Last week, Echo Memories visited the subject of slag. This week, it is sewage. Is there no end to gutter journalism?

LAST week, it was slag. This week, it is sewage. Sorry.

But before anyone accuses us of gutter journalism, we are going in search of something proud, something ornate, something which has a beauty all of its own.

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Something which is a leftover from a previous age, but which still stands tall in the midst of many of our communities.

It is the stink pole. Or, if you prefer, the stench pipe.

Or, more delicately, the sewage ventilation pipe.

It all started when a couple of readers noticed that developers at Middlesbrough FC's Rockliffe Park training ground, in Hurworth, near Darlington, had cleared some roadside trees to reveal a tall pipe. The developers dismissed it as a "water pipe" but, oh! What a water pipe.

It is Victorian, made of cast iron and, as it reaches for the sky, it is decorated with stars.

And it is far more than a water pipe. It is a sewage ventilation pipe, to be precise. It is left over from the days when people lived in fear that excrement might explode.

Since that article, people have reported similar pipes in their districts, and Northumbrian Water says that it has about 100 in the area it serves - although we suspect that may just be just the tip of the stink pole.

More importantly, more knowledgeable readers have explained precisely the pipes' purpose.

This is extremely good news because the Local History Society in Wolverhampton, where they have made a real stink about four of their stench pipes and turned them into Grade II listed buildings, said:

"There is a dearth of writing about sewage ventilation pipes and our knowledge of them is strictly limited - so we can't find much to say about these valuable features of the townscape. "

So we'll begin with the story of sewage.

Sewage is a fact of life that even bothered early man, although he quickly worked out that it was best to live upstream of his neighbour.

It was only when man started living in cities that waste became a problem.

The Romans had the answer, of course, and in 735BC they built Cloaca Maxima, the first underground sewer (apparently, it still carries sewage) to carry the waste away.

Early sewers had two main drawbacks. The rotting effluent created an extremely pungent, egg-like smell, which no one liked wafting up from beneath their feet.

Sewers also deposited the decomposing mass into the nearest river, which usually ran through the centre of the town.

As urban populations increased, the rivers became more and more full. Then - calamity of calamities - one of the highlights of the 1851 Great Exhibition at Crystal Palace was the public water closets. For one penny, you could sit on a toilet with an Sbend and flush your faeces away.

After that, everyone who was anyone wanted a water closet in their home, and manufacturers such as Thomas Crapper and Thomas Twyford were soon flushed with success. This meant more and more manure swooshing through the sewers and into the rivers.

In London, matters came to a head in June 1858 when a stiflingly hot spell of weather caused the Great Stink. The flow of the Thames slowed to a fetid trickle; faeces backed up in the pipes. The stink was so bad that Parliament considered leaving the newly-built Palace of Westminster to escape the overpowering smell.

Two men were called in to solve the Great Stink.

Joseph Bazalgette was given £3m to build a sewer network that did not deposit the contents of the capital's bladders into the Thames (he spent well over £20m, but probably saved more lives than any other improver).

Also, madcap inventor Sir Christopher Gurney, of Cornwall, was asked to do something about the smell emanating from the sewers. He attached a pipe to the sewer, strapped it up the side of Big Ben's clock tower and stood at the top with a match.

Fortunately, the sewers were so blocked that very little gas came up his pipe otherwise he would probably have sent Big Ben into orbit around the moon.

When he realised he had caused a couple of small explosions in the sewers, he retreated and stopped being so silly - but he had invented the concept of the sewer ventilation pipe.

"The gas is mainly hydrogen sulphide and it gives that rotten eggs smell, " said Gary Paley, of Darlington, who has been a sewerage engineer for 18 years in Yorkshire. "It usually occurs when sewage is being pumped long distances. It can become septic as it does not travel from A to B quick enough. It can also occur in flat areas where the speed of flow is slower.

"The gas will eat concrete if not dealt with. I remember that the sewer near the racecourse in Thirsk had been almost totally eaten by the gas and just the reinforcing bars from inside the concrete pipes were left. "

So the sewers were vented.

The pipes had to be tall so the noxious fumes escaped way above nose-level, and the Victorians were given a new canvas on which to show off their casting skills.

Some pipes were so plain as not to be worth bothering with - there appears to be a disappointingly unadorned one bolted to the car park wall of Jackson Anderson's accountants in Victoria Avenue, Bishop Auckland.

Lost among the trees in the Dene beside Vine Street, in Darlington, is a pipe with a columned base, although the regal floral patterns of the one in North Lodge Park in the town are more attractive.

Lost completely among the ivy in Woodland Road, there is definitely something that could be a stench pipe, but the ivy clings so tenaciously that it is impossible to prise it off to look at.

Word reaches us of a pipe with a crown on top down by the river in Stanhope, Weardale; someone else asks if the one in the Gaunless Valley village of Woodland is still there. Mr Paley recalls dismantling one in Moor Lane, Newsham, near Richmond, North Yorkshire, and thinks there should be others in Millgate, Gilling West; West End, Middleham;

strapped to Middleham Castle wall behind Manor House Stables, and in Frenchgate, Richmond.

There is apparently one opposite Hutton Henry Village Hall, a couple in Stainton, near Barnard Castle, but not for the life of me could I see the one that is supposed to be near St Nicholas' Church, in Durham market place.

The best of them all may well be in Richmond Road, Stockton, among the big Victorian houses at the back of Ropner Park.

It has a classic Victorian Gothic feel to it, with a lantern at the top, a number of artistic columns and flutes down the sides, all manner of castings on the bottom, a couple of little doors, and the maker's name disappearing into the tarmac: A Williams &Co, Southwark. It's a beauty of a stink pipe.

Its kind, though, are now obsolete primarily because every house nowadays has to have its vent pipe positioned discretely amid its plumbing, although Don Whitfield, of Darlington, remembers one being installed in Kirklevington, near Yarm, as recently as 1958.

Any spottings or sitings or details of stink poles would be most welcome.

Historic postcards throw open a hunt for information

Two postcards turned up recently in a sale (see pictures at top of page). Can you tell anything about them or even recognise a face?

The NER engine has the number 1890 on the cab, and on the rear someone has pencilled "Darlington Goods Station", so it presumably shows the longdemolished Hopetown station opposite North Road.

The only information available about the second photograph appears at the bottom, and states : "Northern Echo party 1932".