Home life: House Doctor

LET'S FACE it, we can all have an off-day. Sometimes you just don't feel like it. You've been working all week and it's 4.40pm on the Friday and all you're thinking about is that first beer hitting the back of your throat. Unexpected emergencies on the work front are not on my list of Favourite-Things. So, when a problem crops up, what do you do? Why, cover it up, of course.

That is what happened in August 1869 in South Hackney, an up-and-coming dormitory area that was only two miles from the City of London. At the time, the second railway boom was creating a demand for middle-class housing, and the farmland between the villages was being filled up, first with ribbon developments along the existing roads, and then with an infill gridwork of streets in all the remaining spaces.

On one particular Friday afternoon, two groundworkers, whose names were probably Bill and Charlie (I'm guessing here, but most people were named after the royal family then), had the task of fitting a salt-glazed yard gulley to drain the surface water away from the front of a new four-storey terraced house. The drainage pipe was already in place, sloping nicely down towards the manhole under the path, and Bill had the gulley - a huge brown speckled thing with an unwieldy "S" trap (a U-bend with a downward outflow) - sticking out of one side. The only thing missing was the elbow - the right-angle bend to connect the gulley to the drain. So what did they do? They stuck the gulley straight into the ground and covered it over with earth and went down the pub. And, if the truth be told, who could blame them?

Bill and Charlie's conspiracy remained undetected until 1999 when I decided to investigate why that front yard gulley never seemed to drain away. I'd tried all the usual things : up-to-my-armpit digging out of leaves and silt, poking it crossly with a stick, pouring industrial-sized bags of Draino down. No result. Blocked solid.

Eventually I decided drastic action was the only option. I prised up the York stone slabs, shovelled away the soil and found that, yes, Victorian builders were not always the bunch of conscientious artisans we've come to revere, but sometimes took a few liberties. Bill and Charlie had never connected the yard gulley up to the drain, so for 130 years the surface water had all been soaking into the ground right next to the front wall of the house, saturating the soil and seeping into the footings.

But surely a trained surveyor would be able to spot that sort of thing? Well, no, as it happens. There have been seven mortgage valuation surveys done on that house since 1968, and none of the surveyors involved ever thought to check checked to see if the yard gulleys were draining away.

Instead, they all said the front wall might have rising damp, and recommended further investigation by damp-proofing companies. So, did the damp-proofers ever check to see if the yard gulley was draining away?

Well, no, funnily enough they didn't. What they said was that the damp- proof course had failed, and that the solution was to squirt some chemicals into the wall.

I don't bear any grudge against Bill and Charlie; I really don't. But, since I discovered their little secret, I can't help wondering what they would have thought of their modern counterparts - the damp-proofers Darren and Jason. Because, whatever the similarities, these boys were definitely not named after royalty.

`Struck Off - The First Year of Doctor on the House' by Jeff Howell is available from Nosecone Publications, PO Box 24650, London E9 7XQ, price pounds 9 inc postage.