Dirt and grime in Cambridge: sewage disposal
Throughout its history, Cambridge has depended heavily on the river for trade and travel. Today, Magdalene Bridge marks the site of the very first crossing point over the River Cam, made over twelve centuries ago.
During the medieval period, this very spot was also the site where another waterway, known as the King’s Ditch, discharged into the river. Originally dug as a defensive trench, the townsfolk used this Ditch as a convenient rubbish dump.
A statute of 1388 ordered the King’s Ditch should be cleared of “dung and filth of garbage and entrails, as well of beasts killed, as of other corruptions”. In 1502, three heads of Colleges were fined by the Town Court for having “privvies” (toilets) overhanging the Ditch.
The streets of medieval Cambridge were, in themselves, a deadly health hazard. Unpaved and unlit until the 18th century, they were mud-baths, running with sewage, blood, offal and home to wandering animals such as hogs and sheep.
The river Cam was not much cleaner. During Queen Victoria’s visit in 1890, she enquired of the Master of Trinity as to the nature of those pieces of paper floating in the river… “Those Ma’am”, he replied, “are notices prohibiting bathing!”
Diseases such as dysentery and typhoid were widespread, caused by poor hygiene and contaminated water. It wasn’t until 1895, that the Cam was radically improved by the opening of a new, state-of-the-art pumping station. Here, two colossal steam engines pumped Cambridge’s sewage out of town to Milton, a task they continued to perform until 1968.