The “Sewer King” of London

“From inhaling the odour of beef the butcher’s wife obtains her obesity.”

In the nineteenth century, the miasmic theory — the belief that disease spread through the air — was prevalent in everyday thought. It was for this reason that citizens of London believed that the recent cholera epidemics originated from the contaminated air. Their assumptions weren’t far off from the truth. Truly, the air of London at the time was putrid: sewage and human waste laid claim to every street and city corner, filling the city with an almost unbearable stench.

The focus on the air quality, however, detracted attention from the River Thames, the true source of the cholera epidemics.

The Thames river in the 1800s was the main source of drinking water for Londoners; practically every resident drew water from pipes connected to it. Unfortunately, the water was polluted, which allowed water-born diseases like cholera to rapidly spread.

Up until the nineteenth century, human waste was disposed of in two different ways. The first method was to temporarily store the waste in cesspools, containment units dug into the ground, which often overflowed and leached into the water supply. The second method was to dispose of the waste directly through the sewer systems, which emptied directly into the river. Both of these systems greatly contributed to the gradual pollution of the Thames.

The quality of the river water drastically declined to the point that scientist Michael Faraday remarked that “the whole river was for the time a real sewer” in 1855. To prove his statement, Faraday performed a test where he dropped a white sheet of paper at every pier where his boat stopped. When the paper hit the surface of the Thames, he measured the depth at which the paper became indistinguishable from the water. To no one’s surprise, the white slips quickly disappeared under the sewage of the Thames, only an inch from the surface.

Satirical cartoon from Punch Magazine in 1855

During the months of July to August in 1858, the hot weather exacerbated the stench of rotting sewage until it grew to an almost unbearable level. This event, called the Great Stink, would push parliament to seek solutions that would conquer the stench. At the height of the Great Stink, parliament passed the Metropolis Local Management Amendment Bill which gave the Metropolitan Board of Works the responsibility to clean up the Thames.

The Board’s chief engineer Joseph Bazalgette, an Englishman known for his sharp eye to detail, pushed forth a plan to redesign the sewage systems. Bazalgette drew up two systems of pipes, one for the north and one for the south side of the Thames. These two systems would eventually meet up at outfall reservoirs far from the city, where the sewage would be held until it could be disposed of at high tide.

Portrait of Joseph Bazalgette in the 1870s

The construction of these sewers alone was a massive feat. The sewers-in-progress often crossed busy streets, railroads, and bridges. To avoid construction in congested areas of the city, embankments were built to make room for the lower sewer pipes of the Northern drainage system. The embankments themselves claimed over 52 acres of land back from the Thames for parks, roads, and other works. The newly constructed banks also narrowed the width of the river so that the Thames could flow and cleanse itself quickly.

The sewers were also lined with durable Staffordshire Blues bricks and Portland cement, which was stronger than regular cement but failed under extreme heat. Aware of this fault, Bazalgette performed a meticulous quality control check on every batch of cement. His use of Portland cement would later motivate the construction industry to change their standard to that cement as well.

Initially projected to be worth £2.4 million, the final construction cost was £6.5 million, with over 318 million bricks and 880,000 cubic yards worth of concrete used. However, the expenses would prove its worth in the end.

In 1866, another outbreak of cholera sprung up in East London, one of the only parts of the city yet to be connected to Bazalgette’s sewers, killing 5,596 people. Had the sewer systems not been built, many more Londoners would have perished.

Satirical cartoon from Punch Magazine in 1865

With the sewers completion in 1875, Bazalgette was knighted for his accomplishments. After his retirement as chief engineer for the Metropolitan Board of Works, he continued to be active in the area; Bazalgette was called in multiple times as an expert witness to determine the feasibility of future construction projects. He would continue to have a hand in civil engineering until his death in 1891.

As historian John Doxat described Joseph Bazalgette, “this superb and far sighted engineer probably did more good, and saved more lives, than any single Victorian public official.” To put it simply, Joseph Bazalgette was a hero, and his unprecedented work on the sewers saved thousands of lives.