1850s petition against St Philip’s Alkali works

In the early 1850’s a petition was got up and signed, by 293 people of Totterdown, Bath Road, the New Cut and neighbourhood, in respect of the nauseous smoke and vapour emitted, both night and day, from the Alkali Works near Marsh Bridge, St Philip’s. In addition, they complained of the several thousand tons of waste deposited upon St Philip’s Marsh, which filled the surrounding atmosphere with an abominable smell of Sulphurated Hydrogen. After heavy rain this waste tended to percolate into the ground, polluting nearby wells.

There was no clause, at the time, by which the authorities could prevent this pollution, apart from trying to persuade Messrs Leonard, Jordan and Co. to remove the deposits. The first thing the company did was to lay the blame at the door, or rather the yard, of local scavengers, the Wakefield family. Their record for creating a public nuisance being what it was, the accusation might be seen, in some circles, to be justified. However, in this instance, they were absolved from blame.

The company then endeavoured to prove that nearby wells, said to be polluted, were in fact ‘sweet and wholesome’; that the area concerned had never been clean due to inundation by the river, at full tide, and the clay pits were used as rubbish dumps. They further claimed that they had converted some of the waste areas into fruitful gardens and that their waste made excellent manure.

The Bristol Gas Works nearby was said by the company to cause a stench which came over the works of Messrs Leonard, Jordan and Co. ‘so powerful and offensive as to produce extreme nausea, that our men can scarcely eat their meals, or proceed with their work’.

All good diversionary tactics. However, it was obvious that the company were fully aware of the offensive byproducts of their manufactory for they concluded with a veiled threat: ‘It is apparent, when the wind is from the north (which is not very common) the inhabitants of Totterdown do smell all the manufactories of St. Philip’s, many of them consuming larger quantities of fuel than we do, and if the objecting parties should be successful in putting down the Alkali Works, they will find their position very much the same as before and they may then take Into their heads to make a combined attack upon some other establishments that give bread to thousands and so, by degrees, (if the citizens will generally support them) this great hive of industry will become a desert. The theme of the company’s reply has been used in recent years over the consequences of industrial environment and people’s health’.

In spite of their protestations the company lost their argument. A report by George Clark Esq. to the Board of Health of the 3rd April 1860, stated that, in the opinion of the writer, vapours from the refuse and the work’s chimneys were a nuisance deserving immediate attention. When this conclusion was corroborated by Mr F.W. Griffiths of the Bristol School of Chemistry, the Board made Messrs Leonard, Jordan and Co. fill in the offending, open pools – two years later. This was the best which could be done under laws existing, although they did have the power to prevent an extension of such works.