In the hot summer of 1858, a window was opened in the Houses of Parliament and Britain’s great government
suddenly ground to a halt. Disraeli and other leading MPs fled from their chambers, overwhelmed by the fearsome stench of decaying sewage. Fleeing ‘the Great Stink’ for the country, MPs realised that they had to deal with the horrors and filth of London’s sanitation that had been literally building up on their doorstep for centuries.
Despite London’s rapid expansion, little had changed since the ‘pissing alleys’ of Tudor times. The poor were worst affected as sewage seeped through the floors of their homes or ran down the walls. Some even scrounged a hopeless living from sewage: the desperate ‘toshers’ and ‘mudlarks’ – as they were known – who sieved through refuse searching for bits of old tin or oyster shells.
Worst of all, although no one yet knew how or why, killer diseases like cholera swept through the city in a series of
epidemics, killing more than 30,000 by the mid 19th Century in London alone. Utterly at a loss, the medical profession added to the problem by supporting the idea that disease spreads though smell. This prompted the reformer, Edwin Chadwick, to call for cesspools to be drained away from houses and into the Thames. Unwittingly, he poisoned the city’s drinking water and sealed the fate of thousands.
Slowly clues to the cause of cholera were being pieced together in a small surgery in Soho. John Snow was the first to crack the causes of cholera – but nobody believed him. It was to take two more devastating epidemics before the medical establishment was prepared even to test his theory.This scientific detective story entwines with an epic tale of Victorian construction. As the grotesque smell from the Thames brought London to crisis point, the level-headed Sewer King Joseph Bazalgette proposed an impossibly ambitious scheme: 318 million bricks would link over 1000 miles of street sewers with 82 miles of sewerage super-highway.
His vision required extraordinary and novel engineering solutions to set the bricks into watertight tunnels and create vast steam pumping engines, installed in gothic cathedrals of engineering, designed to raise the sewage up to surface levels before it could run under gravity into the sea. London had to be redesigned to accommodate the vast scale of his plan. In 1865, with the first phase of the sewers completed, Bazalgette celebrated with the Prince of Wales in barge trip down the Thames as Londoners cheered.
Their success was short lived for cholera was to strike a further deadly blow. On 27 June, 1866 a labourer and his
wife contracted the disease and soon died. Investigators found their sewage had infected the east London Water
Company and unleashed an epidemic that would kill thousands more. After an embarrassing cover up it was found that the Water Company was at fault and not Bazalgette’s magnificent system.
This was the last time cholera ever swept though London, but more importantly, this final epidemic provided the proof the medical establishment needed to accept John Snow’s theory.With cholera now conquered and a sewage system fit for a modern metropolis, Bazalgette was deemed to have saved more lives than any other Victorian official.
The Sewer King is part of a series, Seven Wonders of the Industrial World, which looks at iconic engineering works throughout history.