“A Report to the General Board of Health on a Preliminary Enquiry into the Sewerage, Drainage and Supply of Water, and the Sanitary Conditions of the Inhabitants of the Town of Cardiff, March 5th, 1850.”

Cheaper ballast than lime or shingle,
in vessels out of Waterford
and Cork, the fugitive families came:
a scurvy cargo, shipped on the tide
of enterprise. They left behind
the blighted tenancies, the windswept acres;
arrived, in the steely glint of dawn,
on the milling wharves of Bute West Dock.
Discharged with their sacks of rotten potatoes,
salt-fish, bones, the boat-people
crammed the tenements: the famine
flaming the belly, the pestilence a flail
on the backs of our vagrant progenitors.
And Rammell of London and the Borough Commissioners
over-ruled the outcry against “the principle of
centralisation” to witness
two dozen hovels in Landore Court
where five hundred “of the lowest class
of Irish” dwelt, interned in squalor.
In Stanley Street, they saw disease
and pregnancy twinned in fevered breath
beneath the sheets of the one bed;
in Whitmore Lane, that “fetid cesspool”,
typhus, cholera, ague. The dead
of the town that decade outnumbered
the born – and yet the population
doubled. They swarmed, and dropped, like flies,
“straggling accessions” to the parish of St. John.
How they touched, appalled the philanthropic
conscience, those displaced Learies, Driscolls,
Bryants, and Mahonies: dispossessed
refugees from the barren isle.
Rammell’s Report, then, proposed a scheme
to sluice the fevers out. Though wealth
and ill-health thrived on the same excess,
the privies and sewers would evacuate the filth.
The drains were sunk, the conduits, cisterns;
the water sloshed and flowed. And flows
still: along the subterranean channels, as
in an ear, our forebears’ whispering vapours.

Bob Walton, a musician and writer of Irish and Welsh descent, lives in Bristol.

Published in The Green Dragon No 2, March 1997.