Story Of London

London’s Utilities in 1853 – I: The Sewers

By the first half of the 19th century the cesspools which lay beneath the private and public properties of London had been replaced by a series of sewers. These carried the human waste of the rapidly expanding population under the streets to be directly discharged into the Thames. By 1840, Thomas Cubitt cold write that “the Thames is now made a great cesspool instead of each person having one of his own.” But London also drew much of its drinking water from the Thames and the consequences were three major cholera epidemics in 1831-2, 1884-9 and 1852-3 which killed more than 31,000 people between them. Still, the system of sewers was highly praised in an article in “The Leisure Hour – A Family Journal of Instruction and Recreation” which appeared in issue number 80 on Thursday July 7 1853 under the heading of “Subterranean London”.

CHAPTER ONEThe Thames before the sewers began to disgorge into is something in the old saying that “London streets are paved with gold,” and it is perfectly true that a good many of them might be paved with gold, beaten thin, at a much les expense than they are at present paved with granite under the liberal but wise economy of the corporation of the city. Some of them are subjected to such tremendous and unceasing assaults, from the grinding of ponderous wains, the cataract of rattling, rumbling wheels, and the grappling of iron-shot steeds, that unless they were cased in a suit of armour something more than battle-axe proof, they would not be able to hold their own for a day. So they are swaddled in granite cut into square scales a foot thick, and in a manner overlapping each other like those of the armadillo; and this is occasionally done at a cost which it would hardly be safe to mention. The amount of hard cash that is expended, for instance, in cutting out a jacket and fitting it on, for London-bridge alone, is something alarming to think of. Well may the paviours sigh, as hey always do, when consigning so much capital to inevitable destruction, the nearness or remoteness of which is dependant in a great degree upon the proper performance of their responsible duty. But we are not just now going to write about the London pavements, though we pay this passing tribute to their excellence: we are going to rip them up – which, strong as they are, we can do with a stroke of the pen – and see what lies beneath.A being who should be gifted with a sufficient degree of clairvoyance to see through the solid ground would, upon investigating the substratum of the metropolitan ways, discover four grand arterial systems: three of which, ramifying in hundreds of thousands of branches, are employed in the never-ending performance of functions essential to the health, comfort and convenience of a civilised existence; the fourth might strike him as a comparatively insignificant affair, consisting as it does but of a single slender protected by a casing not broader than your hand, and projecting but here and there a branch to the world above-ground; but that slender thread is the path the lightning travels, which man has tamed to his purpose and confined in the soil beneath his feet – an obedient gnome to carry messages at his will to the ends of the earth. Considering, for our present purpose, these four subterranean agencies consecutively, we shall devote a few paragraphs to the sewerage, the supply of water, the gas and the electric telegraph in London.The Fleet river before it became a major sewerThe sewers of London, as they are unquestionably the most important in a sanitary point of vies, so they are the chief of the underground offspring of the necessities of a crowded metropolis. Important as they are, however, and though thousands of years ago their sanitary agency was recognised in ancient Rome, their construction in Britain was not attempted until a comparatively recent period. Not to go very far back – the London of Shakespeare and Ben Jonson had no sewers; and we may come down to the time of Milton and Cromwell, and find it still in the same condition. It was not, in fact, until the reign of Charles the Second that the first sewer, which was made by order of the lord keeper Guildford, was constructed in chancery-lane, which probably had its outlet in the neighbouring Thames. Notwithstanding the evident advantage, which just have resulted from the first experiment, the system of draining by sewers was, from its expense and other causes, of such slow growth, that even a century later, in Hogarth’s time, as we may very readily gather from his pictures, it had made but very partial progress. It is difficult at the present time to realize, even in imagination, the aspect of the London streets as they existed even at the commencement of the last century, when in many parts of the city the dust and nuisances of the houses were piled in heaps before the door, awaiting the coming of the scavenger, who gave notice of his approach by banging a wooden clapper, warning the inhabitants to thrust forth their refuse. At that time the sewerage was suffered to accumulate in wells, which, when they were full, were emptied into the kennels of the streets. It was then that the average deaths in the metropolis was greater in the healthy seasons than it is now under the visitation of cholera, and the slaughters of typhus during a wet autumn committed more ravages than an invading army. In rainy weather, the water from the roofs came cascading into the streets through gaping sprouts of metal projecting beneath the eaves, and passengers quarrelled for the wall, where a comparative shelter was obtained, because they grudged the politeness that cost a ducking. With the advance of civilization, science came to the aid of the medical art; cleanliness was discovered to be a preservative from disease, and pure air a preventive of contagion. With the recognition of these truths came the determination to practise the lessons they taught. The streets were ripped up and excavated on al sides: main sewers were built in the larger thoroughfares, and tributaries in the side streets. Acts of parliament were passed, compelling builders to provide drainage: a court of sewers for Westminster and Middlesex was established, under whose direction vast labours were undertaken and accomplished; and, by degrees, the fetid accumulations in the highways disappeared from view, the foul smells which engendered loathsome disease became les and less perceptible, and the average duration of human life in London rose from the fearful level of the battle-field to what it is at present.Still, though much has been done, much more remains to do. Within the limits of the city proper, it has been calculated that there are fifty miles of streets, alleys and courts, and that in these there are not less than forty-seven miles of sewerage; so that, with regard to the city itself, little more appears necessary beyond the maintenance in good repair of the works already laid down. But the “city” forms but now a comparatively small portion of the huge Babylon clustered around St. Paul’s, and we all know that there are numerous neglected and low-lying districts in the suburbs, where the business of drainage has been