Transforming London’s sewers

1858–1875

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(Picture: Bridgeman Images)

 

In the years leading up to the ‘Great Stink’ and the publication of this cartoon, the Thames had become ever more polluted as increasing quantities of industrial and human waste flowed into it.

 

From the beginning of June 1858, the weather in London turned unusually hot, the water level of the Thames fell, and waste emerging from sewers such as the Fleet River piled up on the banks, creating an unbearably foul smell. In the newly constructed Palace of Westminster, MPs assailed by the so-called ‘Great Stink’ could hardly bear to sit – and finally, as an article in The Times of 18 June observed, ‘Parliament was all but compelled to legislate upon the great London nuisance by the force of sheer stench’.

 

Concerns about the capital’s water supply and drainage had grown over the early decades of the 19th century, particularly following the arrival of cholera in 1831. That first outbreak killed 6,536 people in the capital, and a second in 1848–9 claimed the lives of more than 14,000 Londoners. At that time, before scientists established that such water-borne diseases were caused by bacteria, it was widely believed that cholera was a product of ‘miasma’ – bad air. And the air around the Thames had become very bad indeed.

 

In 1855, a new body was created to provide the infrastructure needed for the growing capital, including sewers: the Metropolitan Board of Works (MBW). From its foundation, the MBW knew that a radical upgrade of the sewer network was urgently required. Many schemes were submitted to the board but all were rejected as either impractical or too expensive.

 

Joseph Bazalgette, who had worked with the Commission of Sewers since 1849, was appointed Chief Engineer of the new Board. He devised improved plans for intercepting sewers, though these were not immediately approved. Then the ‘Great Stink’ hit, and parliament acted rapidly. In August 1858, a loan of £3 million was approved for work to begin the following year.

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(Picture: © London Metropolitan Archives/Bridgeman Images)

 

The ambitious sewerage network shown in this map, designed and built under Bazalgette’s supervision from 1859, transformed London’s sanitation and riverside profile. 

 

The illustration below depicts the construction of the high-level sewer at Peckham in 1861, part of a long and complex project that took well over a decade. By 1875, the intercepting sewers were completed, together with the Victoria, Chelsea and Albert Embankments beneath which they ran alongside underground railway lines and gas pipelines. Also constructed were the great pumping engines at Abbey Mills on the north bank, releasing sewage into the Thames at Beckton, and Crossness, the magnificent ‘industrial cathedral’ at the southern outfall on the Erith Marshes.

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(Picture: Chronicle/Alamy)

 

Though the new network greatly improved sanitation in the capital, sewage wasn’t treated but simply discharged raw into the Thames, albeit several miles downstream from Westminster and the City of London. The dangers of this were exposed on 3 September 1878 when SS Princess Alice, a pleasure boat carrying hundreds of day-tripping passengers, sank downstream of the outfalls. More than 600 passengers died; of 130 survivors pulled from the Thames, at least 16 later perished, having ingesting the foul water. As a result of the public enquiry into the incident, from 1888 solid waste was separated from the sewage and transported downstream on ‘sludge’ boats to be dumped out at sea.

 

The work of dealing with London's human waste continues with the construction of a new 25km super sewer – the Thames Tideway project.

 

Discover more about Bazalgette’s achievements at Crossness Engines in southeast London.