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Changing Times | The life and times of Ebenezer Prior – Part two

Prior also campaigned for better lighting in the city, but above all, he was agitated beyond measure by the unhygienic state of Chichester.

 

As in so many industrial towns at the time there was no drainage. Water was obtained from pumps or wells, and sewage was deposited in cesspits or buckets which people emptied into the river Lavant.

 

There was, therefore, the great danger at all times of disease from contaminated water. The street pumps provided water that was ‘coffee-coloured’ or ‘stank’, and ‘cesspits overflowed into cellars’.

 

Prior was determined to do all in his power to ensure that Chichester installed a proper drainage system. However, this meant that the cost would fall on the ratepayers, many of whom objected to this, as the main benefit would be to the poor who lived in the most deprived area, and who were not ratepayers. It developed into a long-running battle between what became known as the Drainers Party and the Anti-Drainers.

 

Prior was a champion of the Drainers and this caused him to be up against some bitter enemies, especially Dr Bostock, a doctor and mayor of Chichester for many years. Bostock saw no reason for making improvements to Chichester’s sanitation.

 

In 1889, the anti-drainers trounced Prior’s drainers party, causing the Chichester Observer (November 6, 1889) to comment that ‘the majority of the inhabitants decided that the time for uniting cleanliness with godliness in a cathedral city had not yet arrived.’

 

The whole issue gained national prominence, with critical reports of Chichester’s decision in the Lancet and the British Medical Association. Prior continued to campaign almost daily for the drainage of the city, and in 1890 he won a seat on the city council. He began to win more and more support, for his drainage scheme, but it so infuriated his opponents that they ganged together to defeat his other objectives and it was a mortal blow against his scheme for the Oliver Whitby School.

 

Eventually, Prior’s proposals won the day, and a proper drainage system was built in Chichester. He also took steps to ensure that the waterworks were taken over by the city authorities. However, all this was not in time to prevent an outbreak of disease.

 

During his mayoralty he had to cope with a severe outbreak of typhoid fever. He threw himself with great energy into dealing with the crisis. He visited every house where a case of sickness had been notified with the object of personally investigating the cause.

 

In a short space of time, most of the cases were isolated and an extra staff of efficient nurses engaged. Every Sunday he would visit the hospitals of the city, ‘entering into conversation with the patients and speaking words of consolation to them.’ (The Wool Record, January 29, 1928).

 

So successfully contained was this outbreak that with nearly 120 cases, only two deaths occurred. However, he overtaxed his strength during this trying time and was compelled by medical advice to retire from the council and take a long rest.

 

Throughout all of this, Prior’s Woolstapling business in Tower Street continued to operate, with a staff of about 40 employees. An article in Chichester Views and Reviews in 1896 said ‘Mr Prior is well known for the active interest he takes in the moral as well as the material welfare of the working classes generally, and this is shown especially in the care he takes for the interests of his own employees. On his golden wedding anniversary it is said he gave a gold sovereign to all of his workers’.

 

Being a strong advocate of total abstinence he also shows a practical desire for keeping his men from the public house by providing on the premises the means for them to obtain beverages of a non-alcoholic character.

 

To the rear of the large ground-floor sorting room is a special room equipped with a gas stove, and here the men have the privilege of refreshing themselves with a cup of excellent tea at any time they desire it. However exceptional this may appear, it is quite in keeping with Mr Prior’s well-known public and private character. Ebenezer Prior died in 1927 and the business passed down to his eldest son, Mr John Woods Prior.

 

By Michael Prior, grandson of Ebenezer Prior

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