Leeds Sanitation & Sewers

In today’s post our Senior Librarian for Local Studies & Research, Louise Birch, explores the history of Leeds Sanitation taking, from the local studies collection, David Seller’s work; ‘Hidden Beneath our Feet: The Story of Sewerage in Leeds’ (1997) as the main source material.

Sewers and sewerage are something many of us take for granted. Waste is dispatched at speed down a series of pipes and into an underground network that keeps everything hidden away, only revealed when something goes wrong.  Millions of people around the world still live without sanitation, how different would our lives here in Leeds be, had The Public Health Act of 1848 not come into force. 

1800s Leeds

The population of Leeds in 1831 was 232% of that in 1801, from 53,000 to 123,000 in just 30 years.  To accommodate the extra population unscrupulous landlords threw up insanitary, overcrowded, and inadequate housing, into cramped yards and streets, often unpaved.

Domestic and human waste would be deposited into the streets, sometimes into designated midden heaps, often into the centre of the yard or street causing the street level to raise.  In wet weather occupants stepped out of their homes into ankle deep muck.  The stagnant pools and unbearable stenches would encroach upon and into the dwellings. Only infrequently would the midden be cleared by scavengers.

Richmond Court, Blue Bell Fold, 1901, Leodis.net

It is no wonder that in 1832 the Cholera epidemic took a firm hold in these unsanitary areas.    The first death was that of a two-year-old child in Blue Bell Fold in the Richmond Hill area of the city. Germ theory had yet to be developed, leaving the cramped cottages and back-to-back houses of the working classes a perfect environment for the disease to take hold. 

For a short while the disease retreated, only to return a few years later, this time not containing itself to the labouring classes, Cholera was spreading to the middle and upper classes. In the 1840s the Government finally acted, establishing commissions to investigate the causes of the epidemic.

In the ‘Report of Commissioners of Enquiry into the State of Large Towns and Populous Districts’ by James Smith (1845), the Holbeck and Hunslet areas were described as follows:

“As for the want of proper sewerage there are no house drains, the slops and refuse from the houses are thrown upon the surface of the streets, which are in many places thereby raised some feet above the original level.  All over this district the dunghills, ash-pits, and privies have been set down without any order, in some places encroaching upon the streets, and in the courts the filth often covering almost the whole area.”  (Sellers, 1997)

The becks and the River Aire

Prior to the 1830s it was uncommon for Leeds streets to have sewers, those that did were the result of private enterprise draining directly into becks and the River Aire.   Not only did the becks power our industry, but they also ran as open sewers, contaminated with industrial waste, human waste, domestic waste and refuse from local abattoirs.  Flowing through highly populated areas including Sheepscar, Mabgate, Leylands, Quarry Hill, The Bank and Holbeck, becks were contributing to the health problems of the densely populated areas they ran through.

1852 OS Map showing the route of Meanwood Beck, Sheepscar Beck, Lady Beck, Timble Beck

Leeds at this time did not have a water system that could supply the populous demand, in fact your access to piped water depended entirely on where you were in the class system.

At this time 2,000 homes were attached to a water supply, where water was taken from the River Aire and pumped into local reservoirs. The weekly cost of two shillings meant this was a service available only to the wealthy, everyone else relied on wells, boreholes, and water carriers.

By the 1830s the River Aire was no longer fit for consumption, in 1841 the Leeds Intelligencer reported on the

“30,000,000 gallons per annum of the mass of filth with which the river is loaded”.

Death rates rose and the life expectancy of Leeds residents in 1841 was as follows:

Gentry 44 years, Tradesmen 27 years, and workmen 19 years.

1906, Great Wilson Street Sewer, Leodis.net

A sewer system for all

In 1842 the Leeds Improvement Act gave the Leeds Corporation unlimited legal rights to build sewers. In 1846 the Corporation adopted the plans of Engineer John W. Leather to use hydraulic, arterial, and water-borne methods to move wastewater into the River Aire untreated.  The shape and positioning of the pipes would allow a strong water flow to move waste away from homes at such a speed that the sewers would become self-cleaning.  The rights to the River Aire were owned by the Aire and Calder Navigation and an agreement would need to be met, also with the landowners of Temple Newsam Estate, as this was the desired site for the main overflow pipe into the river.  Bureaucratic hold ups stalled the project until a fresh Cholera outbreak in 1849 led to 200 deaths.

In 1850 the first plans for construction work were authorised and in 1852 the Leeds Corporation spent £¼million purchasing the Leeds Waterworks Company. At this time the number of connected properties had risen to 22,732. It took three years and £137,000 to complete Leather’s sewer plans.

