Swansea History Web. Looking at early sewage disposal into Swansea Bay.

Early Swansea sewerage schemes

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For most of its history, the residents of Swansea threw what they didn't want into the River Tawe. For many people the streams that supplied their drinking water also conveniently took away their rubbish. This was fine as long as you weren't unlucky enough to be living downstream of everybody else. The message that these sort of practices led to outbreaks of nasty diseases such cholera and typhoid eventually emerged and efforts were made to clean up the problem.

The early ideas for improvement centred on the principle of burying the dirty streams in pipes and emptying them into the river at the earliest opportunity. Thus people could not throw refuse or effluent into the streams or access them for water supply. In 1854 the town’s first proper sewers were built on this principle, with a main trunk sewer constructed along the route of Swansea’s original ‘town ditch’ which had been the town’s main drain for nearly 800 years. This early sewer was then connected to various pipes and drains from the lower part of town. Both foul and rain water were drained into the sewer resulting in problems of overflow and bursting in extended periods of wet weather. The sewer emptied in to the River Tawe at Pier Street. Shortly thereafter, the suburbs of Morriston and Landore were supplied with similar systems also emptying into the Tawe. In the 1860s, the newly developed communities on the east side of the river were also built with sewers emptying into the Tawe.

Whilst the town’s population hovered around the 30,000 level, this may not have been too much of a problem. The Tawe is a fast flowing river and (with the exception of long dry summers) the majority of town residents wouldn't have perceived any drop the quality of their environment worth complaining about, if anything it would have been seen as a definite improvement.

It is somewhat ironic that the first flaws in this system were highlighted by sanitary reform, particularly the growing popularity of flushing water closets. In 1850s Swansea, toilets were almost exclusively of the earth closet kind. The contents of the toilets were kept relatively manageable by the constant addition of ashes, and emptied on an infrequent basis when their contents became too offensive. Thus early toilets did not have any contact with the early sewerage system.

The growing popularity of water closets, baths and sinks, and decent street drainage had profound effects for the town’s waste management. Although there was trouble enough that Swansea’s population doubled in the second half of the nineteenth century it was the fact that the majority of the new residents lived in houses connected to the sewerage system that caused the problems. Every improvement in water supply, sanitation and even street drainage led to greatly increased pressure for the sewerage system emptying into the River Tawe.

The result of improvements to the town's general environment was greatly increased pollution of both the river and Swansea Bay. Increased flow of effluent through the river outfalls meant that overflows and flooding increased with predictable consequences for the lower part of the town. Attempts were made to try and reduce the amount of street drainage (mostly rainwater) that entered the overloaded system. In 1895, a relief sewer was built between Union Street and the Strand but it was a poor attempt at a fix. Meanwhile, the Tawe continued to develop as a noxious cocktail of sewage and industrial waste as the industries of the Lower Swansea Valley multiplied.

The year 1890 saw the first in a series of plans that attempted to address the issue of sewage in the river. A new outfall on the beach at Brynmill was considered as a way of bypassing the river. Thankfully this project was abandoned at an early stage as was a similar one to discharge from the end of the west pier. Both schemes would have been horrendously expensive and hopelessly inadequate.

Continued under Swansea's Main Drainage Scheme

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