Following an outbreak of cholera in 1853, Joseph Bazalgette, Chief Engineer to the Metropolitan Commission for Sewers prepared a report essentially recommending a solution, previously put forward by the Victorian artist John Martin, of two great intercepting sewers flanking the Thames, to drain eastwards to treatment plants, where "deodorized water" would be discharged into the river. Although there were no means then to finance such an enterprise, the idea had been formulated. Bazalgette believed that the drainage of the low-lying land in London was more important than cleansing the Thames, and he had got the priorities right The conditions near to the old rivers and streams had become deadly, and the Victorian reformers were determined that they must be improved, but it was not until 1856, when the old system of self-contained Commissioners of Sewers was superseded by the Metropolitan Board of Works, that the London-wide problem was seen as a whole. Bazalgette was empowered to design and execute "a system of sewerage to prevent any part of the sewage within the Metropolis from passing into the River Thames in or near the Metropolis." Bazalgette’s project consisted of the construction of intercepting sewers north and south of the Thames, and immediately adjacent to the river. These were to receive the sewage from the sewers and drains which up to now had connected directly into the Thames. Until this time, Thames-side in central London was not protected by an embankment, and consisted of mud, shingle and sewage, onto which these various drains, outlets and ditches had discharged. A miscellaneous collection of ricketty lightermen’s stairs also connected to the foreshore, and it is still possible to see one or two of these old access ways - Wapping Old Stairs, east of The Tower, for example. The MBW took this opportunity to begin the task of confining the Thames in central London between masonry embankments, behind and below which were sited the riverside sewers. It is for the Victoria Embankment on the north, and the Albert Embankment on the south, as well as for London’s efficient sewerage system, that we have to thank Joseph Bazalgette. The construction of the sewers alone was a major civil engineering project, and between 1856 and 1859, 82 miles of brick intercepting sewers were built below London's streets, all flowing by gravity, eastwards. These were connected to over 450 miles of main sewers, themselves receiving the contents of 13,000 miles of small local sewers, dealing daily with half a million gallons of waste. Constructing the interceptory system was a stupendous undertaking, involving 318 million bricks ,880,000 cubic yards of concrete and mortar, and the excavation of 3.5 million cubic yards of earth. The price of bricks in London rose by fifty per cent while it was being constructed. Considering that the system was built during the wettest summer and the coldest winter recorded in the nineteenth century, it was an astounding achievement, even for Victorian civil engineers.
Picture: The Metropolitan Board of Works' headquarters in Spring Gardens near Trafalgar Square were designed by Frederick Marrable in 1858