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From the LCC Staff Gazette August 1905
[The following article, which embodies a story well-known
in the office, is taken from the Globe newspaper for November 16th, 1878. Perhaps some veteran official call supply the name of the "heroic water-drinker "who is "pretty sure to be heard of:"-ED.]
Ordeal by Tumbler
MANY people have a pretty decided opinion as to the effect of the main drainage of outfalls on the condition of the Thames. The dispute as to the colour of the chameleon was not more hopeless than the contradictory views taken by the Metropolitan Board of Works and the Conservators of the Thames as to the actual condition of the river. Yet the controversy relates to such absolute matters of fact that it seems unaccountable how there should be any difficulty in arriving at a common conclusion. Perhaps it is a comfort to know that there are at least some people who believe that the Stygian cataracts at Barking and Crossness are not particularly harmful. To them the sewage of the outfalls is "like the snow flake on the river, one moment seen, then gone forever." A story comes to us of one who certainly had the courage of his opinion. The members of the Metropolitan Board, laudably anxious to see for themselves what was the real state of the river, hired a steamer the other day and boldly rushed into the thick of the sewage, dipping up samples as they went along. At last they steamed up to the spot off Beckton where the Princess Alice met her fate. This part of the river is somewhat above the northern outfall. This might be called a crucial spot. and here, therefore, a few pints of water were hauled up for future analysis. The tide was rather more than an hour on the ebb, so as to correspond. with the state of the tide when the Princess Alice foundered. When the sample of water obtained at this spot was examined by the members of the Board, there was a general chorus of admiration at the clear and inodorous character of the liquid.. But there was a sceptic at hand who suggested that, pretty as the water might look to the eye, and innocent as it might appear to the nose, nobody would like to drink it, or could safely swallow it. Half a tumblerfull, the gentleman asserted, would be little less than death to anyone who imbibed it, and he would give £5 to the man
who dared to make the experiment. To his surprise the challenge was accepted, and forthwith one of the company present with the members of the Board on the occasion drank off not only half a tumbler, but a whole one, filled with the dubious draught. The £5 was faithfully paid, the daring drinker being apparently none the worse for his venture. Supposing he really drank a portion of the London sewage, he is probably the first man who ever made money out of it. Three days afterwards the payer and payee of the £5 happened to meet when the former was particularly precise in his inquires as to the health of the latter, and as to his symptoms and sensations. Should he fall ill, what a triumph it would be for Captain Calver and the Conservators! Should he continue " jolly," what an invaluable witness he would be for the Metropolitan Board! Let us hope, on public grounds, that this heroic water-drinker will be well cared for. If he lives, he is pretty sure to be heard of.
Letter from William Joseph Dibdin to the Editor
London County Council Staff Gazette
I am greatly obliged to you for the copy of the L.C.C. Staff Gazette which I have read with great interest and pleasure. May I say that I should greatly appreciate the honour of being allowed to be a subscriber as my twenty-one years close association with the staff has left many pleasing associations my memory.
With reference to the article from the Globe of November 16th 1878 I have a very clear memory of the incident as I was the fortunate recipient of the £5 in question. The circumstances were as follows . The statement had been made that when the lamented accident happened to the Princess Alice many of the passengers were poisoned before they had time to be drowned By the instructions of the Board samples of the Thames water taken on the spot where the accident happened and at a corresponding time of the tide and these were sent up to the Chemical Department of the Board for analysis. At this time I was assistant in charge under the then Consulting Chemist the late Mr Keates and the duty of carrying out the routine of the analysis fell to me. On the results of my work, Mr Keates reported that the statement as to the poisonous character of the water was greatly exaggerated and that the quality was such that it could not be described as poisonous. The Board decided to make a personal inspection of the site and accordingly went down the River on the 15th of November for the purpose. On arriving at the locus samples of the water were collected and it was my duty these round to the Members present. On this particular sample being presented to them one of the Members viz: Mr Robert Jones loudly declared that although the water was all right in appearance it was nevertheless poisonous and followed this up by saying that he would give £5 to anyone who would drink half a pint of it. This it will be observed in passing was a very curious offer immediately following his opinion of the water. Nevertheless it flashed into my mind that as I was really the person responsible for the Consulting Chemists opinion it would look very funny if I was not prepared to back up my work. I knew that the work had been fairly and properly down and therefore without hesitation I said "I will take you, Sir" .
Mr. Jones was evidently so astonished that at first it seemed as if he would back out, but the other Members evidently enjoying the joke said "We will see fair play". Mr Jones thereupon stood to his guns and I called for a tumbler and filled it with the water and holding it up said "Five pounds if I drink this". " All right" said he, and I wished him good health and drank it , whereupon he paid up the £5 at once. I am still alive and evidently have been "heard of " by your good self at least.
Heartily wishing your Gazette every success