Book Review: The River Pollution Dilemma in Victorian England

Publication Date01 March 2015
AuthorFrancis Mcmanus
Date01 March 2015
SubjectBook Reviews
benchmark for any book on the subject. It is wide-ranging, comprehensive, intelligent
and challenging – a not inconsiderable set of achievements.
Edinburgh University, UK
Anderson MR (1996) An overview. In: Alan E. Boyle and Michael R. Anderson (eds) Human
Rights Approaches to Environmental Protection. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1–24.
Boyle AE and Anderson MR (eds) (1996) Human Rights Approaches to Environmental Protection.
Oxford: Clarendon Press.
UN Sub-Commission on Human Rights and the Environment (1994) Report of the Special Rap-
porteur on the adverse effects of the illicit movement and dumping of toxic and dangerous
products and wastes. Doc. E/CN.4/Sub.2/1994/9,6 July.
LESLIE ROSENTHAL, The River Pollution Dilemma in Victorian England. Farnham: Ashgate, 2014,
p. 274, ISBN 9781409441823, £75 (hbk).
The rapid influx of populations into towns during the industrial revolution in the United
Kingdom posed a variety of formidable problems in terms of drainage as well as to urban
infrastructure in general. Urban drainage systems simply could not cope with the sheer
volume of effluent, which was generated by an expanding population. The problem was
compounded by the advent of the water closet and water carriage systems for the
removal of faecal waste from domestic premises. Until well into the 19th century, major
watercourses in the UK’s towns and cities were simply used as open sewers, which was
the easiest and cheapest way to dispose of municipal effluent. Drains and sewers would
simply discharge untreated effluent directly into the nearest river, which was often
already polluted by industrial effluent. Importantly, Rosenthal observes in Chapter 4 that
no available treatment could be relied upon to treat the sewage effectively enough to
avoid gross pollution of the rivers and also the environs through which the rivers passed.
This becomes manifestly clear in the cases, which the learned author presents to the
reader. However, the author reminds us that rural landowners who were affected by the
odours from the polluted streams were not helpless against town authorities who polluted
streams by municipal effluent. In short, the former could seek redress by means of the
law of nuisance. For example, a court could, theoretically, by way of an injunction, force
the closure of sewer outlets or sewage treatment works, which were polluting a river.
However, this would cause what the author describes, as ‘impossible social problems’,
by denying the town of its only means of discharging its sewage. The author goes on
to pose the question as to whether the courts could, actually, in the event, bring such
a calamity upon the town. However, he reminds us that, whilst the relevant sanitary
activities and practices of the affected towns were usually undeniably and deeply
affected by injunctive relief being granted to the relevant plaintiff, the author has failed
Book Reviews 143

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