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The River Lea’s modern pollution problems covered in the Guardian

Leo Hickman’s article on the current condition of the river Lea shows how little has changed since the rapid period of suburban and industrial expansion into its wetlands and river valley in the nineteenth century.


Sadly, the problems identified in this article are not new.   The pollution of the Lea gained national attention a number of times in the second half of the nineteenth century.  In 1855, Alfred Dickens, Charles’ brother, investigated the growth of West Ham in the Lower Lea’s wetlands and found many of the homes built for workers at the Victoria docks and new industry in Stratford dumped their sewage into marsh drainage ditches connected to the Lea’s back rivers. Charles published a newspaper article on the terrible conditions of the Lea’s transformed wetlands in 1857:  http://apps.newham.gov.uk/History_canningtown/cdickens.htm.  In 1866 Cholera hit London and killed a disproportionate amount of people in East London who’s water came from the Lea.  Two investigations, including a Royal Commission on River Pollution, examined the condition of the Lea and found a growing problem of sewage flowing into the same river people drank from.  Unfortunately, the science of pollution and disease remained inconclusive and many people continued to believe sewage became safely oxidized so long as it flowed through running water for a few miles.  As a result, the new body created to manage the river and prevent pollution, the Lee Conservancy Board, did not have enough power to force the growing suburbs along the Lea to build an intercepting sewage drain.  In 1884, a hot summer and drought brought the river’s pollution to national attention once again.  One of a series of letters published in the Times in August of that year proclaimed: “The river is now as black as ink.  The Stench emitted causes everyone to sicken who inhales it” (Thos. Francis, The Times, Aug 21, 1884).  The public uproar led to an extensive investigation by a parliamentary committee.  Joseph Bazalgette proposed a comprehensive new sewage system to drain the growing suburbs in the Lea Valley.  In the end only a partial solution was implemented, against the famous engineer’s public protests, which allowed Tottenham to divert the summer sewage into the London network.  At the end of the century, while East London suffered months of intermittent water supply caused by another drought and an inefficient monopoly controlled water system, Stratford had the added problem of heightened levels of sewage in the Channelsea River.  This back river flowed past some of Stratford’s residential neighborhoods and many important factories. Leyton’s and Walthamstow’s population had grown significantly in recent decades resulting in a growing tide of sewage flowing through Stratford.  With all of the river water diverted for drinking and transportation, there was nothing left to flush this pollution through the town.  These four examples demonstrate how a river once famous for its fishing and fishermen – Izaak Walton – became one of the “ultimate sinks” for London’s urban and suburban developments to dump its sewage and industrial waste.  It does not seem like we have learned enough lessons from this long history of pollution.



One Response

  1. Hi Jim,

    I picked up on your website when I saw a link-back to my Flickr photos about the Lee Valley Park. Then I tracked to your own Flickr pages on West Ham.

    Here’s a comment I posted on Harringay Online community website about the Leo Hickman article in the Guardian

    A poorly researched article. For example, it doesn’t mention the rather central and important fact that there’s a Statutory Body called the Lee Valley Regional Park which its website tells us, “is responsible for managing and developing the 26 mile long, 10,000 acre linear Lee Valley Regional Park – the only regional park serving London, Hertfordshire and Essex.”

    Leo Hickman does mention the problem of water pollution, and of human sewage flowing along the river and therefore through the heart of the Olympic site. But he seems to have failed to notice that this issue has been repeatedly raised by local newpapers – regularly by the Hackney Gazette with headlines like “Flushed Away”; and by the Hornsey Journal.

    As one of the ward councillors, I’ve also raised the issue. The polluting Pymme’s Brook enters the Lee close to Ferry Lane near Tottenham Hale Station. But it seems nobody really wants to know because tackling the problem will cost too much money.

    I’m also astonished that Leo Hickman apparently failed to spot that in February 2007, BBC TV’s Inside Out showed the results of an investigation by journalist David Akinsanya who’d moored his boat on the Lee for three years.

    Leo Hickman tells us that a lot of the flow is treated sewage. But David Akinsanya found that considerable raw human sewage was also going into the river – often through misconnections over the years by dodgy builders. As David said: “Basically this waterway is becoming a communal lavatory and I’m living on it!”

    I’m a local councillor for Tottenham Hale ward in Haringey – further up the Lee. It seems odd you sitting in Toronto writing active history about our area. I wonder, when you were in London, did you ever meet Marj and Gordon Joly (Loopzilla on Flickr)?

    And my partner Zena’s friend Pam Travers? She has been retired for several years, but Pam was an environmental education teacher in Haringey schools; and set later up the Three Mills project.

    As I’m sure you know there’s a lot being talked about the Olympic site and the regeneration of the Lower Lea. Maybe some of it will turn out to be true. But I’m sceptical because regeneration millions poured into Tottenham over the years. It certainly regenerated the bank accounts of the consultants and property developers.

    Maybe your study and insights have something fresh to teach us. I mean that quite seriously.

    I’m certainly curious about some of the good ideas and practice I’ve heard about in Toronto. As you probably discovered we have a ridiculous blind-spot when it comes to things Canadian. Just as we have a daft tendency to overate all and any ideas from the U.S.

    Anyway, could I ask that you let me know about stuff you eventually write about the Lee that you think might be interesting or helpful. Put it online if you can. I will read it. Though I can’t promise that I can persuade anyone else to.

    Best wishes,


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