Pollution on the River Usk

by Sara Williams

The River Usk at Usk photograph credit Dennis Davies

The River Usk is a river which has been heavily impacted upon by the Industrial Revolution. At first glance, we would normally just consider the changes to the river which happened at the mouth of the river at Newport. As a result of the Industrial Revolution, Newport became a major transporter of coal. However, it is important to consider the impacts of the Industrial Revolution to this river further inland, notably by pollution. By analysing three newspaper articles from the 1870s, we can consider how pollutants from new industries and growing towns impacted on people in the River Usk drainage basin.

The Cardiff Times and South Wales Weekly News published an article on the Usk in February 1876, describing a dispute between the United Usk Fishery Association and the Local Board of Usk. The Association claimed that polluted water from the town was being leaked into the River Usk at Bell Pool, a local fishing spot. The Local Board denied the claims and explained how the sewage from the growing town was cleansed before entering the river. This source demonstrates an awareness of the impacts of sewage entering the water course. The Fishery Association noticed a drop in fish numbers at Bell Pool and saw water pollution as the cause. The publication of this story demonstrates an interest in environmental matters and how they impacted on the livelihoods of people in South Wales.

Rivers Pollution Prevention Act (1876)

Two years later, in 1878, the South Wales Daily News published an article discussing river pollution in Monmouthshire. Legal proceedings had been initiated against the Abergavenny Improvement Commissioners, citing the Rivers Pollution Prevention Act (1876). This shows how sewage entering the river caused controversy. The Commissioners were reported to have defended their actions and claimed to be cleaning the water. Under the Act, this would be adequate for them to be deemed as not breaking the law. This starts to show us how actions from central government were not always viewed to be effective and supported.

An article from The Weekly Mail, published in 1879, continues the discussion around the effectiveness of the Rivers Pollution Prevention Act (1876). The 1876 Act is dismissed as an ‘inoperative’ piece of legislation. It gives an example of 20 tons of vitriol (sulphuric acid) being thrown into the Afon Llwydd, a tributary of the River Usk, from a tinworks on its banks on a weekly basis. The tributary’s source is near Blaenavon, which is an industrial area with a major ironworks. It was reported that this pollution could have been prevented. This article helps to show how the industrial heartland of South East Wales was beginning to influence the rest of the river, and how people at the time did not believe that the legislation in place was strong enough to protect the environment around them.

In conclusion, it is important to consider how three different newspaper articles give us an insight into awareness of pollution of the River Usk caused by the impacts of the Industrial Revolution. The three articles cover a four-year time period which allows us to see that legislation to protect water courses was created and evaluated. As the articles were published in local newspapers, it shows that there was an interest from the public into the rivers which they lived alongside.  They also serve to remind us that river pollution is not just visible at major industrial areas along a river, but in towns which grew because of the Industrial Revolution.

Sara Williams has also developed an annotated map of the river Usk – see here

Historical sources consulted:

Rivers Pollution’, The Weekly Mail, 10th May 1879, p.7

River Pollution in Monmouthshire’, South Wales Daily News, 10th August 1878, p.3

Usk’, The Cardiff Times and South Wales Weekly News, 19th February 1876, p.8  

Keywords: Pollution, Industrial Revolution, The River Usk, Newport.

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