Wednesday, May 31, 2017

London History Day: The Sewers

Today is London History Day!

In case you're wondering, no you haven't been missing LHD all those years as its the first ever, and no its not been thought up by some PR company but rather a poll of the great British public.

Given my recent trip down the sewers there could be only be one topic to cover, and fortunately the Thames Water event included a very interesting talk by Ben Nithsdale on this very subject.

Very informative it was too. For example, I didn't realise that historically the word sewer didn't mean transport of human waste but a means of land drainage e.g. of rain water. And that was the case for those old Greek and Roman stone piping in the streets (plus those storm drains that The Terminator sped down on a motorbike).

In ye olde London water was expensive and delivered mostly by cart or even buckets while the waste (as I shall call it) was simply tipped into the streets. People got fed up with this but given the technology of the day (1388) the solution was just to hire men with rakes.

However in 1580 piped water was provided to streets of the City pumped via a water mill on the north end of London Bridge and this was followed by other schemes, typically using wooden drilled pipes that only ran for a few hours a week. They leaked a lot and so were unpressurised and laid along the street by the curb.

Henry VIII, when not distracted by his complex marriage affairs, was instrumental in the development of the sewers by giving commissions the right to dig sewers where they needed. These were for drainage and clean water and at this time the Thames would have been drinkable and full of fish - hence Billingsgate Market located on the riverbank in the City.

Human waste, instead of going into the street, was increasingly held in cesspits, but these tended to overflow, often into sewers, which was illegal. Water consumption rocketed as wooden pipes were replaced by iron ones, which could be pressurised and transport water from far outside the capital.

But as London boomed in 1815, the year Napoleon was defeated at Waterloo, there was another dramatic change, as it became legal to pipe waste into the sewers, which in a few years become overloaded and filthy.

Famously, the artist John Martin foresaw that with the rapid increase in London's population this would require engineering to solve but he was to be ignored. It wasn't until politicians themselves were driven from Westminster by the Great Stink of 1858 that it was decided that Something Had To Be Done.

And so it was that Bazalgette started designing the great combined sewage system, that included the magnificent Abbey Mills Pumping Station:

More tomorrow...

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