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The Serpentine—Resolution

Volume 203: debated on Tuesday 19 July 1870

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, in rising to call attention to the nature of certain works in progress at the Serpentine; and to move, "That, in the opinion of this House, the bed of the Serpentine, after being thoroughly cleared of mud, should be tilled up so as to leave a maximum depth of six feet in the summer months, reducible to four feet in the winter months, with an easy slope from the banks, and an adequate supply of fresh water should be secured so as to cause, during the summer months, a constant outfall at the lower end," said, that for 20 years the state of that river had been a cause of public agitation, and 12 years ago £1,000 was voted for the purpose of carrying out a filtering scheme, though he had not been able to discover whether the process then suggested had ever been tried. Last October businesslike preparations were made for altering the river according to popular requirements, and since then any inconvenience which had resulted from the works in progress had been cheerfully borne in the hope that the public would at last have a piece of water which would insure the health and safety of the large population which resorted to it. For some time past, however, that prospect had been fading away, and it was now found that the First Commissioner had no such boon in store, much disappointment being thereby caused in the public mind. As to the present plan, it had been deprecated without reference to party, and while he did not accuse the First Commissioner of having originated it, he thought the right hon. Gentleman could hardly complain of having to bear criticism since he had shown such a determination to accept the plan as his own. The Press assailed him, but found him indifferent; deputations waited upon him, but he seemed to think they would do better to mind their own business. It had, however, been recently ordered that the mud should be removed from a portion of the bed of the river, and for this concession he was grateful, as it would prevent pollution; but, as regarded the safety of human life, he contended that the scheme was worthless. There was a difference between what the public required and what the right hon. Gentleman was willing to do in order to render the Serpentine pure for bathers and safe for skaters. As to purity, the First Commissioner offered something which would not insure that condition unless provision was made for a frequent and regular supply of fresh water; while as to safety, the plan was such that only the ignorant or foolhardy would trust to it. In order to insure purity it was necessary that three things should be done—first, the bed of the river must be thoroughly cleansed from mud; secondly, the bed must be filled up to a certain extent with gravel or some other hard substance; and, thirdly, there must be a regular supply of fresh water to replace that which had been polluted by the bathers. But according to present arrangements there was no provision of that kind, though it might easily and cheaply be done by uniting the Pound Pond at Kensington with the reservoir of the Grand Junction Water Works, which was distant only 1,200 yards. The most important of all the questions connected with the Serpentine was the safety of the public, and that could only be done by tilling up the bed of the river to a reasonable depth. He admitted that that would be attended with expense; but he did not know how the public money could be expended better than for the safety of the public, while, when the outlay had been made a saving would be effected, for a shallow lake would not require so muck water to be sent through it as a deep one would need. There was a certain proportion of bathers who could not swim, and another proportion who were not five feet high; and for these he should recommend an easier slope in the bank than one in six, for which his right hon. Friend conceived he had the authority of nature as exemplified at the sea shore. Further, in the interests of safety, he would suggest that a maximum depth of six feet in summer should be reduced to four feet in the winter months. He admitted that the suggestions he had made involved expenditure; but he denied that they involved extravagance. Further, he ventured to say that if this favourable opportunity were lost, if the works were completed according to the present plan, and the Serpentine left with a depth varying from 8 to 14 feet, the time would soon come, though not perhaps until the recurrence of some such awful catastrophe as that which happened in Regent's Park a few years ago, when a greater sacrifice of public convenience and public money would have to be made. The hon. and gallant Gentleman concluded by moving his Resolution.

