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Tavistock’s Water Cart

Dartmoor is infamous for it’s quaking bogs and impenetrable mists and fogs but not that long ago there was another peril – dust – or to use the Devonshire vernacular ‘pillum’. This was the scourge of many a town and village street, especially during the hot and windy summertime. The mainstay in the armoury with the dust battles were the water carts. So what was a water cart and what was it’s purpose?

Water carts came in many shapes and sizes and were used for various purposes both in domestic and agricultural situations. They varied from small, hand-drawn barrels to large horse-drawn ‘spraying’ machines. Initially the tanks were made from wood but later ones which leaked less, of iron. The men who operated them were known as ‘scavengers’ or watermen and were very much seasonal workers. In many cases the services of the water cart were provided by contractors. Their fees either paid from the local rating system or private conscription. Throughout Victorian times local newspapers often reported about complaints of the lack of the water carts or their services. 

If we take a town such as Tavistock it is unbelievable today the problems dust once caused. Being a market town it was always busy with carts, wagons, livestock, and  people, all of which were tramping through the streets slowly eroding and crushing the stone surfaces into dust. When you look at the early postcards below you can get an idea of how wide the roads were. and when dry how dusty they could get. From around May to possibly late autumn the warm weather would dry out the road surfaces thus forming  layers of dust. The very moment strong windy conditions were met with the dust would be blown into thick clouds which at times engulfed the town. During the Victorian period the main contender in the dust wars was the water cart who in theory would spray water over the road or street surface thus dampening or laying the dust and preventing it blowing everywhere. This was a special concern for those tradesmen whose shop fronts faced the streets or roads as there was always the danger of the dust blowing into their stores and spoiling their goods. So as can be gleaned the water cart and the dust, in theory, should have gone hand in hand, but this was not always the case. Now follows the lamentable story of Tavistock’s water cart.

On May 10th, 1861,  the Tavistock Times reported that, “The dusty state of the thoroughfares, the New Road particularly, has called forth numerous complaints. The water cart, for some reason best known to itself, has remained in the strictest privacy for some weeks past.”

Two years later things had not improved in Tavistock as a letter sent to the Tavistock Times on May the 29th read, “I am pleased to observe that since attention was called to the subject of our antiquated old friend, the watering cart, has been put through extensive repairs – namely, one new shaft (not yet painted) and a botching of white lead about the pipe – the result of which is that the streets today have been treated with as much and no more water than could be delivered through the spout of a watering pot.  Tradesmen may well complain that their shops are filled with dust and their goods spoiled, especially bearing in mind the fact that a new and more effective cart may be had for the asking, and the supply of water is never failing. I think the cause of complaint lies more with the persons employed who are more fond of the “white ale quart” than the watering cart.”

On May 5th, 1865, the Tavistock Gazette reported that the question of a new water cart was still under consideration. It was noted that although the local ‘Voluntary Sweeping Rate’ had raised £112 the Nuisance Committee was reluctant to purchase a new one. This got the following response “It must be greatly to the damage of shopkeepers when the first dust flies, or rather drives along as it did on Friday. A considerable portion of the neighbouring parishes came into town, in the form of fine dust, and some very knowing ones pretended to distinguish between the dust of Peter Tavy and that of Milton Abbot. Such a one was talking and had reached the pith of his analysis when a sudden cloud of pulverised earth came along and hid him completely from view. We sincerely hope that the inhabitants will perceive the necessity for a water cart, and somehow or other find the funds for its support.”

On May 26th, 1865, the Tavistock Gazette printed how the thinking had changed dramatically and that the Voluntary Rate had “prospered so much” that the Committee of Nuisances were about to buy a new water cart. Additionally, it was noted that, “the Nuisance Committee will constantly remember that there is scarcely a greater nuisance than flying dust, and if they will only resolutely keep it down, they will earn for themselves the good opinion and the grateful acknowledgements of their fellow townsmen.”

On the 21st of June 1865 it was proudly announced that Tavistock’s long awaited, long overdue and urgently needed water cart would be arriving the next day. But the good citizens had to hold their horses until the end of the month when finally the Duke of Bedford presented the town with its new water cart. By the April of 1868 the water cart had broken down and had to be repaired at the cost of 4s. and 6d. This expense was hotly debated as to who should pay for them, the Nuisance Committee, or the Parish. One month later the roads were not getting watered or swept which then led to a fierce debate as to who should be responsible. It was argued that as the street roads were in fact classified as  highways it should be the Highways Board remit. But as there was nothing in the Highway Act to say that the roads should be watered and swept this caused a problem. Additionally, the act said that legally nobody other than people authorised by the board could carry out such operations. It was reported at the time the Tavistock residents were undertaking the care of the roads themselves which was against the Highway Act.

