Recently Aadil Desai, a heritage and history enthusiast from Mumbai in India, sent me an article he thought would interest me. It had been written by a friend of his, Dr Shekhar Krishnan, about a little known Cornish man who pioneered the first ever bio-gas plant in the city in 1901.
The crumbling remains of this once ground-breaking renewable energy source, part of Matunga’s historic Acworth Municipal Hospital for Leprosy, are now being demolished to make way for new medical student accommodation, hence the resurgence of interest in the Indian press. But this is a man that I would guess very few people in Cornwall have ever heard of, I certainly hadn’t, so I thought I would try and rectify that here.
The innovative site which recycled human waste into energy was designed and built by Cornish civil engineer Charles Carkeet James (1863-1942). James grew up at No 10 Boscawen Street in Truro, the eldest of 9 siblings. His father was Silvanus James, a Quaker who ran a grocery shop and flour factory. Charles’ mother was Eliza Jenkins, another Quaker from Swansea, and Silvanus’ parents also had close ties to the famous Fox family of Falmouth. The Cornish Quaker families were well known for being deeply involved in the county’s shipping and mining as well as being a driving force behind major scientific development and innovation.
It is perhaps little surprise then that the young Charles Carkeet James grew up to be fascinated with engineering and began his career on the railways. In 1882 he became a registered engineer on Helston Railway and then the Teign Valley Railway. He also helped with the construction of the North Cornwall Railway in 1884.
James was first contracted to India in 1889 to work on the Tansa Dam, which was to supply water to the ever expanding city of Bombay (now Mumbai). He eventually became a ‘sanitary and drainage expert’ and was particularly fascinated by problems of waste disposal in tropical conditions, where organic matter decomposed rapidly. Krishnan writes:
“His techniques for extracting combustible gas from sewage using airless composting are used in cities across the world today. After coming to Bombay . . . James was deputed by Municipal Commissioner Harry Arbuthnot Acworth to work on the drainage of the new Homeless Leper Asylum in Matunga.”
The Leprosy Hospital was founded through public subscription in 1890 in response to the number destitute lepers begging on the streets of Bombay. It could house around 300 inmates and was built on the site of an old rifle range but had no existing sewage network and unfortunately the colony’s waste soon became a problem. The surrounding villages who were already fearful of the lepers, threatened to file a suit against the commissioner for pollution in 1893.
Commissioner Acworth hired Charles Carkeet James to redesign the system and encouraged him to try out new methods of drainage, purification and recycling.
“By 1895, 20,000 gallons of effluent were purified daily through filters and beds made of lime, coal and burnt brick, then pumped to the low-lying plots south of the asylum, to irrigate an experimental farm.”
Amazingly the farm was soon able to provide not only enough food for the asylum but there was also an excess to sell at market. This, however, was only the beginning of James’ innovation. He next turned his attention to capturing the systems “septic gas” for use as an energy source.
Inspired by a system just patented in Europe by Ducat, James re-fitted three of the septic tanks at the hospital with new bacterial filters. Then after a visit to England, where he observed how heating and lighting could be powered by so called “gasification” of solid waste, he put a galvanised air-tight seal on one of the farm’s septic tanks. The result of this is that the trapped bacteria starts to digest the waste and produces a mix of methane, hydrogen and nitrogen. India’s first bio-gas was harvested by James in 1902 and within a year, his plant was producing more than enough energy for all the needs of the asylum.
“By 1905, bio-gas mantle lamps lit the entire asylum grounds and wards, as well as streets and lanes in Matunga and Wadala — neighbourhoods illuminated much before other parts of the Island City. The gas works drove eight ring stoves for cooking in the hospital kitchen, eliminating the need for firewood. More than a hundred more lepers were admitted to newly constructed “James Wards”, built from the profits of the farm and gas works.”
The farm in Mumbai was a lasting success that continued to yield food and daily exercise for the lepers until the 1960s. By that time leprosy had largely been eradicated across India and the hospital was put to other uses. However Charles Carkeet James’ innovative work was not forgotten as is clear from Krishnan’s fascinating article.
As far as I can establish James did not really return to Cornwall. He continued his career in Egypt where he worked on the drainage systems around Cairo and Alexandria as well as the construction of the Suez Canal. He has the amazing accolade of being one of the last foreigners ever to be knighted by the Ottoman Sultan there.
In later years Charles Carkeet James was the Chief Engineer for the Thames Deep Water Wharf and Railway Scheme, as well as working on the Coventry to Manchester Ship Canal, the London to Brighton Motorway and Midland Motor Way between 1918 an 1921. He died in London in 1942.
- Dr Shekhar Krishnan (@bombayologist) is a social scientist and historian who does research for Greater Mumbai Municipal Corporation (MCGM)
- You can read the full article HERE