Work in Progress – Part 2

As promised (or threatened) this is the concluding part of the article on Sir Charles Waterton, naturalist, environmentalist and true English eccentric. How else would you describe a man who, expecting dinner guests, hid under the table, growled like a dog and bit his guests’ legs? We left him yesterday,back at his family seat Walton Hall in Yorkshire, England after extensive travels in the Americas. Acutely aware of the growing industrialisation, yet he little expected to find himself fighting a personal battle against it.

Sir Charles Waterton
On land adjoining Walton Hall was Walton Soap Works, owned by William Hodgson and Edward Simpson. Soap manufacture, one of Victorian England’s growth industries, used a particularly noxious process, generating harmful pollutants and by-products. Up to this point Waterton and the Soap Works co-existed peacefully.It was peace based on a gentleman’s agreement not to manufacture the actual chemicals required to make soap and hence make it more cheaply. However, growing demand for the product and the profits to be made proved hard to resist and the manufacturers breached the agreement.

In 1840, Hodgson died and under Simpson’s management the soap works flourished. He built a new chimney, over two hundred feet high, that belched out sulphuric acid fumes. This acid rain killed trees and hedgerows. Stinking toxic effluents accumulated in drains, sluggishly making their way into nearby watercourses. Crops failed and livestock sickened. Even the men at the soap works were affected. Waterton writes in a local newspaper, “Simpson’s operatives are the very personification of death alive. There is not a single cherry-cheeked fresh or healthy looking man among them”.

In 1847, Waterton declared war by starting the first of three legal campaigns against “soapy” Simpson. However, this was to be no gentlemanly conflict. Simpson was a formidable enemy. The soap works made him a very wealthy man. He had gained respectability, becoming a local councillor, a partner in a bank and a property owner.

Even before the case was heard, a bitter exchange of letters took place in the press. Waterton appealed more to rural values than hard scientific evidence. He played on fears about the changes that the tide of industrialisation sweeping across the whole country was bringing. Simpson did not attempt to defend himself. He was astute enough to know that it would be fruitless to deny, directly, the claims made against him. Instead, he used personal attacks, ridicule and dirty tricks to cast doubt on the credibility of Waterton. The case was referred to arbitration and the following months saw a volley of personal abuse hurled at Waterton together with random acts of violence against his property and livestock.

In 1848, the arbitrator considered the case. Waterton produced his evidence and for his part, Simpson swamped the hearing with local men willing to testify that they had never seen or smelled anything noxious coming from the works. He wheeled in expert witnesses to refute Waterton’s claims and attribute any damage to natural causes.

The verdict did not favour either case unequivocally. The arbitrator found Simpson guilty of negligence and warned him to be more careful. Waterton received £1100 compensation but had to bear part of the legal costs. Simpson carried on his business and the pollution continued unabated.

A few months after the verdict, Waterton launched a second attack. Using the same tactics as before he presented an even greater quantity of evidence and Simpson brought in an even greater squad of witnesses (who received extraordinarily high expenses to give evidence) to deny the works produced anything harmful or polluting. On this occasion Waterton received no compensation and the arbitrator merely warned Simpson to maintain high safety standards.

The final battle took on a different complexion altogether. Perhaps Waterton learned a few tricks from his adversary. Having discovered that Simpson wanted to expand his works, Waterton offered terms – a house and a new site for the factory in another area, in exchange for closing the Walton Soap Works. At the third and final hearing in 1850, Simpson accepted the terms. The arbitrator formally ordered Simpson to move and to pay the legal costs. By 1853, Walton Soap Works ceased to exist.

Although Waterton’s war was over and he told himself he won, it was a Pyrrhic victory. His beloved sanctuary had suffered grievously. He lost trees, hedges, birds and other wildlife. Pollution spoiled his lake and watercourses. He spent considerable time and money on the lawsuits. His own health was affected. Simpson merely continued his work elsewhere and the problem transferred with him.

In a final ironic twist, when Waterton died in 1865, his estranged son, Edmund sold off all the valuable timber, mercilessly slaughtered the birds and game and did his best to obliterate all traces of his father’s conservation legacy. Ultimately, he sold the entire estate to none other than the son of Waterton’s bitter enemy, “soapy” Simpson.

Perhaps though, Waterton has the last laugh. Today, part of his park is once more a wildlife sanctuary and the nearby Walton Park Wildlife Discovery Centre promotes the values of the man who advises us, “Look close with a quiet mind. Learn from all that you see and so try not to assert your power…”


That’s all folks. Hope you enjoyed it.

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