One of the first cities in the modern world to have a complete sewer system, London is now home to a complex and extremely diverse system of drains and sewers. These have to be cleaned and maintained on an almost constant basis, performed by people known as ‘flushers’. In the course of their work, they have come across a number of interesting and unusual items, including some that sound almost unbelievable.
Most of the unusual items found in sewers are there because they have been flushed down drains, either in the street, or in public toilets. These include construction waste including rubble, cement, and even paint. All of these items help to block the drains. Cement flushing is an increasing habit, but cement can do serious damage to drains when it hardens.
Food waste is a serious problem, although it is not so much the minor apple core or peeling which causes the problem so much as industrial food waste, including refuse from market stalls, which is flushed down the drains via gutters. Pubs and clubs regularly dispose of beer and alcohol down the drains, and on occasion sewer workers have discovered whole pint glasses.
The most well known discovery in a London Sewer is the ‘fatberg’. An insoluble blockage caused by thousands of London residents flushing unsuitable items down the drain, including wet wipes, condoms and toys, it was the size of a double-decker bus. The fatberg had to be removed by sewer workers, and it took the best part of a month to get it all out of the sewer.
Lost down the Drain
In addition to the surprising articles that are flushed away, there are also items that have simply rolled down the drain. One of the most common items being found in London sewers are WWII bullets. These may have come from demobbed soldiers disposing of old bullets, but a good percentage are also likely to have rolled into gutters during the War. Thames Water are the proud finders of several hand grenades, perhaps of a similar date to the bullets.
One of the rarest finds in a sewer is a fully inflated football, discovered under a London school. Students at some point had most likely previously owned the football, but there is no clue as to how it managed to end up blocking a drainage pipe in the middle of the school playground. Another unusual item to be lost down the drain is underwear. This presumably is due to high winds taking small items from washing lines, although the possibility that people are deliberately disposing of knickers in the sewers might raise a few eyebrows. Mobile phones are also commonly dropped into drains, either by accident or on purpose.
Some of the oddest items found in London’s sewer system have been deliberately hidden. Perhaps the oddest is the ‘half’ of a Mini found in a sewer. Clearly it had not been washed down the drain, but hidden for some reason. No one knows why, and no one knows what happened to the other half of the car. Thieves also regularly hide loot down there, including jewellery such as Rolex watches, other valuables, and even money.
Fraser Ruthven is the Marketing Associate for London Drainage Facilities and has heard of many stories involving what has been found in the drains of London.