Sheffield sits in a bowl of hills, drained by five rivers: the rivers Loxley, Rivelin, Porter and Sheaf each drain into the Don, which flows north-east to Rotherham, Doncaster and the Humber estuary.
There’s only one place to put a sewage works to serve Sheffield – Blackburn Meadows, named after the Blackburn Brook that joins the River Don near to the Meadowhall shopping centre.
Blackburn Meadows Wastewater Treatment Works is nowadays discreetly shielded by the bulk of the M1 motorway Tinsley Viaduct. Formerly, it was surrounded by steelworks and railway lines, an environment of stygian gloom that was, ironically, essential to the health of the city.
Sheffield stunk for much of the nineteenth century, until in 1886 the Sheffield Local Board of Health completed a main drainage scheme, costing £150,338, including the 23-acre Blackburn Meadows sewage works at Tinsley, which cost £44,730.
Sewage treatment was rudimentary and didn’t work particularly well.
Sheffield Corporation, the successor-authority to the Local Board, took compulsory powers in 1890 to convert premises served by middens to water closets: in 1893 there were still 32,362 privy middens in the town; by 1914 this number had been reduced to 7,450 and hardly any remained by the end of the 1920s.
Through the twentieth century Blackburn Meadows was repeatedly modernised to deal with Sheffield’s industrial and domestic sewage by bio-aeration – oxygenating the liquid to encourage “good” bacteria to digest the offensive matter – and, latterly, the incineration of solid waste. In the inter-war period visitors came from far and wide to admire and learn about the ‘Sheffield System’ of sewage disposal.
From January 1979 Sheffield’s Victorian sewerage-system was dramatically upgraded by the completion of the gigantic 5.5m-diameter Don Valley Intercepting Sewer. Sewage is pumped into the works at Blackburn Meadows from a depth of 22.5 metres by four 1050Kw and two 540Kw pumps housed in a cream-coloured, clad and glazed pumphouse designed by Hadfield Cawkwell Davison and completed in 1983.
Blackburn Meadows remains the ultimate and inevitable destination for all Sheffield’s sewage and storm-water. Indeed, in the 1950s when Sheffield built a housing estate on its southern boundary at Greenhill, which drains south into the Drone valley, the Derbyshire authorities told the city exactly what it could do with its ordure. Consequently, the Greenhill effluent is pumped back over the watershed to begin its long journey to Blackburn Meadows.
It’s the proud boast of the workers at Blackburn Meadows that the liquid they return to the River Don is cleaner than the river itself.