Thames Water, the authority responsible forLondon’s water and sewage system, is currently building a massive new ‘Super Sewer’ known as “Tideway”. Approximately 25km in length and due for completion in 2024, this project is being undertaken to prevent the release of thousands of tons of untreated sewage into the River Thames on a daily basis. This contemporary, complex and sometimes controversial civil engineering project is a reminder of the birth of London’s sewage system, designed by Joseph Bazalgette, born two centuries ago last month.
Portrait of Sir Joseph Bazalgette. Credit: Wellcome Collection. CC BY.
161 years ago Victorian MPs were busy arguing and prevaricating over the cost and necessity (or not) of building and funding a proper purpose-built sewer system, designed by Bazalgette. They rapidly ceased all opposition to the project during the long hot summer of 1858 when low tides meant that huge quantities of untreated sewage that normally ran into the Thames were deposited on the river’s foreshores. The resulting appalling smell became known as “The Great Stink”. Believing, as most did at that time, that bad smells spread disease, MPs had to hang sheets soaked in carbolic against the windows in the Palace of Westminster to stop the suffocating stench. Before finally leaving The House ‘en masse’ the MPs quickly voted in the necessary funding for Joseph Bazalgette’s brilliantly conceived sewer system. It consisted of “intercepting sewers”, pumping stations and treatment works that are still being used today thanks to the high quality brick-lined tunnels and the use of durable Portland cement.
Civil engineering: construction drawings for the Thames Embankment. Coloured drawing, 1865, after Sir J. Bazalgette. Credit: Wellcome Collection. CC BY.
Bazalgette was a brilliant engineer, who started his career working on various railway projects. He was responsible not only for the London Sewer System but also for the Thames Embankment, and numerous major roads in London such as Shaftesbury Avenue and Northumberland Avenue. He strengthened or rebuilt 12 bridges over the Thames and freed them from tolls. He also engineered the Blackwall Tunnel and the Woolwich Ferry, and important parks such as Clissold Park, Finsbury Park and Victoria Park “the green lung of East London”.
However, it is Bazalgette’s sewer system for which he is probably most famous. He designed it anticipating a population increase in London from 2 million to 4 million – extremely far-sighted for the time. Given that the current population of London is approximately 8.5 million, no wonder a ‘Super Sewer’ is needed to provide for the increased strain on the system. More important than saving Londoners from a further ‘Great Stink’, Bazalgette’s work played a critical role in saving the lives of many thousands from deadly water-borne infections such as cholera. For this, he deserves to be remembered.
- Stephen Halliday,The Great Stink of London: Sir Joseph Bazalgette and the Cleansing of the Victorian Metropolis(Sutton Publishing: Gloucestershire, 1999).
- ‘Tideway – Reconnecting London with the River Thames,’ accessed 30/3/19, available at: https://www.tideway.london.
- ‘Thames Water,’ accessed 30/3/19, available at: https://www.thameswater.co.uk/