Sewers, home to fatbergs, Ninja Turtles, discarded pet alligators and CHUDs. Not often talked about with reverence, respect or at the dinner table, sewage systems may well be the unsung heroes of modern civilisation.
Allow me to explain.
In the mid 1800s, London was literally in the sh*t. The existing sewage system of London was only built to re-route storm water not to transport waste water from the homes and hovels of the city.
When those who could afford it installed new fangled ‘ water closets’ in their homes, every exciting new flush carried their crapola straight to the basement.
Or, more specifically, to a cesspit under the floor.
Cess pits were brick lined tanks that collected waste and were cleared by “night men” every 6 months. Unfortunately, they weren’t designed to cope with water closets or the increasingly overcrowded communal privies of the slums and they began to overflow.
Sewage and human waste soon began to seep through floorboards and contaminate the homes, gardens, streets and drinking water (which at that time was drawn from wells) of London.
Oh, and in case you were curious, waste cleared from cesspits was dumped straight into the Thames, where locals bathed, swam and washed their clothes.
Even smaller rivers in the city such as the Fleet and the Tyburn were, according to historians, “little more than open sewers”.
These factors, combined with the rising heat of summer lead to an outbreak of Cholera (the city’s second) that would kill 10,000 Londoners. Unfortunately, the connection between drinking dirty water, hygiene and diseases like Cholera and Typhoid was not yet widely accepted or believed. Diseases were thought to be transmitted via “miasma”, or unpleasant smells and vapours.
By 1858, the stench from the Thames, dubbed The Great Stink, had become so unbearable that Parliament disbanded and those who could afford it left the city.
Meanwhile, those citizens without country homes (ie. everyone else) were left to choke on it.
As is so often the case in history, the problem only began to be seriously addressed when it inconvenienced the rich and powerful. When the Summer of Stink became too much for those working in the Houses of Parliament (conveniently located right by the Thames) a bill was rushed through Parliament and work began on the London Sewers.
Masterminded by Joseph Bazalgette, the London sewer system was a network of drains, pipes and sewers designed to connect to the existing infrastructure. The system would pump the filth and foulness through thousands of miles of brick lined tunnels constructed under the city to the mouth of the Thames.
So, while not perfect, this was an huge improvement and a giant step towards improved public health.
The London Sewers were so revolutionary and such an engineering marvel that they were officially opened in 1865 by Edward, The Prince of Wales.
Interestingly, I read an article that said they were supposed to have been opened by Queen Victoria herself but she was sick that day and couldn’t perform the honour in person.
Furthermore, sections of the system, such as the pump station engines, were even named after members of the Royal Family.
While not unfamiliar with having their names on public structures and even with the knowledge that it was going to improve health and benefit the city of London enormously, I still wonder how the Royals felt about having parts of a sewage system named after them.
Resources and Further Reading:
[…] to visit. Not because I’m a fan of toilet humour, (my interest in the excremental is purely historical), but because I really love quirk and a museum dedicated to all things scatological, in the middle […]