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A Glimpse Into London's Early Sewers

Reprinted from Cleaner magazine



Sewer means "seaward" in Old English. London's sewers were open ditches sloped 
slightly to drain human wastes toward the River Thames, and ultimately into 
the sea. Sewer ditches quickly filled with garbage and human wastes, which 
overflowed onto streets, into houses and marketplaces throughout London.
	By the late 1500s, King Henry VIII wrote an edict which made each 
householder responsible for clearing the sewer passing by their dwelling.
	The King also created a special Commission of Sewers to enforce these 
rules. However, no money was provided to pay its members. Therefore, the 
Commission was not installed until 1622, when it was decided that fines for 
non-compliance could be used to fund its activities.
	The day-to-day activities are recorded by the Clerk. Every word uttered 
before the tribunal was precisely transcribed in the permanent records of the 

Oath for Sewer Commissioners

	The transcript traces more than 250 years of human misery, due largely 
to ignorance of the hazards of poor sanitation. Citizens, physicians, 
politicians, inventors and police provided vivid horror stories of "miasmas, 
plagues and sudden death" in the homes of London.
	By the early 18th Century nearly every residence had a cesspit beneath 
the floors. In the best of homes the nauseating stench permeated the most 
elegant parlor. Indoor odors were often worse than of the garbage- and manure-
filled streets. While noxious fumes were ignored by most people, it was fear 
of "night air" laden with coal smoke and sulfurous industrial fogs which 
alarmed the City dweller.

House Over Cess Pit

	Doors and windows of homes and factories were sealed shut at sunset to 
protect occupants form entry of the feared "night air." Entire families and 
crews of workers died of mysterious "asphyxiation" during the night. Doctors 
had no explanation for lingering illnesses and these sudden "miasmas" 
occurring in the City. Vivid descriptions of horrible deaths were routinely 
reported at Commission hearings and in the London tabloids.
	Most fatalities and injuries described were consistent with asphyxiation 
by hydrogen sulfide or oxygen deficiency or methane explosions. These 
conditions remain common in sewers, septic tanks and confined spaces today.
	When cesspits filled to overflow, they were built to drain to the street 
by means of a crudely built culvert to a partially open sewer trench in the 
center of the street. Cesspit wastes often soaked foundations, walls and 
floors of living quarters. The culvert was frequently blocked causing sewage 
to spread under buildings and contaminate shallow wells, cisterns and water 
ways from which drinking water was drawn.
	Many homeowners "stored" huge quantities of "night soil," which had a 
cash value as fertilizer for crops. Those who "harvested" cesspit and sewer 
wastes had to crawl on hands and knees through the mire and drag wastes to the 
surface. Children were often employed to reach the most difficult sections. 
Arguments before the commissioners defended the employment of even very small 
children for this work, as they were also employed as chimney sweeps.
	Cesspit and sewer cleaning not only lead to instant death, but also led 
to slow, lingering death.
	On January 12, 1849, this report of working conditions was presented to 
the Commissioners: "The smell was of the most horrible description, the air 
being so foul that explosions and choke damp were frequent. We were very 
nearly losing a whole party by choke damp, the last man being dragged out on 
his back through two feet of black fetid deposit in a state of insensibility."
	On February 21, 1849: "Explosions occurred in two separate locations 
where the men had the skin peeled off their faces and their hair singed. In 
advancing toward Southampton, the deposit deepens to 2 feet 9 inches, leaving 
only 1 foot 11 inches of space in the sewer. At about 400 feet from the 
entrance, the first lamp went out and, 100 feet further on, the second lamp 
created an explosion and burnt the hair and face of the person holding it."
	The Commission resolved that "It shall be laid down as a first principle 
that no common sewer should be so small that an ordinary sized man shall not 
be able to cleanse it."

Legal Working Heights

	After hearing thousands of such reports, Commissioners hired a team of 
physicians to inspect work sites, measure sewer workers, and develop sketches 
showing what sewers sizes were needed to provide access for maintenance. They 
reviewed not only the actual size of work space needed for the passage of the 
worker, but also measured the depth of wastes accumulated in the sewers and 
drainage culverts. The recommendations and drawings submitted brought 
awareness of the plight of those engaged in sewer and cesspit cleaning.

