Tunnelling on London’s ‘Super Sewer’ is officially complete. Once operational in 2025 the £4.5 billion pound project will dramatically reduce pollution of the River Thames. Pat Poland recalls London’s first such undertaking, built by an Irish-trained engineer, married to a Kilkenny lady, whose design was credited with saving countless lives.
Between 1800 and 1850 the population of London more than doubled to over three million – making it by far the largest city in the world – and the lack of planning and infrastructure to support the burgeoning population meant that the effluent from filthy streams, ditches, leaching cess-pits and antiquated drainage pipes, all ended up, untreated in any way, in the river Thames where the detritus simply ebbed and flowed up and down with the tide.
It looked, according to the scientist Michael Faraday, like ‘an opaque pale brown fluid’. Benjamin Disraeli described the Thames as a ‘Stygian pool reeking with ineffable and unbearable horror’. In Westminster, his fellow-MPs clutched their hankies to their noses and carried on their business behind curtains soaked in chloride of lime to try to counter the overpowering stench.
The fumes alone given off by this deadly cocktail, thought the Victorians, could strike a person dead. For as long as anyone could remember, it was assumed – even by the medical profession – that the odour emanating from the Thames – the ‘miasma’, as they called it – was responsible for the catastrophic cholera epidemics that had plagued the city from time to time.
An outbreak in 1832 killed over 6,000, followed by 14,000 in 1849. In 1854 a further 10,000 succumbed to the disease. That same year, London physician Dr John Snow was among the first to suspect that the cause was not the airborne so-called ‘noxious vapours’ but drinking contaminated water from the public pumps and wells with which the city was supplied.
Now, in the heatwave of 1858, the stagnant, fetid waters of the Thames reeked to high heaven leading to what Londoners called ‘The Great Stink’. The powers-that-be had had enough. Disraeli introduced legislation for ‘the purification of the Thames and the main drainage of the Metropolis’.
The recently-established Metropolitan Board of Works was empowered to raise £3 million (short of €500 million today) and given the go-ahead to commence work without delay.
And the man entrusted with the mammoth task was Irish-trained, thirty-nine-year old Joseph Bazalgette, Chief Engineer with the Board of Works.