Guess how many people opposed sewers and clean water in 1848? (an encouraging story for change agents everywhere)

Murray Callander
5 min readFeb 23, 2022


Old photograph of Keswick town centre showing the town hall, taken some time in the early 1900s.
The picturesque Cumbrian town of Keswick is a tourist hotspot today, but in 1848 it had no drains, sewers or clean running water. The stench would have been awful and the infant mortality rate was 1 in 4. Picture source:

I’ve just read a bit of local history that really struck a chord with me and actually encouraged me despite the subject matter! But before I dive in, let’s just take a moment to guess the following:

Out of 622 rate payers in the Cumbrian town of Keswick, how many do you think signed a petition to prevent the installation of sewers and clean running water?

The answer, 73%! Yep, 452 rate payers signed a petition against implementing the provisions of the new Public Health act (1848).

The reason? Fear of the cost of the project. They claimed, amongst other things, that the town was already “abundantly supplied with good water”.

I actually find this encouraging! Even when the case for change was, you would have thought, so overwhelming, 3/4 of influential people were against it. It is not really surprising that it is so difficult to implement change, even when the business case is as life changing as this one.

To give you an idea of the conditions of the time;

The population of the town was 2,618 plus around 7,000 “vagrants” moved through the town each year staying in the 26 beds available in the common lodgings.

Domestic water was supplied by ninety pumps and wells, many of which were out of order or unfit for use because they were polluted by surface refuse.

This surface refuse was the waste from the towns houses, pigsties and slaughter houses which was either left to stagnate and drain into the ground or thrown onto refuse heaps (“middens”) and into cesspools.

Toilets (“privies”) were a luxury, but even then they were usually in such a foul state that no-one could use them.

In one street (Brigham Row), sixty people shared 13 toilets and had to get their water from the river near where the gas works discharged liquid waste into the river.

Seventy people working at the forge shared one water trough and one privy (toilet).

Average annual death rates were 23 per 1000 or 2.3% (currently in the UK it is about 10, or 1%).

The infant mortality rate was 1 in 4.

286 people died in the five years between 1845–1850. 82 were babies under 1 year and 130 were working men and women under 20.

It’s hard to imagine how anyone could be content with the status quo under those conditions, but most of the rate payers were (or at least they were if there was a chance that change would cost them something). They claimed that the town was, “abundantly supplied with good water” and there was “scarcely a house without a copious supply of pure water by means of a pump within its precincts, or immediately adjacent, and which never fails except from accidental circumstances”. Also, that the mortality rates were skewed by the number of “feeble and aged” people in the town because the “the healthy paupers are removed to an adjacent union” and “The young and vigorous” Keswickians left their homes for the “superior opportunities for the prosecution of business” in other towns.

And here’s where I take more encouragement as I hope any other catalysts for change will as well. When you’ve seen a better future you desperately want others to see it too, but it can be tiring and slow going.

Fortunately, 144 rate payers had earlier signed a petition in favour of the Act and, in April 1852, the experienced Civil Engineer and sanitarian, Robert Rawlinson [link], was called in to conduct a “Preliminary Inquiry into the sewerage, drainage and supply of water, and the sanitary condition of the inhabitants of the town and township of Keswick” [link — this is absolutely worth a read if you have time, not least for his rebuttal (on p11) of the petition by the 422 rate payers for it’s “fallacious” remarks, “weak” arguments and incorrect assumptions about cost and benefits].

The front page of Robert Rawlinsons 1852 Preliminary inquiry into the sewerage, drainage, and supply of water, and the sanitary condition of the inhabitants of the town and township of Keswick in the Parish of Crosthwaite and county of Cumberland
Robert Rawlinson's "Inquiry into the sewerage, drainage and supply of water, and the sanitary condition of the inhabitants of the town and township of Keswick" in 1852 was highly critical of the claims by rate payers that conditions were good, and instead clearly set out the reality and the need for change.

The facts were brought to light and action followed (the summary above of the conditions at the time is actually taken from the report). By 1870 the death rate had fallen to 15 per 1000 and in 1876 the “Sanitary Record” declared the death rate as the “lowest yet registered in any part of the United Kingdom”.

Sir Robert Rawlinson found the conditions in Keswick to be in dire need of improvement. Image ref.
Sir Robert Rawlinson found the conditions in Keswick to be in dire need of improvement. Image ref.

The challenges we face in introducing improvements to business are not new. I can’t believe that anyone today would think that clean water and good sewers were a bad idea. But 250 years ago, 73% of the people with influence felt that the current status quo was good enough and the improvements were not worth [what they perceived to be] the cost.

The reality is that they couldn’t afford NOT to make the change. The future prosperity of the town depended on having a healthy workforce and also the railways were coming! On 21st May 1862 the first ground was broken for a new Cockermouth — Keswick — Penrith railway that, within 3 years, would bring more work and tourists to the area.

Lots of things are changing around us at the moment — the climate, the economy, our energy supplies. I’m sure the people of Keswick felt the same back in the 1800’s, but fortunately they had some dedicated people and strong enough leaders who brought in the right man for the job in Robert Rawlinson. They came through it well and became a leading light for others around the country.

So maybe I should feel a bit better that resistance to change is nothing new. The challenge is to get to the facts and make sure the case for change is clear. Hopefully I can be a bit more like Robert Rawlinson:)

I would love to hear from you, feel free to connect via LinkedIn to get in touch



Murray Callander

Co-Founder & CEO @eigenltd — How can we help industrial companies become more efficient? And how do we make sure we do a great job?