Sunday, 28 July 2019

The Streets of Old Westminster: The Victoria Embankment - Sanitation and Underground Railways

A visitor to London, exploring the City of Westminster, and having walked along The Strand, can walk through Victoria Embankment Gardens from York Water Gate, and cross the A3211 onto the riverside. We are here immersed in a cityscape in the strictest sense: nothing about the Thames here is "natural," apart from the water itself; in fact, it is very largely the work of one man, Joseph Bazalgette (1819-91), whose monument is to be found here.

The Victoria Embankment in c 1896, Hallwyl Museum (Sweden), image is in the Public Domain.

The Victoria Embankment in c 1930 (image is in the Public Domain).

Joseph Bazalgette, by Locke & Whitfield Photographic Studios, National Portrait Gallery (image is in the Public Domain).

Bazalgette was an engineer, who had cut his teeth on railway construction projects connecting London to the provinces. In 1858, however, he was given a very different problem to solve. The Thames and its tributaries had, since Roman times, served as an open sewer. As the city grew rapidly throughout the Seventeenth, Eighteenth, and Nineteenth Centuries, increasing volumes of waste were channeled into it. An invisible threshold was crossed in 1851, the year of the Great Exhibition: for the first time in British history, more people now lived in its towns and cities, than in the countryside. Utilitarian reformers had, in some instances, accidentally made the situation worse. Many Londoners had used a flushing toilet for the first time on their visit to the exhibition (literally "spending a penny" for the privilege): the reformers now encouraged them to install them at home, and to dispense with cess-pits (which Londoners had used for centuries), in favour of new public sewers, emptying directly into the Thames. Flushing toilets without mains sewers was a disastrous combination, since it more than doubled the volume of toxic waste to be removed. The result was the "Great Stink" of 1858, when conditions became unbearable, even for MPs and peers in the Palace of Westminster, but this, itself came in the wake of major cholera epidemics in 1832, 1848, 1849, and 1854, which, between them, had carried off hundreds of thousands of Londoners.

"Monster Soup," 1828, Wellcome Collection (Image is in the Public Domain). In fact, the presence of such creatures as are shown here would be indications of a healthy estuarine ecosystem: no microscope of the time was powerful enough to show the bacteria, let alone the viruses, that actually threaten human health.

Cartoon of 1858, showing Michael Faraday presenting his card to Father Thames (Image is in the Public Domain). In fact, Faraday, the go-to man of science for so many practical challenges, played little part in finding the solutions to this problem.

Cartoon of 1858 (Image is in the Public Domain).

Punch cartoon of 1858 (image is in the Public Domain).

A young Venetian woman, aged 23, before and after contracting cholera, 1831, Wellcome Collection (image is in the Public Domain). 

Bazalgette, working for the Metropolitan Board of Works, proposed an ambitious solution. He did not know that cholera was caused by contaminated water (few, in his time, even suspected this to be the case), but he did know that people should not be drinking water contaminated by human excrement. A network of sewers were required, with two main channels, one following the northern, and the other following the southern bank of the Thames. The only sensible place to put these, without demolishing large numbers of expensive buildings, was in the space between the high and low tide-marks. The river was thus narrowed and deepened, with the additional advantage that floods became far less frequent.

Bazlgette's sewer system, taking waste far to the east of London. Image: Philg88 (licensed under CCA). 

The construction of sewers at Old Ford, Bow, in 1859 (image is in the Public Domain).

Side-sewer carrying the River Fleet (between Westminster and the City of London). Photo: Matt Brown (licensed under CCA).

The construction of the Victoria Embankment, c 1865 (image is in the Public Domain).

The scale of Bazalgette's ambition was not limited to sanitation. "We're only going to do this once," he insisted, "and there's always the unexpected." He therefore insisted that the pipes be double the diameter that most other engineers thought prudent. The "unexpected" included the astonishing growth of London's population since the mid-Nineteenth Century, and his sewers do still serve us today, although London's authorities, and Bazalgette's engineering successors, are now, one hundred and sixty one years on, building a replacement network. The "unexpected" was one thing, but what Bazalgette did anticipate, and make specific provision for, was no less remarkable. Since he was, necessarily, involved in land reclamation, he made space for an underground railway (today's District and Circle Line), and for services as yet unplanned (water and gas supply pipes, telephone and electricity cables - you may well be reading this courtesy of a fibre-optic cable installed in Bazalgette's "additional" tunnel for unexpected things).

Cross-section of the Victoria Embankment at Charing Cross, showing the railway tunnel (lower left), sewer (lower right), and service tunnel (upper right). Image is in the Public Domain. 

Tube Map of 1908, with the District Line shown in green, by Dodo van den Bergen (image is in the Public Domain). 

The District Railway at Charing Cross, 1914, by Charles Sharland (image is in the Public Domain).

Bazalgette's scheme, starting in 1858, required 10,000 labourers to build eight miles of intercepting sewers, and 1100 mils of street sewers. By the time that Claude Monet arrived in London in 1871, as a refugee from the Franco-Prussian War, the work was largely complete, and London had, not only a fully functioning sewer system, but an underground railway; life free from cholera; and an elegant water-front to match the finest in Europe.

The Thames below Westminster, by Claude Monet, c 1871. Image: National Gallery (Public Domain).

Bazalgette's memorial, on the Victoria Embankment. Photo: Lonpicman (licensed under GNU).

"Cleopatra's Needle," on the Victoria Embankment. Erected by PharaohThutmose III, at Heliopolis, in c 1450 BC, it was given to Britain by Egypt in 1819, to celebrate the defeat of Napoleon, and was erected here in 1878. Photo: Ethan Doyle White (licensed under CCA).

Mark Patton is a published author of historical fiction and non-fiction, whose books can be purchased from Amazon.