said, he had a similar Notice on the Paper; he would not, however, bring it forward, but would second the Motion of his hon. and gallant Friend. He felt a certain diffidence in doing so on account of some remarks of the First Minister the other day, that he, a Member for the Isle of Wight, should speak on metropolitan improvements. He had to apologize for what he had done, having been 18 months out of Parliament; but as the right hon. Gentleman was not then present, he would not trouble the House with the few remarks which otherwise he should have made on the subject. He wished to call the attention of the Chancellor of the Exchequer to the matter before the House in the interest of economy, which he so ably represented. The first principle of economy was to do well what one had to do, and never to do what would have to be done over again. Some years ago £1,700 was spent upon the filtration of the water of the Serpentine, and that money had been entirely thrown away. Last year £13,000 had been expended on the works, and this year there was a Vote for £8,000 more, and if it ended there all that money would be thrown away also. He believed that the First Commissioner of Works was now willing to spend £5,000 more to get rid of the mud; but even that also would be thrown away as far as the interests of the public were concerned. He formed that opinion from the numerous letters he had seen on the subject. The proposed maximum depth of 14 feet would be much increased when the mud was all removed; but when that was done would the public be satisfied? It would not. It was impossible to suppose that there could be any safety to the people who bathed in the Serpentine if they had that depth of water. The Report of the Committee of 1861 recommended that measures should be taken to make the bed of the Serpentine clean and hard, that it should be covered with concrete and then with gravel, and that provision should be made for the safety of bathers and skaters. The sum they fixed on was £50,000, and they said that when a large sum of money was being spent the opportunity should be taken of beautifying the Serpentine. The present opportunity might be turned to account by the formation of islands, which would go far to beautify the water, and would enable the right hon. Gentleman to exercise his great powers of imagination and to put to good, use the mud which at present he did not know how to get rid of. In 1868 there were half a million of bathers in the Serpentine; were they going to consult the interests of these people? The right hon. Gentleman had said the other day if they could not bathe there let them go elsewhere. Would the right hon. Gentleman say what he meant by that? Did he mean that they should bathe in the Thames? All he asked was that the public money should not be spent without anything satisfactory being done for it, for certainly it would be much better to spend £50,000 upon an admirable and beautiful work than to spend £26,000 without giving any satisfaction. This was a question of common sense—to know how the works might be executed efficiently. If they were to defeat the Government to-night on this point, they would be doing a good public work.

Motion made, and Question proposed,

"That, in the opinion of this House, the bed of the Serpentine, after being thoroughly cleared of mud, should be filled up so as to leave a maximum depth of six feet in the summer months, reducible to four feet in the winter months, with an easy slope from the banks, and an adequate supply of fresh water should be secured so as to cause, during the summer months, a constant outfall at the lower end."—(Captain Grosvenor.)

questioned the propriety of making a great bathing establishment at the expense of the Consolidated Fund; and denied that the Serpentine was the proper place for such an establishment. He admitted it was absolutely necessary that the mud should be cleared out. With regard to the water in Regent's Park, after all the money that had been spent everybody was complaining of its present state. [Lord JOHN MANNERS: It is perfectly safe.] That might be; but there were great complaints about the state of the water. He believed that in stagnant water there should be considerable depth to obtain what was called an under-current; and that the growth of water plants should be encouraged to absorb the noxious gases. If bathing establishments were to be erected in the metropolis, the very-worst place in which they could be established was the Serpentine. The late Committee obtained a large Vote for the purposes of carrying out improvements founded upon scientific evidence. The House and the public would do well to see the contract then entered into faithfully carried out. To carry out the views of the hon. and gallant Member who made this Motion (Captain Grosvenor) he thought would be most objectionable as far as the interests of the general public were concerned.

said, he had visited the place the other day, and that he had come to the conclusion that the mud which he saw sticking there ought to be removed. Those, however, who went to bathe in the Serpentine ought, he thought, to be able to take care of themselves. There was a humane Society close at hand; and, in short, everything to accommodate those who wished to be drowned. Men went into the Serpentine and got glasses of brandy, hoping to see their names mentioned in The Times the next morning; but since they found their names were not inserted the numbers had decreased. The slopes at the side had, in his opinion, been very well executed, and all that was required was a sufficient coating of gravel. [An hon. MEMBER: The depth is to be 14 feet.] Well, a man could be drowned in three feet of water as well as in 14 feet, as he could assure the House from his own experience. He recollected skating in the old days, when there was a round circle at the end of the skates, and having got into the water he found he could not get up, so that he had never been so near being drowned in the whole course of his life. The fact was that if a person got under water with skates it mattered very little what the depth was. He thought there was a great deal of humbug about this question. The great thing, in his opinion, would be to have a stream of water through the Serpentine, for by that means its purity would be best secured.

