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Waterton’s War

By the standards of his time, Sir Charles Waterton was a most unusual man.  Naturalist, explorer, conservationist and author– his passion for nature and travel took him from his home, Walton Hall in Yorkshire, to Europe and the Americas. In addition, as a pioneer environmentalist, he fought one of the earliest battles against industrial pollution.  

Born in 1782, Waterton attended Stonyhurst College before completing his education abroad. He then began what he called “Wanderings” in the Americas where he recorded the local flora and fauna and hunted specimens to take back to Walton.  Over time, he amassed a large collection for which he developed new a method of taxidermy.  Many of the specimens are still in excellent condition, housed in Wakefield Museum.  

In 1813, returning from his travels, Waterton appears to have experienced an epiphany in his relationship with wildlife.  He began to turn the park around Walton Hall into a wildlife reserve, permitting no hunting and excluding no animal except the fox and badger.  

Waterton nursed the old trees on his estate, keeping them standing when most would have felled them.  He planted holly hedges and ivy for nesting sites.  Wildfowl were enticed back to the lake surrounding the Hall.  He railed at his neighbours for killing dwindling species of birds. He started his most ambitious project - building a high wall around the park to create a sanctuary not only for wildlife but also for himself.  

He states in one of his essays, “having suffered myself and learned mercy, I broke in pieces the penal laws which the knavery of the gamekeeper and the lamentable ignorance of other servants had hitherto put in force”.

If Waterton thought he could now lead a settled life, he had a rude awakening. He was already aware of the impact of growing industrialisation in the country but events brought it right to his doorstep.  Adjoining his estate was Walton Soap Works, owned by William Hodgson and Edward Simpson.  Soap manufacture, one of Victorian England’s growth industries, used particularly noxious chemicals that generated harmful pollutants and by-products.  Waterton had co-existed peacefully with his neighbours - a peace based on a gentleman’s agreement to refrain from manufacturing the actual chemicals required to make soap - a practice that made production cheaper.  However, growing consumer demand proved hard to resist.  Hodgson and Simpson reneged on the agreement.

When Hodgson died in 1840, Simpson took over entirely and 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 and oozed into nearby watercourses. Crops failed and livestock sickened.  Even the men at the 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, starting the first of three legal campaigns against “soapy” Simpson.  This was to be no gentlemanly conflict.  Simpson was a formidable enemy.  The soap works made him a wealthy man.  He had gained respectability, becoming a local councillor, a partner in a bank and a property owner.


As a prelude to the court case, a bitter exchange of letters took place in the press.  Waterton played on fears about the changes that the tide of industrialisation was bringing.  Simpson did not attempt to defend himself.  He was astute enough to know it was fruitless to deny, directly, the claims made against him. Instead, he used personal attacks and ridicule to undermine Waterton’s credibility.

When the case came to court, it was referred to arbitration.  In the following months, Waterton suffered volleys of personal abuse together with random acts of violence to property and livestock.  

At the eventual hearing in 1848, Waterton gave detailed evidence of the damage caused and Simpson wheeled in expert witnesses ready to attribute the damage to natural causes.  The verdict was double-edged.  Simpson was found guilty of negligence and given a warning.  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 later Waterton launched his second attack.  He presented an even greater quantity of evidence and Simpson brought in an even greater squad of witnesses (who received suspiciously high expenses for their trouble) to deny the works were harmful or polluting.  This time, the arbitrator merely warned Simpson to maintain high safety standards.

In the final battle of 1850, Waterton took a more subtle approach.  Perhaps he learned a few tricks from his adversary. He discovered that Simpson wanted to expand his works and Waterton’s sister-in-law, “by chance” owned a house with land away from Walton.  How she came to do this is unclear.  Possibly Waterton bought it secretly, with a view to inducing Simpson to leave.  Waterton offered terms – the land and house in exchange for the complete closure of the Walton Soap Works.  Simpson accepted the terms and paid all legal costs.    

It was a Pyrrhic victory for Waterton.  He lost trees, hedges, birds and other wildlife. Pollution fouled his lake and watercourses. He spent considerable time and money on the lawsuits. His health suffered.  Yet Simpson prospered, merely taking his work and pollution elsewhere.

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 estate to none other than the son of Waterton’s bitter enemy, “soapy” Simpson.  


Today, part of Waterton’s 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…”

First Published in the Yorkshire Dalesman