so shamefully overlooked that its object is altogether defeated, and the wretched inhabitants, surrounded by filth and noxious exhalations, are ready to fall a prey to the first inroad of an advancing pestilence. More than this, our ruling powers are just awakening to the apprehension of the fact, that all that has been done in this matter in times past has been based on the wrong principle, and that much of it will have to be done over again before a satisfactory result is obtained. Hitherto the advantage of getting rid of the sewerage has been held to be cheaply purchased by poisoning the river into which it is all drained; but a wiser economy has shown that the refuse thus ejected through innumerable channels into the Thames, to the destruction of our home fisheries, might be made a treasure to the agriculturalist, and a source of revenue to the city. We learn, from a report of the court of sewers published in 1845, that the ordinary daily amount of sewerage discharged into the Thames on the north side of the city has been calculated at 7,045,120 cubic feet, and on the south side 2,457,600 cubic feet, making a total of 9,502,720 cubic feet or a quantity equivalent to a surface of thirty-six acres in extent and six feet in depth. All this, under the present system of sewerage, we throw away, and at the same time we are despatching vessels to foreign countries for guano to manure our fields. There is no great risk in prophesying that, at a period not very distant, we shall exercise a little more practical wisdom in this particular, and that, like the economical Chinese, we too will fertilize our soil with the refuse of our cities.We cannot walk the streets of London many days together without encountering evidences of the estimation in which the subject of sewerage is held by the ruling authorities. At one time we are startled by the spectacle of a narrow street, the houses of which are shored up with an elaborate frame-work of enormous beams and ponderous timbers, to prevent their coming down with a crash, in case the excavations, carried to a depth which they eye cannot penetrate, should loosen their foundations. At another, it is the blockade of Holborn or the Strand, and he turning of the swift current of their traffic out of its main channel into the back streets and by-ways; while a numerous gang of labourers, principally Irish, are employed day and night in sinking or raising the arched brick drain to a new level, which a fresh survey has found to be necessary. The prosecution of these works during the night affords a spectacle singularly picturesque; the swart faces of the workmen in their white shirts, lit up by the light of flaring torches; the cavernous gloom of the narrow pit in which they sink rapidly out of sight to emerge again bending beneath a heavy load; the gleaming fire-flash on their glittering implements as they rise fitfully out of the darkness; the dusky forms of figures dimly visible through the black shadows cast by the mounds of soil and rubbish which line the edges of the chasm, – these are some of the elements of the picture, which contrasted with the cold and quiet starlight overhead, make up a scene at which a stranger will pause instinctively and gaze with interest. Not very long ago the good people of London were puzzled by the spectacle of a sort of watch-box perched upon the gilded cross of St. Paul’s; and at the same time, groups of men with scientific instruments were observed performing some mysterious ceremony upon the pavement in various parts of the town – north, south, east and west – with a persistency which for some months or two never relaxed. These strange fellows, from whom nobody could extract a word, were perpetually peeping through two holes in two boards at the watch-box on the top of St. Paul’s. It was given out, by those who pretended to know something about it, that they were ascertaining the level at various points, in order to determine the proper inclination of the sewers; but friend Figgins the grocer knew better than that: as he sagely observed”People don’t go to the top of St. Paul’s when they want to dig a ditch in the street.”Nevertheless, it certainly came to pass that there was a great deal of sewer digging shortly after, and simple folks suppose to this hour that the watch-box had something to do with it – which perhaps it had, for simple folks are sometimes in the right.We said above that the sewerage is all thrown away – and so it is; but yet, in its dark underground passage to the river, there are, strange as it may seem, a class of men who contrive to snatch from it a miserable subsistence ere it is lost in the bosom of old Father Thames.”There is no accounting for tastes,”
said a friend to whom we once mentioned this circumstance.
“And no accounting for dire necessities either, which are much more likely than tastes to drive men top such desperate resources for a living,”
we replied.One of these subterranean explorers was once examined before a committee of the House of Commons. The tale he had to tell is too long for repetition: it is enough to say, that in order to live by his trade he had to work extremely hard, disgusting as was his occupation. He could only enter the sewer at the time of low water; he then worked while the tide flowed until it ebbed again; and if he miscalculated the time, as having no watch, and not being able to hear the clocks, he sometimes did, he had to wait until another tide had ebbed before he was released. Being in total darkness, he had to carry a lantern, and was further compelled to take an active terrier with him to prevent his being devoured alive by rats, which he described as swarming there in myriads. His occupation consisted in grubbing beneath the open gulley-holes of the streets, and the small drains from private houses, for such small articles as were accidentally dropped or thrown away. He found more base coin than anything else; sometimes a silver spoon; and once he, or one of the same trade, had found a valuable watch. Instances have occurred where these men have been drowned by the rush of water occasioned by a sudden and violent rain-storm; and a more melancholy fate is recorded of one. Who venturing in without a dog, and being shut in by the unexpected return of the tide, was devoured alive by the rats, leaving his bones alone to advertise his fate to the next comer.We are not aware of the actual extent of the sewers throughout the whole of the London districts: if calculated according to the same ratio as the city itself, there must be six or seven hundred miles in length of underground drainage; but as we have shown above that many of the districts are lamentably deficient, this may perhaps be something above the sum total.FOOTNOTE: A mere five years after this article appeared, the long hot summer of 1858 produced “The Great Stink” of London and the legislators were finally forced to act to cleanse the polluted Thames. The chief engineer to the Metropolitan Board of Works, Joseph Bazalgette, was given the task of modernising the sewer system. His solution was the system of low and high level sewers, beneath the especially constructed Thames embankments, and the outlying pumping stations, which still function today.