My ‘culture’ topic for this week could be viewed as a load of crap (which no doubt, some think all of my postings are) – as the theme relates to the London sewer system that was designed and constructed in the late 1800’s by a remarkable, yet unassuming man by the name of “Joseph Bazalgette”.
Joseph Bazalgette was born in Enfield in 1819 and was of French protestant ancestry.
He was trained as an engineer and in his early adult life he worked on railway projects, particularly the expansion of the early development of the London underground network – where he gained first-hand experience of land drainage and reclamation – to the extent that he set-up his own consultancy business in 1842.
At that time, all of London’s limited and inadequate sewage systems were independently owned and maintained by each individual borough – however, two major incidents forced a change in how sewage in the ‘smoke’ was to be managed. Firstly the great cholera outbreak of 1853, which claimed the lives of some 10,000 Londoners, and then the ‘Great Stink’ of 1858, where the smell from the Thames was so bad, that even Parliament had to close down and reconvene in Oxfordshire!!!
The problem was that raw industrial and human sewage outflows were simply poured into the Thames with no treatment whatsoever.
With the formation of one overall sewage company to manage the crisis, Joseph Bazalgette was appointed to design, construct and implement a completely new sewage system.
Bazalgette’s proposal was to construct 82 miles of underground brick sewage tunnels to intercept the main sewage outflows – plus another 1000 miles of pipework to transport the sewage to 4 new major pumping stations at Crossness, Deptford south of the river, and Battersea and the Lea Valley to the north of the river, for filtering and treatment. The plan was for all the main pipework to run alongside the Thames, rather than cause too much disturbance and destruction to existing buildings.
To accommodate this extensive tunnel and pipework, Bazalgette designed and constructed the Victoria, the Chelsea and the Albert Embankments – and he also designed and constructed new roads within the City, such as Shaftesbury Avenue, Charing Cross Road, Garrick Street and Northumberland Avenue, under which some of the main pipework would operate.
To establish how big in diameter the sewage tunnels needed to be to carry all this effluent, Bazalgette came up with an ingenious idea. He firstly conducted a survey of 1000 Londoner’s to obtain an idea of how much they ‘pooed’ out per day – then armed with that figure, he multiplied that by the current number of citizens residing in London. As if that wasn’t enough, by reviewing the stats on how the population of the ‘smoke’ had increased during the previous 5 years, he had the ingenuity to estimate how big the main sewage tunnels would have to be, to accommodate future generations – (mainly for the purpose of keeping future maintenance and obviously costs to a minimum)……….and it is due to his genius and foresight, that the sewage system implemented by Bazalgette all those years ago, didn’t need to be upgraded until the late 1960’s!!!
From a perspective of the health of Londoner’s, the unintended consequence of Bazalgettes sewage network was to almost completely eliminate common deadly diseases such as cholera and typhoid.
Bazalgette was so thorough in his work that twice a year he would personally inspect all the major joins/junctions in the tunnels and pipework – and paper records of his sign-offs still exist.
Not only was Bazalgette king of the sewers – he also designed and commissioned the Woolwich Ferry service (which, incidentally – I went on for the very first time whilst researching this topic), as he anticipated the future need and benefit of such a crossing at that particular juncture of the Thames.
If that wasn’t enough to leave his mark on London, he was also responsible for the design, construction or re-build of Battersea Bridge, Albert Bridge, Putney Bridge and Hammersmith Bridge.
His work was so well received and respected, to the extent that other European countries employed his services as a consultant, to design and oversee similar projects for them.
He was knighted in 1875, and there stands a memorial to him situated on the north side of the Victoria Embankment in acknowledgement of his contribution to London.
Throughout his career, his main residence was in St. John’s Wood, and a blue plaque is displayed on the house where he lived. In later life he moved to Wimbledon, where he eventually died in 1891 and was buried in the churchyard of St. Mary’s church.
So….the next time you take up residence on the khazi, just spare a thought for the genius that was Joseph Bazalgette and the enormous impact his work has had on the everyday lives of London and its citizens.