Where we had first entered the culvert, it had been constructed of large stone blocks, with a flat floor and a rounded stone arch at the top. The shape and composition of the tunnel varied widely as we waded along, however, ranging from rounded brick conduits that looked like Victorian-era sewers to stone-walled, flat-ceilinged sections that had clearly been open channels before being covered. In some areas the stream ran through foundations of old buildings, which may or may not have still existed on the surface. Shafts of sunlight found us once or twice; some of the older industrial buildings had been built over the Beck before it was completely covered, and when one of them was torn down and replaced with a smaller building, small gaps were left. Side channels connected to the main tunnel occasionally, either outlets for anonymous, culverted tributary streams, or overflow outfalls for the sewer system. Though I couldn’t identify it, I knew that one of the inflowing channels we saw was the Goit, a now-culverted bypass channel that served as a millrace for watermills from as early as the 14th century well into the 19th.
Steam power had begun to replace waterpower in Bradford in 1798, when the first factory powered by a steam engine was set up on Edmund Street, just a few hundred feet south of where we walked through the tunnel. (The first attempt to bring in steam power for a mill had been in 1793, but a conservative group of merchants had brought suit against the mill owner to block the installation of the engine, worrying that “the smoke from the engine furnace would be a nuisance.” ) At the time there was still only limited mechanization in the wool industry; fulling was done with water or steam-powered machinery, of course, but the 1801 the census of Bradford recorded only one spinning mill in operation—most was still done by hand.
By 1841, however, there were thirty-eight worsted spinning mills in Bradford itself, seventy in the region, and an incredible two-thirds of all England’s wool was being processed in or near the city. By 1850 the city had 129 mills—now running on steam—employing thousands of workers, and drawing labor from throughout Europe. The result was an eight-fold increase over the 1801 population in a period of just fifty years, with over 100,000 people in the city by mid-century; this would double again to over 200,000 by the end of the century.
As with other industrial boom-towns, the surge in population turned the town’s streets and rivers into open sewers. As early as 1837, a sanitary surveyor declared Bradford to be “the most filthy town I visited," full of “open cesspits, pig styes and slaughterhouses and effluent-laden watercourses.” The greasy wastes from the wool industry were a particular problem, and the nature of the Beck changed almost overnight. Residents of the town could still remember catching trout in a sparkling stream when they’d been boys, but by 1840 both the Beck and the Aire had been turned into “the receptacles of all kinds of filth, and tippings, and the trout, graylings, eels and tench, were exterminated.”
By the 1850s, it was even worse. “This brook at present runs the colour of ink,” declared a reporter for London’s Morning Chronicle about the Beck. The same waters fed the Bradford Canal, and the industrial pollution actually made the waterway flammable. Local boys would light it on fire for fun, and according to testimony at an 1867 commission on river pollution, the flames would rise six feet and would run along the water “for many yards, like a will-o-the-wisp.” Canal boats nearby would be “so enveloped in flame as to frighten persons on board.”
Even more dangerous than fire or industrial pollution was disease. “[L]ike a filthy open sewer, [the canal] runs along the border of the town, breathing pestilence and death,” testified another resident in 1866. This was hardly an exaggeration. As happened with all cities of the era whose expanded population created irredeemably unsanitary conditions, cholera, typhoid, and other diseases were spread through tainted water. Significant cholera epidemics had already occurred in 1832, 1849, 1853, 1854 and 1856. Partly because of diseases, the life expectancy was the lowest in the region, with an average of only about eighteen years. Less than one-third of the children of textile workers would live past the age of fifteen.
In 1867, the city prohibited the use of Bradford Beck water in the canal, which soon ran dry. The Beck’s only real utility to the town was now as a main sewer, and in that capacity the stream served as the depository for all of the town’s waste. Even when sewer pipes had first been installed in Bradford, in the mid-19th century, they merely dumped the (untreated) sewage directly into the Beck, to the deep unhappiness of downstream landowners on both the Beck and the Aire. In 1869 one of these landowners, a William Stansfield of Esholt Hall, obtained an injunction mandating that Bradford treat its sewage before releasing it into the river. The first treatment plant proved to be a failure as the grease from the wool mills made the sewage exceptionally difficult to treat, but continued injunctions forced the city to continue investing in treatment facilities. Ironically, in 1899, the city took over William Stansfield’s Esholt estate on the Aire for a new treatment plant, and the Esholt Sewage Works continues to be Bradford’s main treatment plant today. In the 1920s, the three-mile Esholt Sewage Disposal tunnel was dug to directly connect the city’s sewer system to the Esholt works, and the Bradford Beck was finally freed of its sewerage burden. By this time, however, the river had already been completely culverted through the center of town, and so few fully appreciated the change that had taken place.