Tar Damage to Watercress Beds at Hemel Hempstead


From the Hemel Hempstead Gazette

 16th May 1914

A hundred years ago there were many watercress beds along the valleys of the River Gade and River Bulbourne. This lengthy extract from the press report of a meeting of the Hemel Hempstead Council has been selected because it demonstrates:

  • It demonstrates how, when there is a newsworthy matter, how informative press reports of Council meetings can be - when the official council minutes will often do little more than record the decisions taken.

  • The verbatim style report helps to paint a picture of the character of some of the councillors - something which is not normally available about one's ancestors.

  • The report provides some useful background to the Watercress industry in the Hemel Hempstead area.

The Watercress Beds

Alleged Damage by Tar.

Claim for 72 referred back

There were lengthy discussions at the meeting of the Hemel Hempstead Town Council on Wednesday, mainly on the questions of the alleged damage to watercress beds by tar washed from the roads, and the condition of the Apsley water courses.  The Council had before it a claim for 72 for damages said to be caused to the water cress,, Which the Finance and Highways Committees recommended should be paid. This was, however eventually referred back. ....

The members present were: The Mayor (Councillor A. Orchard), Aldermen W. J. Orchard, C. J. Austin, Dr Maitland Thompson, W. Runham, A. J. Chennells, Councillor H. F. Herbert, W. J. Cartwright, W. T. Cheeseright, J. G. Craft, T. C> Gold, C. H. Hilderley, W. F. Allison, F. Stratford, H. Flint, T. Wykes, P. J. Cook, R. W. Rolfe, T. G. H. McCarthy, S. H. Daniels, and W. H. Bailey, with the Town Clerk (Mr. Alfred E. Usher), the Solicitor to the Council (Mr. Lovel Smeathman, The Borough Surveyor (Mr. W. R. Locke). the Medical Officer of Health (Dr. W. Gruggen), the Sanitary Inspector (Mr. S. S. Rawson), and the Water Rental Collector (Mr. A. D. Keen).







The Highways and Works Committee reported that they had had under consideration the claim of Messrs. Sansom and Williams for compensation in respect of damage to cress beds, alleged to have been caused by tar washed down from the Council's roads. The amount claimed was 72. After fully considering the matter the Committee recommended that the claim be paid.


Referring to the question of the water cress beds, Alderman Chennells said this was a very


The Council would remember that a sub-committee was appointed to look into the matter. This sub-committee consisted of Alderman Austin, Councillors Flint and himself. They went and visited the beds, although it was a long time after the claim had been sent in and the damage alleged had been done. They had inspected the water cress beds in the Bury-road grounds, but he saw very little the matter with the first bed, which was supposed to be damaged more than any of the others. The claim was that the owners had lost a crop. He was quite willing to admit that some damage had been done, but it was a question whether it was done by the tar. It was unfortunate that they did not inspect the beds when the damage was done. When they inspected them he could scarcely see anything the matter, with the first beds. It appeared to be strong and healthy, except in just one place. They walked up and noticed the same thing in regard to other beds, that they were strong and healthy, although in some places they did not look so well as they might have done. Further up they saw a bed about which no question had been raised, as the crop had been gathered. He very much doubted whether the damage that was caused was attributable entirely to the tar washings. He thought they must all agree that water cress crops were very like other kinds of crops, some times they were very much better than a others (hear hear) - and he had known people who rented cress beds to say that in consequence of a bad season they had missed their crops. That might be the same in this case.

Continuing, the Alderman said they next visited the beds at Alma-road, but no claim was made in respect to those. From there they went to the beds at the back of the Salvation Army Barracks in Marlowes, known as the Old Nursery Grounds. They found that certainly in a bad condition but he could not understand how the tar could have affected that bed to make it in the condition in which he saw it. It looked to him like a


a bed that was used up, but there again they were faced with the difficulty of not having inspected the bed when the claim was first made. They ought to have had the opportunity of inspecting the bed from time to time until they had satisfied themselves as to the cause of its bad condition. They then held a meeting and talked the matter over, and although two of them thought they ought to pay the claim, he did not feel justified in recommending the Council to do so, and he thought the decision was that Mr. Williams should be seen and asked if they could not in some way lessen the claim. He was unable to be present at the meeting of the Highways Committee, or he would have protested against the claim being passed in the manner it was. He noticed that the County Council had claims of a similar nature made against them, and they had acted very wisely in deferring them on the ground that they did not feel altogether satisfied that the damage was caused by the tar, and they had appointed an expert to go into the matter and report. They were agreed as a Council that it was a right thing to tar the roads, and they were so situated in the Borough that water from the roads would find its way into the water cress beds, and in that case it would be a drawback if they were unable to tar the roads. He could not help thinking that the claim ought to have been considered before, and he wished to know whether there had been any correspondence since which in any way supported the recommendation that the claim should be paid.

