BEFORE the advent of modern sewage disposal, Glasgow tried many approaches to deal with the putrid problem.

As early as 1602, the city authorities took some limited steps to combat pollution in the Clyde.

The river acted as the main sewer which, naturally, created health and environmental issues for Glasgow and its residents.

It was not until the rapid expansion of the city in the 19th century that the “sewage question”, as it became known, was considered more seriously. By this time ill-health was a problem for all Glaswegians, regardless of income or social status.

In the 1830s, life expectancy for both men and women dropped below 40 years, exacerbated by the first cholera epidemic of 1832, various outbreaks of fever and poor housing conditions.

The effective disposal of waste was recognised as a key part of repairing Glasgow’s health, but before the city tried to address it, the task was attempted by an assortment of engineers, chemists and industrialists.

One 1851 scheme proposed that the city’s sewage be gathered in four underground tanks, pumped to an elevation of 240 feet, then routed 40 miles away to Ayrshire where it would be spread across the sand “to make them agriculturally productive”.

This was not approved by the Glasgow Corporation.

Glasgow Times: ShieldhallShieldhall (Image: Newsquest)

In 1858, two eminent professors were tasked with finding a way to deodorise Glasgow’s sewage before it flowed into the Clyde so that its fertilising ingredients could be preserved for agricultural purposes but the output would be less foul-smelling.

Their detailed report concluded this was impossible.

The issue engaged the minds of Glasgow’s philosophers as well as its scientists.

The Glasgow Philosophical Society created a distinct sanitary section, which discussed the best ways to deal with the problem, and its meetings hosted lively debates among advocates of different methods.

Much debate centred on the use of a recent invention: the water closet.

Glasgow Times:

At one society meeting in 1869, a chemist named Edward Stanford argued strongly that the indoor WC would never catch on, since it carried “an attendant train of evils, which, I am fully persuaded, will ultimately doom it to oblivion”.

An alternative was proposed by a Mr John Murchie, who suggested that it be replaced by an indoor dry ash closet.

A moveable airtight box would be attached to the bottom of this closet, into which would drop “excreta and riddled ashes”.

The corporation would then empty these boxes every night, “providing a complete plant of railway manure trucks and lorries with iron boxes to convey the sewage away to the country”.

Thankfully, what we now know as the conventional indoor toilet prevailed.

Glasgow Times: Biological filters at DalmarnockBiological filters at Dalmarnock (Image: Newsquest)

Sewage disposal in Glasgow was a complex problem, not least because any solution would affect the surrounding areas, and a royal commission was required to explore it.

Having surveyed almost 1500 square miles around the Clyde, the commission published its report in 1876.

This complex and costly scheme recommended that the waste be transported into the sea by tunnel and came before Parliament, before a change in government caused it to be dropped.

A series of acts in the 1890s gave the corporation the power to deal with and disperse of the sewage of the city and many of the outlying areas, and Glasgow established one of the largest schemes for the treatment and disposal of sewage in the world.

Central to this was an ambitious programme of treatment works and pumping stations opened between 1894 and 1910.

Dalmarnock was first, in May 1894, where sewage was treated and converted to fertiliser which was sold off.

Dalmuir followed in 1904, which followed the same process and disposed of the remainder by loading it onto the steamer TSS Dalmuir and transporting the sludge 40 miles out to sea.

Glasgow Times:

Pumping stations were opened at Partick and Kinning Park to help discharge the sewage, and the programme was completed in 1910 with the opening of Shieldhall Sewage Works.

By the eve of the First World War, the system dealt with nearly 100 million gallons of sewage a day.

While modern technology has since improved Glasgow’s sewage treatment and disposal enormously, the scheme developed in the Victorian era served the city well and laid the foundations for today’s system.