Nos. 2-8 Acton Street, Beeston, with toilet facilities and midden at the end of the block, Leodis.net

Connecting properties meant connecting the toilet belonging to the property, these were mostly situated in the garden, for private homes, or in a yard area shared by a street.  Without indoor plumbing to flush away waste, toilets stank, and no one wanted one in their home to sit there waiting to be carried out to the dung cart.  Gasses like methane would build up in the house causing asphyxiation, a common cause of death for the nightmen who cleared the middens and sewers.  When plumbing was first brought in, it was natural to connect to the existing toilet away from the house. 

Despite the new infrastructure people were still hesitant about connecting their homes to the new pipe network, so much so that the decision was made to not connect a street unless two-thirds of the property owners agreed.  By 1870 over 30,000 unconnected privies were still in use with great piles of human dung still common on Leeds streets.

J. Netten Radcliffe in his ‘Report on the Sanitary State of Leeds’ (1874) ‘described a middenstead in Wellington Yard (Sheepscar)’

“Which measures 21 feet long by 5 feet 10 inches broad, and which is 6 feet deep below the surface of the ground.  Into this middenstead there fell not long ago a half tipsy man, plunging deep into the revolting filth, and there, suffocated, he lay until days afterwards, discovered by the scavengers.” (Sellers, 1997)

nos.1-7 Wellington Yard, Sheepscar, Leodis.net

The water supply needed to support the new pipe network was fed by a storage reservoir at Eccup, a service reservoir at Weetwood and one at Woodhouse Moor.  Large extensions were made once public ownership took place, with filter beds added at Headingley, and a pumping station at Arthington on the River Wharfe.

The 1870s brought a campaign against the middensteads. By 1902 there were 100,000 homes supplied with water, of which only 15,000 had no toilet. 

Expansion, whether wanted or not

Leather’s system was quite limited, only covering the township of Leeds, Hunslet and Holbeck.  In the 1860s plans were made to extend the sewage network to Armley, Wortley, Headingley, Chapel Allerton and Potternewton.  These plans were not always welcomed, Headingley residents wanted a cheaper option and landowners adjacent to the Aire downstream of Leeds were worried about pollution. 

In 1865, the Chairman of the West Riding Magistrates, Francis Darwin, observed the following on a visit to the main outfall pipe:

“On arriving at the place where the sewage of Leeds is cast into the river, I certainly was very much astonished.  I observed human excrement and carcasses of dogs and cats, and I may say I never saw anything so frightful in my life; every eddy of the stream was manifestly full of human excrement of the most terrible kind”. (Sellers, 1997)

A Chancery injunction in 1869 prevented the Council from discharging waste into the river before it had been purified or deodorized.  The Council’s solution was to purchase more land from the Temple Newsam Estate and extend the existing sewage works at Knostrop.

Sewer construction and maintenance continued in Leeds with construction work staffed by unemployment relief schemes during the depressed years of the 1920s, however, by the 1950s the sewer system was overloaded and deteriorating.  100 years after Leather’s system was completed, it was beginning to break down.  Sewer collapses began to occur, and the resulting contamination of sub soil was in danger of impacting water mains – public health was once again at risk.

A new system was developed that would separate the rainwater drainage from the sewer system, reducing the strain on the sewer system and regular monitoring and inspections were planned for the early hours of the mornings, when the flow would be at its lowest.  The workplace of the maintenance gangs was one of hazardous gasses, rats, and the ever-present risk of being swept away by the force of the flow.

In 1974 ownership of the sewerage system was passed onto Yorkshire Water who would go onto full privatisation in 1989.  Sewage treatment was centralised and for the first time Leeds sewerage was run for a profit. By 1997 Leeds City Council were no longer involved in the management of the Leeds sewerage systems.

The Times called the 1848 Public health Act

“A reckless invasion of property and liberty … the English People would prefer to take the chance of Cholera rather than be bullied into health.”

An easy statement to make at the time, but looking back do we really wish that sewerage was left to continue in the form of middenheaps and open sewers?


Hidden Beneath Our Feet: The Story of Sewerage in Leeds (1997), David Sellers   [LP Q 352.6 SEL]

Leeds Intelligencer, 21st August 1841 [microfilm]

Report on Leeds Water Works – Vestry Meeting (1808)   [L 352.64 L517]

Leeds Water Supply, J Chiesman (1834)  [L 352.64 C434]

Report on Leeds Sewage, John Leather (1842) [L 352.63 L483]

Sewerage of Leeds, John Leather (1848) [L 352.63 L483]

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