The Town Clerk replied in the negative, remarking that there had been no instructions to enter into further correspondence. It was distinctly understood that the next move would be made by the committee.

Alderman Dr. Maitland Thompson said he quit agreed that this was a very important and very serious matter. He did not mean to say that 72 was a serious matter to a wealthy Borough like this (laughter), but the whole question of liability was, to his mind, a very serious one. The subject came before the County Council at their meeting last week. He was pleased to note that int heir report the committee referred to the "alleged" damage - they did not necessarily admit that the damage was done by tar from the roads. He thought the County Council came to a very wise decision when they decided to have the matter of the alleged damage by tar thoroughly investigated. They had very little evidence from the committee, and as some of them had not the privilege of serving on the Highways Committee, he thought it only right and proper that the Council should have the entire confidence of the committee. He did not know if the committee in considering the question of liability had decided that the damage was proved conclusively to be due to the tar. He raised this question of liability at the County Council, and was cautiously warned not to press it, that it was a legal aspect, and he wanted to know - he was speaking on the broad question and not necessarily on Messrs. Sansom and Williams' claim - what was right and what was wrong, for future guidance. Had the Committee any information respecting any case where the damage alleged to have been caused by tar had been proved, and did they know of any such case in which damages had been paid by a public authority? He would like also to know whether they had any expert opinion on the


on the question, but he should want it most conclusively proved that the damage was actually caused by the presence of carbolic acid in the water. They knew that it was injurious to fishes, but had the presence of carbolic acid in the water cress beds been proved, because it could be done most easily, and ought to be done before any liability was admitted. They were opening up a very wide field, and before they took the step proposed they ought to be fully aware of the legal aspect, and have it proved to their satisfaction that the damage was caused by carbolic acid, and until this was done they ought not out of magnanimity present Messrs Sansom and Williams with 72. As Alderman Chennells had pointed out, sometimes crops of all kinds failed, and they did not know the reason. Therefore it was rather risky to pay away ratepayers' money unless it was conclusively proved that the damage was due to the tar.

Councillor Flint said he was a member of the sub-committee appointed to go into this matter, and like the other members, he was not an expert in water cress growing. They looked at the beds, and could not help noticing that above the spot where the tar entered the water the beds were not affected, and it was this fact that influenced them in coming to their decision. Alderman Chennells had told them that some of the crops had been gathered and the beds had recovered, but there were others which had never been gathered at all, with the result that the crop had been lost and could never be replaced. With regard to the beds at the Old Nursery Ground which Alderman Chennells referred to, they were


although they were told that even these, to some  extent, had recovered. They could not understand at the time how the water cress in those beds should be so much worse than the water cress in the Bury-road beds. But the Borough Surveyor told them that the water which had already passed through the Bury-road beds also  went into the Almas-road beds, and then into the Old Nursery Ground, in addition to which the latter also received water drained from off the lower end of the High-street, part of Marlowes, and Alexandra-road. That seemed to them sufficient reason to account for the worse condition of the Old Nursery Grounds' beds. There had been, and always would be, good and bad seasons for water cress as for other crops, but what they could not get away from was the fact that if the season was bad for the water cress at the street end of the Bury-road beds, why was it not also bad water cress at the other end of the meadow? They found, however, that it was only bad where the tar water had entered. He admitted that they were under a disadvantage in not going into the matter when it first came before the Council, but to his mind it was quite apparent that the damage was caused by the tar, and he therefore thought that they ought to pay the claim.

Replying to a question, the Clerk said the claim was received on March 6th, and was submitted to the March meeting of the Council.

Councillor Herbert said apart from the few words describing the resolution in the minutes, they went fully into the question, and they did not loose sight of the importance of it, more particularly, as they thought, the importance to the Borough in not taking the wider view that Dr. Thompson had suggested as it effected the whole county. He thought it was a fact, although he was not in a position to give date, that the County Council had already paid claims made by water cress growers in and about St. Albans and along the valley between Bourne End and St Albans, and unless Dr. Thompson was prepared to insist that this was not so, he claimed that what he said was correct, and also that the County Council had similar claims now before them. In talking about experts, they must remember that the two gentlemen making this claim were themselves expert water cress growers, and he understood that they had been called in to adjudicate because of their


of water cress growing and the things which affected it. The subcommittee were not experts; they simply viewed the beds and the damage done, and as ordinary, practical business men came to a certain conclusion. That condition had been very aptly and ably put by Councillor Flint, when he told them that above the point where the tainted water entered the beds the water cress was not affected; it was not a general depreciation of the crop, and therefore they could not resist coming to the conclusion that the damage did arise from the tainted water coming from the roads. He thought the remarks of Alderman Chennells against the payment of the claim were nullified by the remark: "We admit that tar water from the roads will find its way into the water cress beds." It was not easy after a certain length of time to prove how the damage had occurred; they had to take it on good faith of those who had made the claim, who were well-known and highly respected. If these two men cared to insist on their claim at law they (the Council) would probably have a difficulty in resisting it; they would be put to considerable expence in fighting it, and probably lose in the end, because they would have all the expert growers in the county inevitably against them.

