Precipitated at last by the so-called ‘Great Stink’ of 1858, Sir Joseph Bazalgette’s subterranean sewer system was a remarkable feat of engineering and made radical new inroads in improving the health on Londoners during the Victorian age.
The state of the River Thames – basically an open sewer – and the city’s water supplies had become a growing cause for concern as the population of the city – and the amount of waste they produced – increased.
Not surprisingly in the mid-1800s this led to outbreaks of cholera which killed tens of thousands (the outbreaks were generally attributed to a miasma in the air until the work of Dr John Snow eventually proved otherwise – see our earlier entry on the Dr John Snow pub here for more). But it wasn’t until the hot summer of 1858 that – unable to escape the stink of the river under their noses at Westminster – politicians decided something had to be done.
Bazalgette (depicted right in a monument at Victoria Embankment) was chief engineer at the newly formed Metropolitan Board of Works (he was appointed in 1856) when legislation was passed which paved the way for the board to create a sewer system underneath London’s streets to serve the growing metropolis. He designed an ingenious system in which the flow from existing sewers and underground rivers was intercepted before it could reach the river and diverted along new low level sewers to treatment works.
All up, the £4.2 million project involved the construction of 1,100 miles of street sewers and five major brick-walled sewer tunnels which ran for some 82 miles along the banks of the Thames and were large enough to cope with the rising demand as the city grew. It also meant the creation of several massive embankments along the river, narrowing the Thames as land was reclaimed from the river.
The work proceeded apace and much of the system was completed by 1866 (it was officially declared open by Edward, the Prince of Wales in 1865). The Victoria and Albert Embankments – located on the northern and southern banks of the Thames respectively – were both open by 1870 and the Chelsea Embankment further upriver was completed in the mid-1870s. Bazalgette was knighted for his efforts in 1875.
The system, which also featured a series of ornately decorated pumping houses, has since been considerably extended and upgraded but at its heart is still that which was created by Sir Joseph and his team.
For more on the creation of Bazalgette’s sewer system, try Stephen Halliday’s The Great Stink of London: Sir Joseph Bazalgette and the Cleansing of the Victorian Metropolis. For a mystery set against the backdrop of London in the mid-1800s, check out Clare Clark’s novel The Great Stink.