The History Of London’s Sewers In The Victorian Era

London experienced unprecedented population growth during the Industrial Revolution, perhaps the most significant economic, social, environmental and technological event in human history. By the turn of the 19th century, London contained close to 900,000 residents; 100 years later, the city’s population swelled to more than 6.5 million.

Population boom leads to sewage boom

Unfortunately for Londoners, this drastic population growth had numerous side effects. Not only did it lead to a marked increase in poverty and malnutrition among the working class, it also led to a dramatic rise in sewage and horrendous stenches, which millions of Londoners were forced to endure on a daily basis.

A city plagued by cholera

By the beginning of the Victorian period, London was engulfed in a cholera epidemic that was so severe that approximately half of the city’s children did not live to their fifth birthday. For many years, it was believed that the disease was spread in the air, although the scientist Dr John Snow later discovered that it was in fact the city’s water supply, contaminated with sewage, which was spreading the epidemic. Incidentally, during an 1854 outbreak in the Soho district, none of the employees of a brewery died, because they only drank beer.

A smell so bad that not even Government could continue to function

In the summer of 1858, London experienced an unusual heatwave, which, coupled with the city’s extremely high sewage levels, caused in intense stench throughout the capital. The smell was so severe that it became known as the ‘Great Stink’, and was particularly strong around the banks of the Thames, where the recently built Houses of Parliament were situated.

Millions of Tonnes of sewage were pouring through the city every week

Why was the stench so pronounced? Well, more than 400,000 tonnes of sewage poured into the Thames every day by the 1850s. Consequently, Parliament had to be closed for a time because the smell had become so unbearable. Much of the sewage originated from many other small rivers and streams flowing into the Thames, which meant that a comprehensive solution was needed to not only keep the Thames cleaner, but London’s entire water network.

A pioneering new project to wipe out London’s stench

As such, it may have been a blessing that the people with the power to enact change were the ones to suffer the worst effects of London’s sewage problem. In the summer of 1858, Parliament provided £3 million to the Metropolitan Board of Works to build five large sewers in the city, a task that was the most ambitious civil engineering project the world had ever seen at the time.

A successful, if somewhat delayed project

Unfortunately, the sewers took significantly longer to complete than expected. They were finally in operation around 1870, shortly after another severe cholera outbreak in the capital in 1866.

Without this sewage network, London could not possibly be the global economic, cultural and political centre it is today.

The future of London – the super sewer

In September 2014, plans for a £4.2billion new super sewer network in London were approved by the government. The project, which will be named the Thames Tideway Tunnel, will be managed by Thames Water and could be completed by 2023. The water firm said the existing Victorian sewer system is already overflowing, pouring 55 million tonnes of sewage in the Thames in 2013 alone. Hopefully, Londoners and the city’s millions of visitors will avoid witnessing a repeat of the horrors of the 19th century.

Fraser Ruthven is the Marketing Associate for London’s leading drainage company- London Drainage Facilities. Fraser takes a keen interest in London’s history and keeps up to date on news on the drainage systems in London, old and new.