Alderman Austin  agreed that it was a serious thing for the Borough, and he regretter that they did not see the beds earlier, but what they saw was enough to convince them that the beds had been damaged.

Councillor McCarthy pointed out that as the  damage was done some time ago it was useless to think of consulting experts now. At the same time, he did not agree that the amount should be paid simply because the claimants were experts and that therefore they should be allowed to adjudicate upon their own claim. Personally he thought the matter should have been gone into at the time and experts appointed, because it appeared to him that there was a possibility that some other cause had brought the condition of the beds about. They did not know how the cress was destroyed - they simply had the statement of Messrs. Sansom and Williams, and he was not inclined to accept that. It was only because of the


that he was willing to agree to the payment of the claim.

Councillor Bailey said he was given to understand that Messrs. Sansom and Williams had had some cress returned from their customers, and that then it was quite apparent what was the matter with it. He asked the Surveyor if he had heard that.

The Surveyor: No. I did not here that.

Alderman Chennells: Not a word was said to the sub-committee.

Alderman Thompson said what Councillor Bailey has said was rather interesting, as he did not know that watercress would absorb tar.

Alderman Runham said if the Highways Committee had had the evidence of Alderman Chennells before them he did not think they would have been so unanimous about the matter.

Alderman Chennells said he was sorry he could not come to the meeting. He knew that Messrs. Sansom and Williams were highly respected, and if the Council thought it just and right that their claim should be paid then he would pay it.


Asked for his opinion as to the condition of the water cress beds, the Borough Surveyor said that about the time the claim was made, Mr. Williams stopped him and told him that he was very sorry to find their beds had been affected by the tar, and asked him if he would  go down there and then and see them. Unfortunately he was not able to go at the moment, but shortly after he went to the Bury meadow and saw the beds, At that time the bed that was affected the most was the bed or line of beds nearest the stream, and Mr. Williams pointed out to him where the water came downfrom the storm overflow. It was only when there was an exceptional rainfall that this water went into the beds; ordinarily it went into the stream. Mr. Williams pointed out the condition of the beds below and those above, and at that time there was a distinct difference between the two. He also took particular notice that the water had a "tarry" smell. Mr. Williams was unable to go with him to the Nursery Grounds on that day, and in the meantime the Council had referred the matter to the committee, and he awaited their instructions before seeing any more beds. The Nursery grounds were more liable to be polluted than the Bury-road beds.

Councillor Stratford pointed out that the claim was sent in on March 6th and yet he noticed that a claim was made for April 100 half-flats at 3s., 15.

The Mayor: That was for the cress that was growing then and not gathered.

Councillor Stratford: If it was still growing how did they know that they had lost the crop?

Councillor McCarthy: Might I ask what a "flat" is (laughter).

Alderman Runham suggested that the matter should be referred back.

Councillor Daniels seconded, remarking that petrol and other things might have had something to do with the damage.

Councillor Herbert objected to this unless there is a good reason.

Alderman Runham said he thought the point raised by Councillor Stratford was sufficient reason.

Alderman Thompson: Will there be any more claims, because we had better delay it, and get them all in?

The amendment was then out, and ten voted for and nine against. It was then put as a substantive motion and carried, the voting being the same.

Councillor McCarthy asked if they had any expert on chloride of calcium, and if so, what effect it had on water cress beds? (laughter). It was just as well to know before they began using it.

The Surveyor said the material was a salt, and would make the water cress worth more.

Councillor McCarthy: May it not be maintained that the water cress is too salt (laughter).

The Mayor: We cannot go into that.

Alderman Dr. Thompson asked if water cress absorbed calcium like tar - which was an eye-opener - but he supposed that on the same assumption all vegetables growing on sewage matter must taste of sewage (laughter).

The discussion then ended.

The Gazette of June 13th  reported on the next council meeting, when action was again deferred. The following additional points were reported:

  • There was no news of any developments on current claims against the County Council.
  • There was discussion about whether watercress growers should be responsible for ensuring the water they used was clean and in keeping storm water out of their beds. Apart from the tar there was always muck on the roads ...
  • The County Council had paid for tar damage to watercress at Redbourn the previous year.

[Later progress on this case has not been monitored.]

If you can add to the information given above tell me.

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