The author who wanted to write a book about Norwich's first sewer
- Credit: Archant Library
A fascinating book to coincide with an event which happened on this day, 150 years ago, is just out. Join Derek James on a journey below ground
Imagine, especially during the Covid pandemic, not being able to wash our hands at will…or even flush the loo.
While we are now utterly reliant on water infrastructure that has been in place for well over a century, it’s worth reminding ourselves that for most of Norwich’s long history there was no such thing as sewage or even a piped water supply.
It was on August 14, 1871 that a new pumping station at Trowse was fired up which was the opening of Norwich’s first proper sewer.
Now the cycling geologist and author Matthew Williams, has written a fascinating book called Norwich’s Netherflow: 150 years of Remarkable Underground Engineering… and it certainly makes us think twice about just what is going on beneath our feet.
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And when Matthew writes a book you know it will be worth reading… his previous subjects include Subterranean Norwich, Norwich Submerged and Norwich Over the Water.
So why this one?
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“To begin with, I had my doubts about writing this book. It seemed the subject was not something we like to think about much – or at all,” he said.
“I could try asking the question, what would life be like without our pipes and drains? But all the same, who would honestly want to read about sewers. Out of sight, out of mind,” he added.
But the more Matthew thought about it, the more he felt the whole subject would made a fascinating story to be shared, and people were generally more open-minded that he thought.
“My fascination with this subject began with some water industry brochures lent to me by someone attending one of my geology courses, and I came to realise there is more lurking deep under the city than spoil layers and the odd chalk tunnel,” he said.
And the more Matthew found out… the more he wanted to know and he has uncovered a wonderful and rare slice of local history.
“It didn’t take much research to discover that for most of Norwich’s history, there was no such thing as a sewage system - but there were people prepared to cart away piles of muck in the night. And, of course, there was also the River Wensum to help carry off waste,” he said.
People made the best of it and conditions only got bad when the city’s population grew to the point where many of the inhabitants had to live cheek-by-jowl with each other.
A couple of centuries ago, industries such as tanning and dying were making the river water unpleasant to drink, so it is not surprising the first priority was for a supply of piped drinking water, at least for those who could afford to play.
“The water was originally extracted from the river at New Mills, but in 1850 the intake was moved upstream, to Heigham where a new waterworks was erected to pump filtered water all the way to a new reservoir at Lakenham.
But by then, flushing toilets had been invented, which was great for the users, but a bit of a disaster for the river quality – until the city was at last forced to build the first sewage system in 1870.
“It was a huge and troublesome effort to construct the brick sewer to Trowse. The new pumping station there designed to force the stuff up to Whitlingham was first fired up on August 14, 1871,” said Matthew.
Since then, an expanding Norwich has seen lots more underground engineering such as the installation of a city-wide compressed air system which moved sewage uphill, and the excavation of a mile-long, eight-foot diameter tunnel beneath the city centre up to 75 feet down.
“It took huge ambition, patience and skill, and it has certainly not all been plain sailing, but much of it is still serving us today,” he said.
This fascinating story is all laid out in Matthew’s book, Norwich’s Netherflow which is available at £10 by mail order from www.smartcycletraining.co.uk/pages/books/html (free delivery until the end of August. It is also on dale at Jarrold and the City Book Shop