Of all the great engineering feats of the Victorian age, the construction of the London sewers, and those in the other overcrowded cities of the industrial boom, must rank as one of the most important.
At a stroke waterborne diseases, particularly cholera and typhoid - the scourges of the urban population - were all but eradicated. The ingenious system of sewers installed in the capital, the first of the great sanitation projects, was the work of one of the century’s greatest engineers: Sir Joseph Bazalgette.
By 1800, the capital's population had topped one million and the cesspits installed after the Great Fire of 1666 often overflowed into the streets. Early in the Victorian age new sewers were built by property developers, but the system was so random and uncoordinated that the Thames and its tributaries became the only major disposal routes. So foul did the river become that by the middle of the century it was described as a 'Stygian Lake'.
The “nightsoil men” who collected excrement for use as fertiliser, had been losing their jobs since 1847 when guano started to be imported from South America.
By 1850, the sewage generated by 2.5 million Londoners was simply dumped in the streets. Most of it found its way into the river. Flushing lavatories, introduced in 1810, added to the Thames’ pollution and to the smell. Worse, some people still drank the water.
In the mid-19th century, London suffered four cholera outbreaks, one of which had spread from Newcastle. In a nationwide epidemic in 1848-1849, 60,000 died. Despite the evidence, the connection between clean drinking water and health was denied by many reformers. The theory of airborne infection still prevailed, with high-profile figures including Florence Nightingale believing that all diseases came from the atmosphere.
But the Government was eventually compelled to take action, creating the Metropolitan Commission of Sewers. Bazalgette was appointed as the commission’s chief engineer in 1853.
The fear of financial problems and bickering among consultants working on the project held back progress. It was only in the hot summer of 1858, during the “Great Stink” when the stench from the Thames forced Parliament to rise, that the Government approved Bazalgette’s ingenious scheme. He designed a grand system of intercepting sewers that carried foul water to new pumping stations and holding tanks, and the embankments needed to make the river cleaner. It was compared with the public works of Rome and Babylon. Some 82 miles of sewers were constructed.
The Victoria Embankment, between Westminster Bridge and Blackfriars, was constructed as a vehicle for accommodating the low-level sewer he built to the north of the Thames. It remains in use after more than 130 years, as does his treatment works at Beckton, the largest in Europe. The Fleet, before a filthy conduit of sewage, became a river again and still flows under the city’s streets. Fish returned to parts of the Thames that were once the most polluted, and flounders were caught at Westminster.
Abbey Mills pumping station, in Stratford, East London, built in 1865-1868, was the grandest overground structure of Bazalgette’s scheme and it too is still in use today. It housed eight beam engines with 28 ft. flywheels, and boasted two huge chimney stacks until the Second World War.
Now Grade II listed and owned by Thames Water, it is currently undergoing renovation and has been earmarked as an important site in a recent report by the Royal Commission on the Historical Monuments of England.
Over the next 30 years, sewers were built in the other great cities, including Newcastle, Manchester, Liverpool and Bristol. Between 1850 and 1900, the number of deaths from cholera and typhoid decreased 500-fold. By 1893, only 135 deaths were recorded for cholera, and fewer than 100 for typhoid.
Sir Alexander Macara, the former Chairman of Council at the British Medical Association, and an expert in public health said: “Bazalgette’s work, and the building of sewers in other cities, was of incomparable importance. One would go as far to say that our pre-eminence as a commercial trading and world power could not have been maintained in the last half of the 19th century but for the sanitary revolution.”This article first appeared in 'The Times' on 4th August 1999 as part of its 'A Millennium Of Britain' series.