Giving Credit Where Credit Is Due: Joseph Bazalgette’s London Sewers

In the summer of 1858, the solid waste in the Thames River from London to its mouth was so offensive that the season is known as “the Great Stench” and provoked numerous unpleasant political advertisements as a way of encouraging some action be taken. At the time, scientists held to a mistaken miasma theory of disease, by which stench caused diseases like cholera and typhus, which were naturally rampant in London at the time. To make things worse, Londoners had to use the filthy river water as their main source of water [1]. The intense stench of 1858 led to drastic and expensive measures being taken, namely the construction of a city sewer system under the guidance of a conscientious Victorian English engineer named Joseph Bazalgette, who was given the charge to build embankments to keep sewage out of the river. Although this would appear to be a basic aspect of biblical hygiene, God’s laws concerning human waste have seldom been obeyed throughout history, with tragic health consequences.

Today, Joseph Bazalgette is hardly known, except as an obscure statue on a memorial on the Victoria Embankment, or with his drainage reports in the archives of the Institute of Civil Engineers, or the odd plaque, or the fact that he has a scholarship in his name at Dulwich College [2], and the subject of interest of the occasional odd historian. Those who know of his impressive work, which hurt his own health and led to the establishment of a sewer system that has lasted up to this time and only recently begun to suffer the strain of Greater London’s growth after 150 years in operation, consider him to be one of the greatest Londoners in history for his work in seeking to clean up the Thames. That he was given this charge of importance only a decade after a nervous breakdown from overwork was also notable, as there must have been few people of sufficient conscientiousness even in his time to undertake such an effort in an ethical and upright manner. And so he did, leaving a legacy of public service that has encouraged numerous descendants of his own to follow in his footsteps. He was knighted for his acts of public service in 1875, and among his works were several bridges (including the proposal for what became the Tower Bridge), numerous road designs (including the well-known Charing Cross Road), as well as the Albert, Victoria, and Chelsea Embankments that form a part of London’s sewer. Truly, such a man deserves to be remembered.

How did Bazalgette’s sewers endure to this day? For one, he was aware that he was building a one-time only civil infrastructure improvement and so he gave the most generous assumptions for sewage levels for each city occupant, the most strict population densities at the time, and then doubled the pipe volume to give the most generous allowances for sewage, insisting on larger pipe than others thought necessary. As a result, when London’s population grew far larger than expected and far denser than expected as a result of the development of the tower block (which had not been conceived yet), his designs were able to keep up with growth up to the present day. This philosophy has major implications for civil infrastructure, and that is if one is going to build infrastructure, it is best if one builds in excess of what is presently needed with generous assumptions for the future, for the expense of adding to an existing infrastructure is far greater than building a proper infrastructure the first time. This is a lesson that has been forgotten in most contemporary transportation projects, leading to continual problems when cities outstrip their roads and water and sewer lines. To be sure, it is difficult to plan effectively for cities, but absolutely imperative to do so, because a lack of infrastructure can lead to death, as anyone who has witnessed the threat of drought to areas like Western Australia and Southern California, or seen the cost of horrible traffic in many metropolitan areas caused by a lack of sufficient transportation, or faced the threat of disease because of poor treatment of human and animal waste. These are not laughing matters.

Only a bankrupt society [3] fails in its obligations to provide infrastructure for its citizens, for such action inevitably, even if not speedily, places its people at great risk of death and lesser harm. Infrastructure is expensive—sewers and roads and water lines are not cheap, but if we desire to put people close together, and if jobs are centralized in offices and factories, then people will have to find a way to live effectively or suffer the consequences. So long as life and health and the ability to pursue happiness and the liberty to travel where one wishes in search of better opportunities are fundamental rights, those rights require the action of communities and their institutions so that those rights may be secured. At times this may require the building of sewers, as was the case in Victorian London, even if the theory of disease that scientists held to at the time was faulty. If such action is required, it should be done with the greatest care for beauty and elegance, for present efficiency but also future value in light of plans not only for present exigencies but also future growth. This is not easy to do, but nothing worthwhile is. Since so many civic officials fail to be worthy of their offices, it is important to remember honorable and decent men like Joseph Bazalgette, and to appreciate his actions in light of our present enjoyment of the fruits of his strenuous labors.

[1] See, for example:

[2] See also:

The Big Necessity: Adventures in the world of human waste by Rose George

Sir Joseph William Bazalgette (1819–1891): Engineer to the Metropolitan Board of Works – D P Smith: Transactions of the Newcomen Society, 1986–87 Vol 58.

London in the Nineteenth Century: A Human Awful Wonder of God – Jerry White, London: Jonathan Cape 2006.

Halliday, Stephen (2013). The Great Stink of London: Sir Joseph Bazalgette and the Cleansing of the Victorian Metropolis. The History Press. ISBN 0752493787.

[3] See, for example:

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
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3 Responses to Giving Credit Where Credit Is Due: Joseph Bazalgette’s London Sewers

  1. Pingback: Movie Review: Lost Rivers | Edge Induced Cohesion

  2. Pingback: Giving Credit Where Credit Is Due: The Kalmyk Overwinter Festival | Edge Induced Cohesion

  3. Pingback: Giving Credit Where Credit Is Due: Point-Of-Sale Systems | Edge Induced Cohesion

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