In the footsteps of Sir Joseph Bazalgette

pointing hand vintage image graphicsfairy1 flipWho?  Certainly dear old Sir Joseph (1819-1891), isn’t one of the most famous of people from our beloved bygone age of steam and Victorian invention, particularly if we’re thinking of IKB, but it transpires that we should thank him for a number of things, the great civil engineer that he was.  Sir Joe did, like IKB, get involved with railways, and we have Sir Joe to thank for the Thames Embankments, for Battersea, Hammersmith and Putney Bridges, and many other of London’s capital projects. So he was quite a guy, someone who has left his mark on our fair capital.  But, dear reader, we have Sir Joseph Bazalgette to thank for solving the issue of… The Great Stink!

Now for those of you who are unaware of this problem, The Great Stink of 1858 (and previous years too), was due to the poor condition of the London sewers.  In the early C19th no fewer than eight authorities had control of (or lack thereof) the London sewage system and the River Thames was, basically, an open sewer for the entire capital (population 1.7 million).  The Thames was also the main water supply for the capital. Quid pro quo, QED etc. – typhoid and cholera were not uncommon in the early to mid 1800’s.  In 1848/9 the number of deaths due to cholera in the lower reaches of the Thames was some four times higher than further upsteam where the water was cleaner.  Rotherhithe was backed up with sewage for up to twenty hours a day depending on the tide.  In 1858 the stink was so great that the situation in the Houses of Parliament at Westminster was so obnoxious that the Government realised that something had to be done.  Enter Sir Joe.

Sir Joseph, as Chief Engineer to the Metropolitan Commission for Sewers, had proposed in 1853 that a system of sewers be developed to channel sewage eastwards to a treatment plant where “deodorized water” would be discharged into the river.  Two main sewers, one north  and the other south of the river, would collect the outfall from the sewers that had previously flowed into the Thames.  These collecting sewers were constructed in brick and housed within what are the Victoria Embankment (to the north) and the Albert Embankment (to the south).  Work had started in 1856 and was completed in 1859 largely urged on following the summer of ’58. Eighty two miles of intercepting sewers were constructed, connecting to 450 miles of main sewers, serving 13,000 mile of local sewers. This had to handle half a million gallons of waste per day!  So where did it go?

The two halves of the Main Drainage Scheme, north and south of the river, are broadly similar, and the principle upon which each is based was very simple. In short, get the sewage to the east of London, store it until high tide, then release it.  The southern system led to Crossness where the effluent was pumped up into a reservoir where it was held until high tide when it was released into the Thames.  This reservoir had to be capable of being emptied within six hours (before the next incoming tide).  To do all the pumping Sir Joseph built The Southern Outfall Works, now called the Crossness Pumping Station.  Steam engines ran the pumps that pulled the sewage in the reservoirs from the sewers. As might have been expected at a time when Victorian Gothic was on the rise (Pugin was building the new Palace of Westminster, Barlow was constructing St Pancras Station…), the pumping station was ornate; built in the Romanesque style it was a cathedral on the marshes of south east London.

So why are we purveying all this information about London’s stinking past?  Well, firstly the Crossness Pumping Station still exists (in the grounds of a modern sewage treatment plant). Moreover it has been lovingly restored; it’s a Grade I Listed Industrial Building, it has steam pumps that work!!!! And on Sunday 28th September there is a Steampunk Convivial occurring there. And!!!! Steampunk Morris will be performing there!!!!!  So we follow in Sir Joseph’s footsteps, with welly boots on perchance, to strut our stuff within a temple to London’s ancient crap.

PS  This is, unless things change in the meantime, our last public performance of the 2014 morris season.

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