said, he did not in the least complain of his hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Westminster (Captain Grosvenor), or of the hon. Member for the Isle of "Wight (Mr. Baillie Cochrane), for having brought the subject forward, because he was of opinion that the treatment of the public parks was a question which ought not to be altogether disposed of by metropolitan Members, seeing that the expenditure upon them was paid out of the national funds for what might very fairly be regarded as national objects. He wished, however, to make one or two remarks, not to justify himself, for he had no need of justification, but his Predecessor in Office, who had really made the contract which was the subject of the present discussion, and for which a grant had been made last Session. The subject was one which had engaged the attention of the Board of Works for the last 15 years. Lord Llanover, who at the commencement of that period occupied the position which he had the honour to hold, considered the question, and had arrived at the conclusion that it was not necessary to remove from the bed of the Serpentine the immense accumulation of mud which had collected there for many years. The matter was again under consideration in 1859, and the opinion of Mr. Hawksley, the eminent engineer, was taken upon it, who came to the same conclusion. Subsequently the noble Lord the Member for North Leicestershire (Lord John Manners) took up the question with the advantage of the investigations which had previously been made. He examined all the different plans, and he, too, was of opinion that it was wholly unnecessary to remove all the mud. His immediate Predecessor in Office decided that the Report of Mr. Fowler, another eminent engineer, was one which ought to be adopted, and he had submitted a contract, after a careful analysis of the circumstances, which had been sanctioned by the Vote of the House last Session. By that contract it was provided that there should be a gradual slope at the side of the water of from one foot to six, thus allowing an ample space for the purposes of safe bathing for persons of any size. There was also to be a gradual slope from one end of the water to the other to the depth of 14 feet. The contract wont on without any difficulty for a considerable period. But during the earlier part of the Session he had stated that the work was one of considerable difficulty, and he believed he was the first to throw doubts upon the likelihood of those difficulties being overcome. The operation of drying the mud was carried on slowly during the winter months, and with greater ease as the weather became warmer. The engineer had permission to extend the contract if he found its performance was hindered by the weather; but, finding that it was not completed within what he regarded as a reasonable time, he called upon the engineer to fix a time for its completion. The answer which he received was not in his opinion sufficiently precise, and he intimated that steps must be taken to secure the execution of the work. The consequence was that he received a reply a few days since stating, in point of fact, that the contractor had failed to perform his contract. If the contract had been duty executed, it would have been sufficient that the mud after being dried should be coated with gravel and clay. Finding however, that the contract could not be earned out, he had given instructions that it should be performed in what appeared to be the only practicable way—by removing the mud entirely and substituting an equivalent of gravel and clay, a process that would, however, entail an additional expenditure of £5,500, which would await the sanction of the Treasury and the House, but he had no doubt of obtaining the necessary amount. Now he might mention that it was not a very easy thing to fill up the Serpentine in the manner proposed by his hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Westminster. To get sufficient material from the Park itself, to reduce the depth from 14 feet to five or six, would require the excavation of nearly as large a space as the Serpentine itself, and if the material were carted in from outside the operation was not one that would be carried out with any great rapidity, nor was it one that it was desirable to undertake while the bed of the Serpentine was empty. The cost of such a work was at first roughly estimated by the engineer at £18,000; but on further consideration that gentleman had written him, and, after retracting that estimate, had said he did not believe that the work could be done for less than £28,000. But, in any case, the work if done at all could just as well be done when the Serpentine was full as it could now. Now, two reasons were assigned for the necessity of this work. It was said that people who bathed might possibly be drowned; but he did not believe that the depth of six feet suggested by his hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Westminster would be safe to all, while for some distance from the shore the Serpentine would under the present arrangement be shallow enough to suit everybody, and if it were necessary to take any precaution, that could easily be done by putting a railing or chain beneath the water to prevent people venturing into depths which were dangerous. But it would be well for the House to consider, before it pledged itself in the manner proposed, whether it was advisable to continue on the banks of the Serpentine a system of bathing which was at once indecent, disgusting, and obscene. He had certainly witnessed much in Asia and Africa; but he had never seen anything which could approach to the obscenity exhibited in this direction. If the Serpentine were to be reserved as a bathing-place for the inhabitants of the neighbourhood it was well to consider whether the expenditure required ought not to be defrayed by those who were more immediately benefited instead of being placed on the public Exchequer. He believed, however, that there ought to be no difficulty in drawing up an adequate scheme of public bathing — a scheme by which the wealthier few should pay and the others enjoy the luxury they so much coveted free of expense. At all events, he would submit that it was extremely desirable that the House of Commons should declare that they were to have this system of public bathing not confined to one portion of the Serpentine, but spread, as the Resolution of his hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Westminster seemed to contemplate, all over this piece of ornamental water. He thought that in the next Session the subject might well be considered carefully. The danger which it was said would arise in the winter occurred to two or three people in one or two years, who persisted upon going on the ice in spite of all warning, and the House ought to consider whether it should incur this large expenditure in order to meet the requirements of those eccentric people. [Laughter.] He certainly did call them eccentric. If he found that the ice was rotten, he should refrain from going on, and so, he thought, would most rational people. What they ought to do was to take upon themselves, as guardians of the Parks, to prevent people going on the ice unless it was safe — a thing which it was not at all difficult to ascertain. There was, however, danger of a different character in a piece of water of uniform shallowness by the formation of noxious growths, which could only be prevented by inequalities of depth. With that object, and on the strength of scientific opinion, the bottom of the Serpentine had been arranged. In St. James's Park it had been found necessary to draw off the water every year and scour the bed, and, though this process had not been found very difficult or expensive in the case of St. James's Park, it would be a serious matter if they had to pursue the same course in the case of the Serpentine. The same result had been found to attend the lowering the depth of the water in Regent's Park, and he had already received complaints upon that subject. He trusted that the House would not immediately and precipitately express an opinion upon this subject, especially as the work, if done at all, could as well be done later as now. He hoped the hon. and gallant Member for Westminster would be satisfied in knowing that there would be a solid bed to the Serpentine composed of gravel and clay, and that he would be content to leave the other questions to be considered hereafter if necessary, so as to meet the requirements of the times.

