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Fighting water pollution


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(Picture: Private Collection/Look and Learn/Peter Jackson Collection/Bridgeman Images)


Though cesspits still received huge volumes of London’s human waste, from 1815 households were permitted to discharge waste into sewers that were originally designed only for draining surface water from the city streets, and which flowed into the Thames.


The volume of that discharge only grew as more water closets were installed. Waste from industry also increasingly polluted the river, which provided many Londoners with their water supplies for drinking, washing and cleaning.

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(Picture: Private Collection/Look and Learn/Peter Jackson Collection/Bridgeman Images)


This picture in the Illustrated London News depicts repairs being made to the Fleet Sewer in 1854. By that time, the Fleet River had been covered all the way to its outflow into the Thames, and was one of London’s main sewers – increasingly used to drain human waste from houses across the city.


As the capital’s population boomed, authorities came to recognise the need for better removal of human waste. Though water closets had started to gain a toehold, most still drained into cesspits, as did the predominant privies. By the mid-19th century it was no longer economical to transport human waste out to farms in the countryside. Households were encouraged to connect to sewers to reduce the problems of overflowing and leaking cesspits, and a series of attempts was made to reform the system through legislation.


The Metropolitan Buildings Act of 1844 ruled that new buildings must be connected to the common sewer, where it was close enough. The Nuisances Removal and Diseases Prevention Acts, 1848 and 1849, gave local authorities powers to deal with ‘any foul or offensive ditch, gutter, privy, cesspool or ashpit’ and ‘accumulations of dung, manure, offal, filth or refuse’.


Following the report produced from a Royal Commission in 1847, the following year’s Metropolitan Sewers Act required that any new houses built were to include a water closet or privy, and created the Metropolitan Commission of Sewers. This new body began to investigate the capital’s fragmented and inadequate drainage systems, and also addressed the problem of the many leaking and overflowing cesspits. Within six years, around 30,000 cesspits were removed, with household waste flowing instead into the river.

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(Picture: Wellcome Collection. Attribution 4.0 International (CC BY 4.0))


Whether it emanated from overflowing cesspits or stinking rivers, the smell of all this waste wasn’t just unpleasant – at that time, it was widely believed that ‘miasma’ or ‘bad air’ was responsible for diseases such as cholera, which first afflicted London in 1831. And, as this cartoon of ‘Monster Soup commonly called Thames Water’ drawn by William Heath in 1828 shows, the awful state of London’s water was well known by the mid-19th century.


London wasn’t alone in tackling problems with waste removal and drainage. From 1847, Liverpool was the first British city to install a major sewer system, devised by the innovative engineer James Newlands; initially it struggled to function properly because of inconsistent supplies of the water required to flush the sewers. In other areas, dry privies were promoted as a more appropriate solution.


Wherever authorities tackled the challenge of safely removing human waste through a water-based system, they had to address three key issues: ensuring an adequate water supply, installing a comprehensive sewer network, and establishing where and how to dispose of the waste it carried. Until those conundrums could be solved, installing more water closets would simply add to the problems.

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