Lincoln and a previous pestilence

Lincoln and a previous pestilence

At Blow by Blow our approach in the lockdown has been (a) to keep ourselves as safe as possible, (b) help friends and relatives to do the same, and (c) make available some of the back catalogue of nostalgia films for streaming from this web site.

This last exercise sent me back to “A City with Typhoid”, made in 2007, and my research notes.

The typhoid epidemic of 1904-05 killed 131 Lincoln citizens and made 1045 poorly…. In most cases very poorly. But unlike Covid 19, it came from a very local source…. the public water supply. Like Covid 19, it had no respect for age or class.

The second person to fall ill, in October 1904, was a solicitor living next to the Cathedral. Mr Curtin, the Council’s sanitary inspector, died and so did the President of the Cooperative Society.

There was a furious row over what Lincoln Corporation, the water authority since 1871, should have done earlier….. years earlier. There had already been killer typhoid outbreaks in 1879 and 1903 (29 and two deaths respectively). There had been smallpox in 1883.

The City’s Medical Officer had warned about the water in 1879. And, acting on his own initiative, in 1884 Precentor Venables of the Cathedral, noting the higher than average death rate, sent samples to London for analysis. The analyst, a Mr Dupre, said the water was not fit for drinking and “ought at best to be very carefully filtered before distribution.”

Why then did the city fathers in 1885 defeat by 13 votes to 4 a motion by Councillor William Watkins, a local architect, for an enquiry into the water supply?

There is evidence that the expenditure in installing a sewerage system in the late 1870s inhibited the councillors from another great financial outlay. However, they became defensive and even blasé about the complaints.

in 1891 a special committee of the Council concluded that the water was a "a fair second-class supply" and, considering the outlay required to replace it, the city could be satisfied with it.

Despite the report, the councillors did begin a search for new water. They began drilling at Boultham and dug the deepest borehole England had ever known. So deep, that the contractors lost the drilling rig at the bottom of it in 1902.

In 1904-5, the councillors were to pay a heavy price for their indecision - or was it criminal negligence as alleged by the local Congregationalist minister.

To its immense embarrassment, Lincoln became a national pariah. Derision and sarcastic laughter from the public gallery was one thing. Worse, the national press sank their teeth into the hapless councillors - pilloried for not replacing the dubious water sources (River Witham, Hartsholme Lake, and nearby drains) and the associated sand filtering system.

Visitors stopped coming. Trade fell away badly. Women passing through by train were seen to put handkerchiefs over their faces.

A contingent of Nottingham policemen seconded to help manage Lincoln races (which had their worst ever attendance) were not allowed to eat or drink anything produced in the city.

Out of adversity came great acts of kindness - not least that of Alderman Thomas Smith of Newark who began to send clean water each day by railway tender to the stricken city.

The letters and cards sent to Alderman Smith by Lincoln citizens offer many revealing insights into the mood at the time. View “A City with Typhoid” on our streams page learn more about that extraordinary winter. The documentary is also available on Bygone Lincoln DVD 2.

The film by the way, was “Highly Commended” in the Institute of Videography documentary awards.


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