The Sewer King
Category All History
Series Title Seven Wonders of the Industrial World
Episode 4
Duration 50 minutes
Product Code 23430
Broadcast Year 2003
Price £195.00

Under Siege By The 'Great Stink'

In the hot summer of 1858 Britain’s parliament ground to a halt, unable to cope with the stench of London’s decaying sewage in what became known as the ‘Great Stink’. Despite rapid expansion London’s sanitation crisis had been literally building up on its doorstep, as sewage ran down the walls or seeped through the floors of poorer housing. 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. Cesspools were drained away from housing and into the Thames, unwittingly poisoning the city’s drinking water.  

Joseph Bazalgette Proposes A Solution

As the grotesque smell from the Thames brought London to crisis point, the level-headed 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 and London had to be redesigned to accommodate the vast scale of his plan.  

Sewer Success, But What About Cholera?

At the same time, John Snow, was slowly piecing together clues to the cause of cholera in his small surgery in Soho, but nobody believed him. This scientific detective story entwines with an epic tale of Victorian construction.  

In 1865, with the first phase of the sewers completed, Bazalgette celebrated. The success was short lived for cholera was to strike a further deadly blow. Eventually Snow’s detective work highlighted the cause of the epidemic. 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 episode 4 of the 4-part series Seven Wonders of the Industrial World, a series of history teaching resources looking at the development of iconic industrial engineering works.

 

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