London’s 100 miles of intersecting sewers were introduced back in the second half of the 19th century. Given the tools that were available at the time, the project was hailed as a feet of engineering.
Although many people take things like sewer systems for granted. The massive labyrinth of structures running beneath the streets of London are incredibly important!
Here are 10 things that your might not know about London’s infamous sewer system (number 3 will make you gag!):
10. Before the introduction of the modern sewer system, raw sewage originally was deposited straight into the river Thames.
Whilst these days, the banks of the river Thames are a haven for tourists and native Londoners alike. Back in the “not so” good old days it was used as a sewage deposit, and raw waste from the residents of London flowed directly into the river. Unthinkable by today’s standards, or is it? (we warned you about fact number 3!)
But it gets worse! The river Thames was also the source of the city’s drinking water, so it’s not surprising that disease was rampant during that time!
9. Before the sewers, disease was rampant
As the saying goes “don’t sh*t where you eat” or in this case “drink”. As you can no doubt imagine, drinking the rather unsanitary water from the Thames is going to have some rather ill side-effects.
It’s no wonder that there was a pandemic in 1853. Which caused countless misery around London, more than 10,000 Londoners lost their lives to cholera.
Cholera is an infection of the small intestine that was brought on by ingesting the unsanitary water. Symptoms were terrible, leaving victims with wrinkled hands and feet and sunken eyes. Their skin was also known to turn blue and feel cool to the touch.
Unfortunately, one of the side effects of the infection was also increased bowel movements, which worsened the cycle. Now that’s a rather sh*tty situation if ever we’ve heard one!
8. The smelly smell that smells
Yup, as you can imagine, raw sewage flowing into the river also carried with it a rather pungent smell.
In the brutal summer of 1858, temperatures averaged 35 degrees Celsius, which turned the Thames into a rather unpleasant “soup”. The stench emanating from the Thames was nicknamed the “Great Stink” and became absolutely overwhelming for nearby residents. You literally couldn’t leave your house without gagging! Bleurgh!
In an attempt to dissolve the toxic effluent, tons of lime was spread on the Thames, but unfortunately, this had little effect, prompting the government to take action. Parliament was forced to legislate to create a new unified sewage system for London. This Bill became law on 2 August 1858.
7. Sir Joseph Bazalgette to the rescue!
The “great stink” finally jolted Parliament to take action, and Sir Joseph Bazalgette—a Victorian era engineering genius—was the man in charge of creating the vast sewage system that Londoners still rely on today.
Bazalgette was the chief engineer of the Metropolitan Board of Works (MBW), having begun his career in public health engineering back in 1849. He spent several rather frustrating years drawing up revolutionary plans for the city’s sewers, only to see them repeatedly shelved as Parliament and others argued about the system’s merits (I guess some things never change!).
6. The new sewer systems exorbitant costs
Although a £3 million budget was secured to build the new sewer system, the final costs ended up to be just over £4 million (equivalent to approximately £500 million in today’s money).
Fun fact: Parliament wasn’t spurred to take action because of the cholera epidemic, but actually due to the “great stink” of 1858 which was right on their doorstep!
Approximately 100 miles of sewers were built running parallel to the Thames. There were also 1,100 miles of street sewers implemented. These sewers alleviated the problem by carrying waste to treatment plants beyond the city boundaries.
5. Bazalgette received a Knighthood
Thanks to the efforts of Sir Joseph Bazalgette and his team, the “great stink” that tormented the residents of London was finally over.
The sewers were completed in 1868, and in 1874, Bazalgette was knighted for his services to the city, later retiring in 1889. He passed away two years later in Wimbledon.
4. Unfortunately future population growth wasn’t accounted for
Whilst the original sewer system took care of the immediate problem, unfortunately the engineers at the time didn’t accurately account for population growth to be able to continue to treat the problem in the future.
At the time of its inception, the population of London was around 2 million, and they only estimated that the population would grow to 4 million.
With around 9 million people currently residing in London, which is over double what the sewer system was originally designed to cope with, they were way off the mark, which goes some way to explain some of the problems we are experiencing with London’s sewer system today.
3. Raw sewage still enters the Thames today
Bleurgh, we did warn you that this one might make you gag! Although the original sewer system was a godsend, it didn’t totally eradicate all the raw waste from entering the Thames.
The Environment Agency in London estimates that around 39 million cubic meters of untreated sewage and waste are dumped into the river each year.
It’s also been reported that each week, there is at least one spill over of raw sewage into the river.
Whilst the system isn’t perfect, and work is currently underway to address the problem, it’s still much better than what Londoners had to deal with in the mid 19thcentury.
2. The Thames Tideway to the rescue!
The Thames Tideway Tunnel—which at the time of writing, is currently under construction—will be able to catch the sewage that would normally be dumped to the Thames and deposit it elsewhere.
The tunnel has also been designed to catch rainwater discharges which currently overflow into the river.
Learn more, and keep up the progress of the tunnel construction at https://www.tideway.london/
1. During the 19th century you could be a “tosher”
Before the new sewer was built in London, during Victorian times people went down into the sewers to wade in people’s poop and pick up stuff to try to sell to make a living! Yup, sewer hunting was a legitimate occupation once upon a time!
The “toshers” were so-called because they’d look for anything vaguely valuable like money, scrap metal, or jewellery – commonly known as “tosh”. They would also search the river Thames shoreline for treasures.
There were many dangers in the sewer for these so-called London sewer hunters. They had to circumvent crumbling brickwork and earth that often threatened to bury them alive if merely touched. There was also the risk of getting lost in the maze-like sewer systems if they wandered too far from the main branches, as well as the risk of being bitten by disease-ridden rats!
The London Drain Unblocking Experts
We hope you enjoyed this post, we certainly had fun writing it! As always. If you find yourself in the unfortunate situation of suffering from a blocked drain in London, give the drainage experts at Flo-Well a call. Our engineers are standing by to help get your drains flowing again!