire into the Best Means of Preventing the Pollution of Rivers, 1866, D/TC/I1/1/1 

The effects of this sewage were described in detail: 

Typescript extract from the report of the Royal Commission appointed to inquire into the best means of preventing the pollution of rivers which discusses the lack of upkeep of vegetation on the riverbanks and bottom of the river.
Report of the Royal Commission appointed to inquire into the Best Means of Preventing the Pollution of Rivers, 1866, D/TC/I1/1/1 (above and below) 
Typescript covering page of the report of the Royal Commission appointed to inquire into the best means of preventing the pollution of rivers.

The problem was addressed by the Thames Navigation Act and the Thames Purification Act, both passed later the same year.  The former, which founded the upper Thames Conservancy, made it illegal for sewage or other pollution to flow directly into the river.  The latter gave powers for pollutants to be diverted from the major towns on the non-tidal river: Oxford, Abingdon, Reading and Kingston. 

Extract from the Thames Navigation Act 1866, point 63, outlying prohibited actions which could lead to the pollution of water.
Thames Navigation Act 1866, D/EX423/7/1 

The new Conservators began a regime of inspecting the river and visiting businesses and farms to make sure all the regulations were being complied with. They offered advice on how to improve conditions. If individuals, companies or councils continued to offend they would be taken to court. 

Samples of river water were analysed regularly and reported to a new River Purification Committee, who decided on action as necessary. 

In response to this report the committee issued the following recommendation for the issue at Deptford: 

Extract taken from the River Purification Committee minutes, point 12, outlining recommendations for the pollution issues at Deptford.
River Purification Committee minutes, 1893, D/TC/B2/1/1 

The inspectors employed by the Conservancy’s River Purification Service were expected to oversee all aspects of pollution prevention. The Conservancy issued instructions for their work. Over time, these expanded to include powers to board launches and other vessels, as well as remove dead animals from the river.

General Instructions to Inspectors and Assistant Inspectors – River Purification Service, 1939, D/TC/D3/2/1 (above and below)

Extract of the booklet of general instructions to inspectors and assistant inspectors of the river purification service showing point 5. Scavenging in which an inspector must take steps to remove any substances from the river which may cause putrefaction.

General fines were issued for those found polluting the river and notices were prepared for specific events, including the 1908 Olympics.

Notice against throwing animals into the river, 1905; Pollution notice, 1935; Notice against throwing rubbish into the Thames, Olympic Regatta, 1908, D/TC/G1/6/1

By the 1950s new ways had been found to warn the public against littering: 

Extract from the Thames Conservancy Board Minutes which reads: Litter. Loudspeaker equipment was purchased for the use of the Main River Purification Inspector in his car for the purpose of issuing warnings to the public at places where they congregated on the banks of the Rover in large numbers. Thus had a very beneficial effect, the sites used having been left in a far tidier condition.
Thames Conservancy Board Minutes, 1953, D/TC/A1/26 

Despite these efforts, in 1957 the Natural History Museum declared the River Thames to be ‘biologically dead’. Oxygen levels were too low to support life.  But this famous declaration applied only to the tidal river in London, over which the Conservancy lost its powers in 1909.  The upper river was thriving. 

Reports to Parliament in the 1950s suggest that the Thames above London was as healthy as it had ever been. Fish and wildlife were abundant and people continued to swim in the river. 

Typescript extract from the report to Parliament concerning analysis of the water quality in the River Thames. Conservators stated that tests carried out on the water passing over Teddington Weir indicated that water quality had improved over five years.
Report to Parliament relating to the Conservators’ work for the Prevention of Pollution during, 1955, D/TC/B2/1/42 
Black and white photograph of groups of visitors lining the Thames riverside at Pangbourne.
Enjoying riverside activities including fishing at Pangbourne in the 1960s, D/EX1269/1 

During the 20th century the numbers of instances of pollution in the river remained broadly constant, although the types of pollutants and polluters did change.  Untreated sewage reduced but chemical and radioactive waste increased, while modern cruisers and launches offered oil and diesel pollution. 

Line graph showing the percentage of four different types of pollution (residential, commercial, council and agricultural) in the Thames River from 1903 to 1973.
Graph showing types of pollution reported to the River Purification Committee between 1903 and 1973 (by Lucy Sutton, University of Reading) 

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