Water in nineteenth century Swansea

Cholera in Swansea ] Cholera in Merthyr ] Cholera in Cardiff ] 

Water was very different to what we are used to today. Swansea water came mostly from two places: The streams and springs of the Town Hill and wells that people had dug in their gardens or wherever water naturally came to the surface.

The water from the Town Hill was often very clean as it had been filtered through the sandstone rocks of the hill. All the streams of the hill had been used as water supplies for hundreds of years. The evidence for this is in the names that the streams had - only important features would be given names by the townspeople. The streams of the Hill were very reliable, only in the hottest of summers would they run dry.

Wells were dug very early in the town’s history. The early townspeople would search their land carefully to see if they could find a well or water source on it. The problem with wells is that they could often be polluted. Things could fall down them, things could grow in them, the water easily became stagnant (particularly if the well was in sunlight). Wells could also be polluted by being close to things like graveyards or toilets or rubbish heaps. Toilets were still quite rare in certain parts of the town in the 1820s and 1830s, people used pots as their toilets and threw the contents into the street or on to one of the many ‘dunghills’ that existed around town. The fluid from all these sources flowed into the ground and eventually into the wells of the lower part of town. The earliest toilets did not improve matters much

The streams and natural watercourses were also used as drains. The most important drain was known as the town ditch and it had been in existence since the 1300s. People would throw any kind of rubbish into the streams and hope that the water would take it away. They weren’t being particularly dirty, it was what they had always done for hundreds of years and they didn’t know it would cause them problems. People didn’t realise that water could carry nasty diseases and infections, and even if they had, they often wouldn’t have been able to get clean water anyway. The same situation exists in parts of Africa today!

Hot summers meant that water was in short supply, forcing people to use whatever water they could find for cooking washing and cleaning. Some people would even sell water to others but not tell them where it came from, and use dirty or polluted sources. Bad drainage meant that heavy rainfall caused the streets to flood spreading the contents of the rubbish heaps and dunghills everywhere. As the streets did not have pavements it was often impossible to avoid treading in pools of filth or trailing your coats and skirts through the mess. So dirt and disease was not just confined to the poorest areas of town.


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