By the April of 1869 things clearly had not improved as this letter to the Tavistock Gazette implies – “Where am I, in our own pretty town of Tavistock, or transported to the wildest of wild deserts of Africa, where the sand of a hundred miles by a sudden gust of wind forms a cloud which darkens the air? Such was the mental interrogatory addressed to myself as I wandered through the streets last week, literally under a cloud of dust. I am brought to a stand by being forced to take a dose of pulverised highway, much against my inclination, as I have a strong objection to being visited by the sins of the Highway Board. I experienced great difficulty in making headway against the blinding clouds of dust, which were continually rising, threatening one with an extra dose should ne be incautious as to open his mouth. Through the cloud I dimly saw some of the more zealous tradesmen with watering-pots vainly endeavouring to allay the uprising taking place, and prevent, if possible, any addition being made to their present large stock of dust; but it was like mopping out the Atlantic Ocean, and their efforts ended in failure. Why isn’t the water cart put to some use, I enquire, and am answered by a shrug of the shoulder, which implied no end of imaginings, such as, “no authority,” “the law is not clear,” “red tape,” “obstruction,” “obstinacy,” &c.”

Today such situations are unimaginable but just as the townsfolk of Tavistock thought things couldn’t get worse one month later the Tavistock Gazette reported this. “It is our melancholy duty to report that on Friday last owing to a high wind, a very large part of the superficial area of the town was carried off into the country. It disappeared in the form of dust, and before departure gathered itself into immense clouds, which not only covered every object animate and inanimate, but at times so darkened the air as to raise the idea of an eclipse of the sun. The shop keepers were in a state of great distress, as they regarded their dust-covered goods with rueful countenances, and felt that relief was hopeless, for of the dust there seemed no end. The aspect of those whom necessity forced into the streets was pitiable to the last degree. So thickly were they covered with the fine powder of the town, that their features were scarcely discernible, and it really seemed as though mortals had returned to the dust from whence, they sprang. In the midst of the general distress there was a cry for the water cart, but without effect. Indeed, it is very doubtful if any person living knows of its whereabouts. The knowledge even of its existence can only remain among us as a faint tradition. There was nothing for it but to suffer and to wait until the wind went down. And yet it was melancholy to reflect that other towns might find relief in appliances of art, while we were abandoned to the caprice of nature. Other towns could be watered by machinery, while we must depend wholly on clouds. And the question recurs can nothing be done? Is it in vain that the Duke has given us a water cart> Are we to see the town diminished by every high wind, and is Tavistock to be destroyed in particles of dust? A few more gales like that of Friday, and our buildings will be bared to the foundations. Our hopes hang upon the weather. If we can only prevail on the authorities to moisten our clay even a little, we may yet retain our ancient standing, but if not, and the rain does not come soon, we shall awake some gusty morning to find Tavistock dispersed over the surface of the entire county, and not to be gathered again.” – The Tavistock Gazette, September 3rd, 1869.

Having faced such a dire situation enquiries were made as to why the water cart was not dispatched and the reason was; “The reason the water cart was not sent round the town was the short supply of water. The surveyor of the Highways was equal to the occasion and felt that the dust must be laid. Accordingly it was ordered out, the horse put to, the driver seated, and with the confidence of victory its course directed to the water plug. But here an unexpected obstacle appeared in the person of the water guardian who instead of water poured forth a discourse, the substance of which was that the state of the supply was such that he neither could or would spare a drop There was nothing for it, but for the driver to turn back, and we understand that his looks, as he turned for home with his empty cart, were touching to behold. Now far be it from us to blame Mr. Merrifield for showing so stern a front. He knows what he can afford in the way of water, at the end of a dry season, but it does strike us a ludicrous that with a river flowing at our feet, we should be  compelled to see the cart resting in inglorious repose at the very moment, when we most require, and would most keenly value its services. Is it impossible, we venture to ask in a spirit of great humility, to put a pump in the Tavy. – The Tavistock Gazette, September 10th, 1869.