Draining London's Sewage Swamp

The streets of London lie 30 feet below the surface of the Thames at high tide. The city housed more than two million people in crowded conditions and the situation was deteriorating daily. Epidemics of cholera, typhus, "consumption" and other undefined maladies plagued the City over at least four centuries. Edwin Chadwick, a sanitary reformer of the era, struggled with upper class apathy toward these horrible conditions. Chadwick explored sewers, questioned slum dwellers, and turned out hundreds of reports to the Commission. He experimented with the benefits of obtaining pure water from lakes and reservoirs, rather than the fetid Thames. His Public Health Act ultimately reversed the tide of death. He chastised residents of London for defying the Law of Moses, often pointing out that it "forbade even an open camp be defiled with human ordure, and expressly ordained that it should be deposited at a distance and immediately covered with soil." He attacked the greed of homeowners stating: "Early in the progress of these investigations, the proposed system of cleansing, by removal of the ordure in suspension in waste, was objected to on the grounds of supposed loss of money received for manure." The Commission argued that removal of night soils was no longer profitable, and that "police must be employed to prevent the cleaner from emptying cesspit ordure into gully-shoots in its highly concentrated and dangerous state." (Illegal dumping!) The construction of large central covered sewers had already begun in 1844, even though no plan had yet been drawn to replace cesspits. However, due to the uneconomic and dangerous practices in cleaning them, the Commission proposed temporary use of "moveable recepticals" (porta-potties!) such as were being used in Paris at the time. Construction of a Sewer Main Meanwhile, engineers were hard at work devising a system of drainage which would carry the wastes of 2 million people out of the area, in compliance with Mosaic law. Commissioners allowed experimentation with the "soil-pan or watercloset principle" and the "tubular mode of drainage" in cities and hamlets throughout England. Though Sir Thomas Crapper had not perfected his invention, the Commission had received hundreds of less functional designs for its consideration. The "water closet" concept was, as yet, unwieldy. A complete system of "tubular drains" were yet to be constructed to "carry immediately away ass solid or semi-solid matter," as the Commissioned envisioned. In 1858 "The Great Stink," from the backed up Thames, caused thousands to flee the City, while Parliament remained in session. Windows of the parliament building were draped with curtains soaked in chloride of lime, to prevent closing of the Government. Upper class residents fled the city or drenched sheets with perfumes to mask the odor from the outside. Aging Sir Marc Isambard Brunel, together with his son Isambard Kingdom Brunel, submitted a plan to drain London to the lower side of the river by building a 1,600 foot tunnel under the Thames. Their audacious plan relied on constructing a 25 foot diameter shield behind which 9 men, donkeys and carts would work to remove earth and transport soil to the surface. The huge 25 foot diameter bore sloped from 35 feet under the river bed to 121 feet on the far side. Desperate for any solution, the Commissioners sanctioned the project. If successful, the Brunels would achieve what no one had ever attempted before. Work proceeded rapidly and, surprisingly, the project was completed without a single loss of life, though the younger Brunel was nearly killed in a collapse of shoring just a few feet from the entry of the excavation. When Queen Victoria learned of the success, she was so enthralled with the idea of traveling beneath the Thames that she ordered a small scale rail with open cars be constructed so that the entire Parliament could accompany her at the dedication journey through the tunnel. The public followed Victoria's enthusiasms. By popular demand, the sewer tunnel was transformed into a fashionable promenade for Londoners. Victoria's railway became a tourist attraction. Gaslights and walkways were installed and small stalls lined the tunnel to provide souvenirs for visitors who paid a small toll to walk under the mighty river. Today, the tunnel is part of London's famous underground system called the "Bakerloo Line." The "railroading" of Brunel's triumph drew even greater awareness and support to the need for better living conditions as London's population swelled to nearly 3 million. The light at the end of the tunnel grew gradually larger. The "hydrolic benefits of tubular drains" and central sewers were promoted by the Commission to Parliament. Special reservoirs of water constructed to "cleanse" existing sewers helped, but it became more and more evident that smooth interior surfaces and adequate slope were needed to provide smooth movement of wastes through the system. Severly Clogged Brick Sewer. The commissioners believed Sir Thomas Crapper's flush toilet was the final connection required "to flush away London's problems." They enthusiastically believed that "with a properly constructed sewer, combined with supplies of water, no deposit will be occasioned and obstructions would become so rare as to need no special provision for cleaning." * * * Mary Gayman's formal education in English and Journalism, along with her active role in three family-owned septic and sewer businesses over the past 25 years, provides a wealth of material for her writing. Mary realizes that practical field knowledge, backed with solid resource data, is essential in meeting today's complex business challenges. Republished courtesy of Cleaner Magazine, published by Cole Publishing Inc., POB 220, Three Lakes WI 54562, tel. 800-257-7222 or 715-546-3346) and author Mary Gayman.

Return to the Sewer History area of the SwopNet Engineering Databank

There you will find Parts 2 and 3 of the Sewers of London history, along with a link to the Thomas Crapper Page.

Joseph Bazalgette was the Father of London Sewers. You can read his story here.