Little Waldingfield History Society was delighted to welcome Anne Folan to the Parish Room, to share her incredibly detailed knowledge of the development of water and sewerage systems in Ipswich during the 19th and early 20th centuries.

Anne began by reminding everyone that today we take it for granted that we have access to clean water and sewerage systems, and also that there are people and procedures in place to quickly sort out any problems that may arise, before also saying this was not the case for most of human history. She then graphically illustrated the impact of this by showing the mortality rates for Ipswich 60 years apart:



23.9 per thousand population

13.3 per thousand population

Population 32, 759

Population 73, 932

Shocking as the 1852 figure seems to be, we were told this was about average for the country, with some places, such as Liverpool, being considerably worse; however, because Ipswich was fairly rural, the mortality rate should have been much lower, probably nearer to 15. Anne also pointed out that were the mortality rate in 1911 at the 1851 level, there would have been a further 795 deaths that year, which is quite a shocking statistic. For comparison, the current UK average mortality rate is around 10.

Anne then posed the key question:

What happened during this period to achieve this pretty dramatic improvement?

She told us there were three main factors that could account for this, and that opinions over the years had been sharply divided as to which was the main causative factor:

  • Medicine and medical care?
    Anne believes no, because only the smallpox vaccination was available at the time.
  • An improving standard of living?
    Anne again believes no, though Thomas McKeown’s mid to late C20th work muddies the water.
  • Public health, particularly sewers and clean water supply?
    Based on her own extensive analysis of Ipswich, Anne belies this was the key factor

Sewerage System in Ipswich

Anne told us the first step on a long road to achieving improvements to public health was The Public Health Act of 1848. This received royal assent on 31 August 1848 and established the General Board of Health (*), though the board unfortunately had limited powers and no money!

(*)        The GBH was responsible for advising on public health matters, such as epidemics and disease prevention, and was empowered with establishing and managing local boards of health. Local boards of health were set up in non-corporate towns, areas with high death rates (average mortality rates above 23 per 1,000 people over a period of 7 years), and in areas where 10% of ratepayers petitioned for one.

The Act's provisions were based on the findings and recommendations of Edwin Chadwick, in his 1842 report on the sanitary conditions of the labouring population of Great Britain. He found there was a link between poor living standards and the spread and growth of disease, and recommended the government should intervene, to provide clean water, improve drainage systems and to enable local councils clear away refuse from homes and streets.

The Health of Towns Association, a political pressure group formed in 1844, campaigned to improve sanitary conditions in towns and cities, and strongly supported the creation of local Boards of Health that were obliged to appoint an Inspector of Nuisances (*).

(*)         The Inspector of Nuisances eventually became known as the sanitary inspector, who in turn became known as the public health inspector. Myths about miasma (a noxious form of bad air) were finally set aside as medical experts gained a clearer understanding of how disease was spread, and how best to keep the population safe and healthy.

In 1848, the honorary secretary of the Health of Towns Association, Henry Austin, was commissioned to report on the sanitary conditions existing in Ipswich, and he was not impressed:

            A few sewers and drains exist over a portion of the town, but it is practically without any system of sewerage. There is an abundant supply of good water (from springs), which often runs to waste and is thus injurious to health, and foul matters in the street always damp and decomposing. The paving is always damp, with stagnant pools of decomposition, wretchedly neglected in many streets. There is no reservoir.

Austin wanted the council to adopt the PHA and was paid £100.00 (circa £9,500 today) for his report, but the council did nothing.

In 1851 the GBH issued a statement on the duties and responsibilities of local officers of health (appointed by local boards of health, subject to approval by the GBH). These duties included giving instructions and directing the removal or prevention of the causes of widespread diseases. Boards became responsible for removing 'nuisances' from streets, such as refuse or bad paving; they were also responsible for drainage and water supply, as well as other sanitary actions. Officers were required to report quarterly to the GBH, provide information on illnesses and deaths in their areas, and to provide more detailed information in an annual report.

Despite multiple approaches to the Town Council over many years, it was not until 1857 that Ipswich finally adopted the 1848 Public Health Act, with the council executing duties of the Local Board of Health. By this time a few sewers had been constructed, but were totally inadequate as they simply discharged into the rivers Gipping and Orwell; the waste also included material from slaughter houses and other industrial activities, apart from being dangerous, the stench must have been pretty awful.