It did not take long for a very disgruntled Mr. Merrifield to answer his critics in a letter to the Gazette a few days later saying “I beg most emphatically to deny the statement in your issue of last week’s gazette that I had refused to allow any water to be drawn from the plugs to water the streets. No application was made to me by anyone for that purpose, therefore I could not deny it. And further I beg to state, the water cat has not been taken from the place where it is kept for the last two months. I may also state, there have been six hydrants at the Bedford yard for the last twelve months, waiting to be fixed to facilitate the watering of the streets if the Highway Board would guarantee they should be used for that purpose.” – The Tavistock Gazette, September 17th, 1869.

It appears that in 1876 there was a very feint glimmer of hope with regard to the water cart – “A phenomenon of rare occurrence has made its appearance this week; the water cart has been plying its vocation. I do not know to whom or what we are indebted for this remarkable visitation but suppose we ought to rest and be thankful seeing that it helps to lay the dust a little and makes this month of May at all tolerable. The tradesmen are groaning under the fortuitous concourse of atoms which is to be found every morning in their places of business. Little chinks let in some dust as well as much light, and if the peregrinations of the water cart were more frequent soiled good would not be so conspicuous.” – The Tavistock Gazette, May 12th, 1876.

Same old, same old, was this a case of ‘shutting the stable door after the horse had bolted’?  In the March of 1880, a very bemused tradesman from Tavistock wrote – “It is a fact! Just as the glass is beginning to drop, and there are indications of rain, the water cart is out, busy enough, like a bee in a bonnet. For the past two weeks we have had such a dusty wind as has scarcely been known even in March and our goods have been more than half spoiled, but not a ghost of a water cart has been visible until today, when by superhuman effort the streets have been watered twice! With our lively surveyor, we may expect the water cart out again next November to help the winter rains to settle the metalling of the roads.” – The Tavistock Gazette, March 25th, 1880. A few months later a rather disgruntled residence complained that the water cart did not venture forth up Tavistock’s Bannawell Street and that the driver had told him that he was not allowed to. A rather bemused Surveyor replied to the complaint saying the regular water cart driver had recently died and his replacement was unsure of his route.

OK, we so far have had the water cart damaged, lost, unusable due to lack of water and the death of a driver – what else could go wrong, well this – “As a rule the artificial watering of our streets is very well attended to, but one or two days last week when the fearful east wind was at its highest, and the dust at its finest stage of pulverisation, the water cart was nowhere to be seen. On asking the reason I was told that no horse could be hired to draw it around the town. Tavistock stood therefore on that occasion at less than one horse-power, a decline in resources, which was calculated to throw the native mind into a state of gloomy apprehension for the future. Talking the matter over with an intelligent fellow townsman, he suggested that we might get rid of our humiliating dependence on the horse supply by having the streets, as is done in many other towns, watered from the hydrants. The plan can be easily adopted. It would be a much superior plan to the present, being cheaper, handier, and far more efficacious.” – The Tavistock Gazette, April 8th, 1881.

Sixteen years later the same old saga was being told – “It is like hoping hope against hope to expect any attention will be paid to the bitter cry now being raised by the tradesmen of Tavistock town with regard to the absence of the water cart. The clouds of dust since Monday have caused serious injury to the drapers and others who it appears can do nothing but grin and bear it. It seems almost  incredible that with a supply of waste water still running through town and the existence of a water cart we are absolutely helpless in this matter. We do not advise an infraction of the law, but it might not be very wrong to resist the payment of a portion of the poor rate in order to ascertain where the fault really lies.” – The Tavistock Gazette, August 6th, 1897.

As time progressed more robust means of road surfacing were introduced with the aid of steam rollers and tarmac, all of which gradually reduced the accumulation of ‘pillum’. It is worth noting that although urban streets and roads were improved  the dust problems remained on the moorland country tracks and lanes. In these days we still have the equivalent of the old water wagon in the form of the road sweepers whose huge machines can occasionally be seen sweeping and cleaning the road kerbsides – nothing ever changes here then?

On a final note, did you know that the saying “on the wagon,” was originally “on the water cart.” When alcohol abstention became popular the teetotalers would infer that they’d rather drink water from the water cart than drink the demon alcohol. This then shortened to simply saying they were “on the water cart.” Over time this simply evolved into being “on the wagon.” Likewise, should anyone lapse in their non-alcoholic commitment then they became “off the wagon.”

About Tim Sandles

Tim Sandles is the founder of Legendary Dartmoor

One comment

  1. Neil Morrison

    Long, but fascinating read… Cheers Tim..

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