Typhoid Epidemic

As described in Lord Goodman's autobiography

"Tell them I'm on my Way"


The only spectacular case in which I was involved, which became a leading case and is to be found in all textbooks, was Reed v. the Croydon Corporation in 1938, a test case against the Corporation to determine their responsibility or otherwise for a typhoid epidemic. 

The outbreak was very serious and a government commission was set up with a KC, Mr Harold Murphy, to investigate the reasons for it. He published a report which disclosed reasons which turned out, in the course of further investigations when I became involved, to be some way removed from the facts.

A great many people succumbed to the epidemic in Croydon. There were few if any deaths, but a number of people were seriously ill. We were consulted by a friend of Roy Kisch [Goodman’s employer], one Mr Arthur Reed, the secretary of a successful company, whose daughter had caught typhoid and had been seriously ill, with grave fears for her life. Happily in the end she did live, but she was one of the considerable number of people who sought damages from the Croydon Corporation because of their responsibility for the outbreak. Needless to say, this young lady acted through her father. She was the only victim we represented, but when I had read the report of the Inspector, and had read some other comments and conclusions on the matter, I decided that the responsibility was inescapable. It was a bold decision, but enabled me to issue the first writ against the Corporation. As a result, when a test case came to be selected, it was inevitable that it should issue from the first writ. I, then a young and inexperienced lawyer, had the responsibility of running this important case on behalf of a great number of people. 

The cause of the outbreak was the culmination of a tragic set of circumstances. When the matter had been thoroughly investigated by the various experts I called in, who were geologists, pathologists and the like, the facts that emerged were extremely discreditable to the Corporation. Within the course of a few days the Medical Officer of Health had gone on leave and his deputy had not appreciated that there should have been daily analysis of the water that was being supplied from the Addington Well to the main reservoir. In consequence it was some weeks before it was discovered that the bacillus E. coli, which was, as it were, the pilot fish advertising the presence of the typhoid bacillus, existed in the water.  

In the same week the Chief Engineer was on leave, and his deputy, with innocent inexperience, had decided that it was necessary to repair certain piping. It was not, however, appreciated that repairing the piping would involve using an alternative system that bypassed the chlorinating plant, so the infected water was being fed to the public unchlorinated and untreated. 

At that precise moment a further risk to the safety of the water supply was the need to effect repairs to an adit (a channel) in the Addington Well. For that purpose it was necessary for workmen to be lowered down the well to the entrance to the adit and thereafter to proceed some hundreds of yards along the channel to the point where the repairs were needed. A team of Council employees was used to carry out the work but they were never given a medical examination and it was never suggested hat any enquiry had been made from them about previous illnesses. As it happened an enquiry would indeed have been worthless, however honest their response. The particular workman responsible for the infection was what is known as a parasitic carrier. That is to say, he had in fact had a typhoid infection but had never been conscious of it.  

In consequence a dangerous carrier was unbeknown to anyone admitted into the water supply in circumstances where he was working at such a distance from the surface that it was almost inevitable that when he felt the urge of nature he would relieve himself on the spot and without coming up. This danger would have been neutralised by the chlorination process had it been in operation. The combination of these unfortunate circumstances resulted in an epidemic that caused some hundreds of illnesses — many very severe. 

The problem that confronted me was that all the clients came from middle-class backgrounds and that no single one could possibly afford the risk of litigation against the Council. Arrangements were made for modest contributions from each of them. I was satisfied that the outcome of the litigation must be a judgment in their favour, but it was necessary at least to ensure the disbursements, including counsels' fees.  

It was in the Croydon case that I first encountered Sir Walter Monckton, KC, one of the great advocates of his day. He was a man who created an outstanding impression from his very first appearance. The public came to know him in later years as the trusted and special adviser of the Duke of Windsor; he negotiated the Duke's abdication terms and I believe that the Duke remained close to him until Monckton's death. In the Croydon case he made the very best of an immensely difficult task; so much so that there were times during the case when I had a real fear that he would persuade the judge to a wrong result. Happily the judge, Mr Justice Stable, himself engaged in his very first piece of litigation as a judge, arrived at the correct conclusion and gave a judgment against which the Council wisely decided not to appeal.  There was one Controversial aspect where I still believe the judge erred. My client - the parent of a girl who had contracted typhoid - very wisely moved the rest of his family out of the infected area and took accommodation in the Langham Hotel, now rebuilt. The judge ruled that this was an unnecessary precaution and would not allow him the expenses involved. I believe that today, with a greater knowledge of the ferocity of such epidemics, a judge might well arrive at a different conclusion. 

The preliminaries to the case had some interesting aspects. When it was clear that the plaintiffs would lack sufficient resources to conduct the case without financial risk, I made an application which in its impertinence must have been both novel and without precedent. I asked if I might meet the Croydon Corporation and invite them to finance my client in his daughter's case against them. I was treated with great courtesy and invited to a meeting of the committee concerned. They listened attentively to my request, which was based on the argument that it was imperative that the issue should be determined and that it might only be possible to determine it if funds were made available. I had the satisfaction at least of causing them to debate the matter for a good half-hour before they decided and I can make no complaint that it was not really their function to finance attacks on them.


To return to the Glossary click here.

To return to the Gowlland Family home page, click here.