Fearon and Bunch take on the Local Board of Health

1 September 2020

In 1849, General Board of Health inspector William Lee ended his inquiry in Loughborough and left, his report available for anyone who wished to buy a copy from the local printer tasked with distributing it. 

In it, his recommendations for improving the health of local inhabitants were listed, beginning with the need for a filtered water system, piped to every house in town, followed by drainage and underground sewage systems to carry waste away from the populated areas.  Next, he suggested the town’s roads be paved and regularly cleaned, anticipating that all these actions would stop the Wood Brook being polluted on its journey from Ward’s End to the Canal Basin.

In late 1849 Loughborough’s Local Board of Health was set up to act on Lee’s recommendations, quickly taking over the duties of the Board of Surveyors.  Aware of the need to avoid increasing the rates, they only adopted some of the suggestions.  They cleared drains and ditches, organised the repair of the town’s bridges, impounded stray cattle and in time, turned their attention to providing other amenities for townsfolk, approaching the local gas company in 1857 to commission them to supply street lighting. 

But they did nothing immediate about providing a clean water supply, and without installing an underground sewage system, failed to deal with the waste matter of the town’s eleven thousand inhabitants. 

And complaints from residents came in thick and fast –

‘overflowing drains,’
‘pigsties draining into wells of public drinking water,’
‘night soil deposited in the streets,’
‘80 houses in Wood Gate and Pinfold Gate without water,’
the ‘open’ Wood Brook with the sewage of 1175 inhabitants in 217 homes emptying into it, ‘breeding fever and disease’ from one end of town to the other.

In 1852, Henry Fearon stepped in to do something about it.  As parish priest, he was the principal clergyman in the town and therefore an influential man locally.  But he had no official power to exert pressure on the Local Board of Health. 

Fearon didn’t let that stop him, though.  Instead, he used the influence he did have to exert pressure of a different kind.

In May of 1852 a letter from Rev. Fearon and his colleague, Rev. Bunch of Loughborough’s Emmanuel Parish, was published in the ‘Leicester Journal.’  It was addressed to ‘the Chairman and Members of the Board of Health, Loughborough’, and ended with the statement that given the importance of its subject matter, the authors hoped the Board ‘will not think us disrespectful toward yourselves if we give publicity to this letter.’ 

The clergymen said they could ‘keep their peace no longer’ over the delay in providing the town with the much-needed sewage system, repeating the issues stated by Lee in his report and adding more of their own.  Chief of these was the rise in the town’s mortality rate from 28 per thousand to over 30, exacerbated by outbreaks of smallpox. 

Whilst the Rectors understood it was difficult persuading ratepayers to meet the cost of proper drainage, they pointed out that it would prove cheaper in the long run, reducing the ‘heavy charges for the sickness of the poor and their consequences.’  They also reminded the Board of their duty ‘to alleviate and prevent the sufferings of humanity.’

The letter was a clever piece of public shaming, leaving the Board unable to ignore the need for action.  Though its chairman – hosiery manufacturer J. Cartwright – did his best to refute the Rectors’ claims, the Local Board of Health officially admitted on 7 June 1852 that a complete system of drainage was unavoidable and therefore ‘must eventually be carried out.’ 

Alison Mott

Read the previous post in this topic thread here.
Read the next post in this topic here.