review of ‘The Sewer King’ episode in BBC documentary series
London in 1848 was the ‘biggest, richest, most densely populated’ city on Earth. Its popoulation doubled in half a century leaving a ‘torrent in human excrement’. An outbreak of cholera was the worst seen since the Great Plague, not to mention dysentery and typhoid. There were riots in the East End as corpses overwhelmeed graveyards. By the winter of 1849, 14,000 had died. By 1853 it had returned.
The Lancet, mouthpiece of medical science, confessed to be ‘at sea in a whirlpool of conjecture’ as to the cause. For Edwin Chadwick of the Poor Law Commission, ‘all smell is disease’. Epidemiologist, John Snow, was the first to undermine the ‘miasma’ thesis, which dominated professional opinion. He found that, rahter than being a consequence of ‘bad air’, the disease was water-borne.
In 1856, as Chief Engineer to the Metropolitan Board of Works, Joseph Bazalgette (subject of this documentary, and distant relative of the director Ed Bazalgette) embarked on an ambitious project to rebuild the sewer system, at the time to do no more than disperse rainwater. His plan would mean a complex network of tunnels, with water being carried out into the Thames estuary and out to sea, employing the most powerful pumps ever – courtesy of Stevenson – to carry it into huge reservoirs.
For Bazalgette, ‘without sanitation we are little more than beasts’. But it wasn’t until 1848, against massive opposition from both his peers and the press that a Bill was passed in Parliament. This resulted in a ‘dramatic improvement in health across the metropolis’. Ironically for Bazalgette, like everybody else save Snow, water purification was secondary to eradicating the stench of sewage.
There are strking parallels between this characteristically Victorian feat of engineering and the popular reaction to it, and contemporary Britain. The sheer grandeur resulting in something we take for granted today dwarfs projects dismissed as unattainable today. The descent into rumour and prejudice by the elite said a lot about their fear of and repulsion with the masses. Indeed this seemed to drive the project more than anything. Today’s eco-fears, and our truly poisonous cynicism, only seem to put a brake on urban development.