said, in reference to the ornamental water in the Regent's Park, great complaints had been made respecting the arrangements made after the lamentable accident which occurred there about three years ago. The fact, however, was that the arrangements agreed upon had never been carried out. It was intended that the depth of the water should be 5 feet in summer, in order to prevent it becoming stagnant, and 4 feet in winter to prevent accidents to skaters; but the medical officer of Marylebone, Mr. Whitmore, reported on the 8th of the current month to the following effect:—

"On my inspection of the mains yesterday afternoon I went over every part of it, and nowhere could I find a greater depth than 4 feet, while in many places the depth was only 3 feet 6 inches."
That gentleman recommended, as he had himself formerly proposed, that the depth should be increased to 5 feet in the summer time. He did not wish to enter into the question of the Serpentine. The right hon. Gentleman had given a correct sketch of its history, with one exception, as he had made no allusion to the full and able Report made in 1858 or 1859 by Mr. Page, and laid upon the Table of the House. Mr. Page recommended that the mud should be applied to the formation of an island, which should screen the present ugly eastern end of the lake. With respect to the right hon. Gentleman's statement as to the works proposed to be executed, he was not inclined to find any fault with it.

said, that if any justification of this Motion were required the speeches of the present and of the late First Commissioner of Works would furnish it in abundance. The right hon. Gentleman had stated that the present works in the Serpentine were undertaken after 15 years of consideration, at the end of which time a contract was entered into that did not include the removal of the mud. A great public agitation was raised on this point, and now the First Commissioner admitted that the public were right, and that the mud ought to be removed. The public also desired that the Serpentine should be less than 14 feet deep, and the only reason for not complying with that wish was the cost of partially filling tip the river: 500,000 persons bathed there in the season, and as bathing in the Serpentine could not be stopped, the river might as well be rendered as safe for bathers as the ornamental water in the Regent's Park was for skaters. He thought that if the public were to agitate a little more his right hon. Friend would give way.

said, that with a little more pressure the public would get from the Chief Commissioner all they required. To retain the mud in the Serpentine would be to continue the place one of great danger. He was glad to find that £5,000 was to be expended in removing the mud. As the Chancellor of the Exchequer had £300,000 or £400,000 surplus this year, and as he was paying off the National Debt at the rate of £5,000,000 or £6,000,000 per annum, the House might well consider I the advisability of voting £20,000 for making the Serpentine safe for recreation of those Londoners who took their pastime therein.

said, that because a few persons were drowned in the sea every year from bathing they might as well call upon Government to make sea bathing safe as to call upon it to make the Serpentine safe for those who chose to bathe in it.

Question put.

The House divided:—Ayes 46; Noes 149: Majority 103.