When researching a new book about The natural history of dung (watch this space), it was important that I should make at least some reference to human droppings, and their disposal. I don’t need to go into too much detail, so no need to invest in expensive modern textbooks, but important, I think, to get a flavour of the pumping and pipeworks that transformed the squalid open sewers of Dickensian city centres into the engineering marvels of the Victorian age. Luckily, I knew exactly where to find some — in my father’s library. And here they are.
Dad always had a wildly eclectic taste in books, but even these peculiar volumes had a use for him. He had them for his own background research when making a list of the plants from the South Norwood Sewage Works, half a century ago. We lived in South Norwood at the time, and this was one of the nearest green open spaces. Although there were the usual concrete sedimentation tanks and circular filtration beds in one corner, much of the site was used as field irrigation for the final purification, where the sludge was dumped and the water was pumped until it finally trickled away back into the Chaffinch Brook, and ultimately into the River Thames at Deptford. Every so often, on a rotation system, the dried sludge on the surface was ploughed into the soil. This made for a series of fields in various stages of marshy dampness and recently ploughed disturbed areas. This was not a public access site, there were no leisure grass areas or playing fields, no ornamental planting was done; instead the sewage works represented a strange semi-natural wildlife reserve. I know all this because Dad published the results in the journal of the London Natural History Society — The London Naturalist — in 1961.
He got special permission from the Croydon Corporation (as the council was then called) to get onto the site, and the chief chemist of the works rewrote part of the introduction explaining how the sewage works worked. And there at the end of his reference list is one of the books I have borrowed. I wonder when Dad last flicked through this particular tome? Tucked inside it is an LNHS postcard from Ron Payne, then the journal’s editor, dated 31 Dec 1958, and thanking Dad for another article he’d just submitted, on Station Copse, Near Bookham Common. It finishes with “I must say I admire the flow of original papers you continue to produce. I myself found that marriage hindered some of this sort of thing.”
Today the sewage ‘farm’ is no more, and the area is open to the public — as the South Norwood Country Park. If I remember right, the reason that it is still a green open space, and not a housing estate, is a direct consequence of that field irrigation system. So much urban water and sludge was pumped, for so long, across the ground that dissolved lead from the pre-copper piping of the day, built up in the soils to the point where it was considered unsafe for gardens where children might play and where householders might grow their own vegetables to eat. The excrement has been dealt with, but the plumbing left its own problems on the environment.