As the Thames began to dry, the current slowed
to a stop and began to putrefy. A vile miasma, derived not only
from sewage but also dead animals and slaughterhouse entrails
seeped from the stagnant river into the Houses of Parliament.
The later prime minister, Benjamin Disraeli, himself ran from
the chamber branding the river 'a Stygian pool reeking with
ineffable and unbearable horror'. What today would be referred
to as 'harmful emissions' had nothing on the crisis that came
to be known as the 'Great Stink'. The politicians had to act.
This was to be Sir Joseph Bazalgette's finest
hour. As the chief engineer to the Metropolitan Board of Works,
Bazalgette today seems to have been forgotten, unlike his
contemporary, Brunel. Five years were allotted to build the
sewers at a cost of £3 million, with a thousand labourers
handling the work.
In a very short time, Bazalgette managed to lay
eighty-two miles of intercepting sewers parallel to the Thames,
and 1,100 miles of street sewers, although the final cost came
in at £4.2 million. Work started in 1859 and was completed by
1868, a major achievement for its time, despite not fulfilling
the original timescale.
Although London's tilted topography aided
drainage, two pumping stations needed to be built to the east,
one at Crossness on the south bank of the river, the other at
Abbey Mills near West Ham. The opening of Crossness, near
Thamesmead and Plumstead, in 1865, was attended by the Prince
of Wales and other dignitaries. Constructed in the Romanesque
style, it was a cathedral to Victorian endeavour. Over a hundred
tonnes of cement and sand, piled into the site to halt the leak
of methane gas, were excavated.
Abbey Mills didn't get a grand opening. A
twenty minute walk from West Ham Underground station (itself
opened thirty-seven years later, in 1902), along a desolate
stretch of land called the Greenway, Abbey Mills' Station A is
a typically Victorian mash-up of Byzantine, Italian Medieval,
Flemish, and French Gothic styles. Station B has been more
recently used as a film location.
Up to date
The job was made harder by having to work
alongside the developing underground railway system and emerging
above surface railway systems. Bazalgette used 318 million bricks
to create the underground system and dug up more than 2.5 million
cubic metres of soil. To avoid tunnelling under the West End,
Bazalgette reclaimed land by the Thames to create the Victoria
Embankment. A number of the lamp posts along the Embankment still
bear the 'MBW' (Metropolitan Board of Works) emblem.
Part of the River Fleet, some of which had been
covered over as early as the 1730s to the south of King's Cross,
was also incorporated into the new sewer system, with its major
outfall at Blackfriars Bridge.
As Bazalgette anticipated population increases
when he designed the sewers, it was only by the early twenty-first
century that his system needed to be renewed. The underground grid
remained unchanged for 150 years, but it had been estimated that
from 2015-2020 the population of London would increase by the size
of the population of Leeds. The next stage in supplying London with
sewers was the Thames Tideway Tunnel, which was initially expected
to be complete by 2012. In fact construction was delayed until 2016,
with an estimated completion date of 2023.
In more recent years, visitors to the sewers needed
to be careful, and not just in avoiding the waste they would find
down there. Walk in the wrong direction underground and a visitor
may come face-to-face with the nozzle of a gun, as the sewers
beneath Downing Street and Buckingham Palace are heavily guarded.
As for Bazalgette, while he is relatively unknown
today, he does have a statue on the Embankment which he himself
designed, to the left of Jubilee Bridge and in the shadow of the
The ornate pumping station at Crossness on the south bank
of the Thames is now a listed building, although it has
officially been withdrawn from service