In 1857 a newly formed Sewerage Committee instructed civil engineer Peter Bruff to draw up plans for a complete sewerage system for the town, which he duly did, but as the cost would be £30,000 (nearly £3 million today) nothing happened. By 1862 Bruff declined to attend committee meetings as ‘they were a complete waste of my time’. Between 1862 and 1872 the committee visited other towns and continued to debate the best way to sewer Ipswich, and in January 1874 appointed George Elliston as Medical Officer of Health, a newly created post. Elliston was a keen supporter of measures to improve public health and a strong supporter of Bruff’s plans.

In 1876 Bruff revised his plans and resubmitted, and between 1878 and 1879 the council took up a Local Government Board loan to fund construction of a main sewer two and a half miles in length, intercepting the smaller sewers which had for many years emptied into the river Orwell at various points. Sewage was now to be discharged into the tidal river at extensive outfall works built about one and a half miles from the town, and storage provided for up to six million gallons of sewage and storm water; at high tide the outlet was also closed. The cost of the sewer and works was between £50,000 and £60,000 (more than £5 million today), and a grand ceremonial dinner was held in the outflow chamber immediately before it was brought into commission in 1881.

Sewer construction early 1900s

Water Supply in Ipswich

In the mid C19th there was an abundant supply from natural springs, though no reservoir; one third of the town was supplied with mains spring water whilst the rest depended on wells. In 1852, the supply was in the hands of several proprietors, but chiefly the council.

In 1854 the council drafted a bill to take over conveyance of water, requesting authority to levy rates and raise money by mortgage, but this got nowhere, and in 1857 the council sold their interests in waterworks to private proprietors; the supply of water to the town was now solely in the hands of the Ipswich Waterworks Company (IWC), who in 1864 built a waterworks depot and a reservoir. Despite this, during the 1870s and 1880s there were hundreds of houses in the town without a proper water supply, and many with no supply at all.

The turning point came in 1891, when there was a public meeting to consider the question of the council buying the IWC; finally in 1892 this was purchased, at a cost of £203,000 (more than £20 million today), and an act to supply water was passed in June 1892.

Anne then told us that between 1850 and 1890 the most common domestic waste disposal method was the Privy Midden (or midden closet), which was a toilet system consisting of a privy, or outhouse, associated with a midden, or dump for waste. They were widely used but were difficult to empty and clean; typical comments were that they were of most objectionable construction, usually wet and very foul, and often without proper roofs. Each year between April and October middens were often infested with flies, a well-known vector for spreading waterborne diseases (e.g.: Diarrhoea, Dysentry, Cholera, Typhoid - diseases mostly affected under-fives) and they often polluted water courses. It was not until the use of Privy Middens was substantially reduced, mainly between 1894 and 1911, that infant mortality rates were at last substantially reduced:



Infant mortality rate per 1,000 = 72

Infant mortality rate per 1,000 = 30

No of privy middens = 6225

No of privy middens = 66



                                                                                      A Victorian Privy Midden

What was the tangible benefit of all this work?

No infestations of flies, no fouling of the water supply and much healthier conditions, especially for kids.


Anne concluded her talk by advising us of the various contributions to the reduction in mortality rates:

  • Water / food borne diseases = 26% contribution
  • Other infectious / airborne diseases = 55%
  • All other causes = 19% (mainly TB)


So the answer to the question ‘Did the sewers did save lives’ she believes is a resounding yes, and the audience wholeheartedly agreed.

Anne’s superb talk was incredibly interesting and hugely enjoyed by everyone present, and the time simply flew by.


Our next event will be at 7.30 in The Parish Room on Wednesday 19th April, when Stephen Poulter will talk about Suffolk’s lost heritage by looking at some of the buildings the county has lost over the years. I believe this will be really interesting, and also possibly somewhat poignant given our collective loss.

On Wednesday 17th May at 7.30 Dr Nicholas Amor will talk about Keeping the peace in medieval Suffolk. The Middle Ages are considered a lawless period, when rival gangs of retainers terrorized the countryside. However, following careful study of Suffolk’s C14th archives, Nick contends that fear of crime was greater than reality, until an alliance was forged between gentry and village elite, to become a powerful force shaping Suffolk society.


We very much look forward to welcoming guests to the Parish Room Little Waldingfield on these dates.


Andy Sheppard                                                                                                                   17th March 2023