A large group of men posed in front of and on top of the brick wall forming part of the overflow reservoir at Crossness Pumping Station.  Most of the men are smartly dressed complete with top hats. A sign on the wall reads “WEIR WALLS FOR OVERFLOW OF SEWAGE AND TO PREVENT RESERVOIR BEING UNDER PRESSURE”.
A group portrait beside the newly built reservoir walls at Crossness Pumping Station, Bexley, Greater London, 1860s. Source: Historic England Archive OP04618
A group portrait beside the newly built reservoir walls at Crossness Pumping Station, Bexley, Greater London, 1860s. Source: Historic England Archive OP04618

The Great Stink - How the Victorians Transformed London to Solve the Problem of Waste

The smell of human waste and industrial effluent hung over Victorian London. For centuries the River Thames had been used as a dumping ground for the capital’s waste and as the population grew, so did the problem.

The hot summer of 1858 elevated the stench to an unbearable level and resulted in an episode known as ‘The Great Stink’.

Creating a stink – a call to action

In the first half of the 19th century London was growing rapidly. More people meant more sewage.

The vast majority of homes were built without flush toilets. ‘Night soil men’ collected some of the solid waste for use as fertilzer but much found its way onto the capital’s streets or into its watercourses. Flush toilets merely displaced the problem from the home into London’s old sewers and onward to the Thames.

From 1831 London suffered a series of cholera outbreaks. At the time, the inhalation of ‘foul air' was widely thought to be responsible for the spread of this dreaded disease. Many blamed the fetid smell that hung over the River Thames – by this time little more than an enormous sewer.

In reality cholera is a waterborne disease. It was carried in the sewage polluting the city’s watercourses and passed to the capital’s population when they ingested polluted water.

The scorching summer of 1858 brought things to a head. As the heat increased, centuries of waste in the Thames began to ferment.

Even the Houses of Parliament, recently rebuilt beside the great river, was not exempt. When attempts to mask the smell didn’t work, there was talk of moving parliament away from its expensive new home in Westminster.

Repulsed by the smell and worried by the possible effects on the health of London’s inhabitants, the politicians finally acted.

They accepted a proposal for a new sewage system for "... preventing as far as may be practicable, the sewage of the Metropolis from passing into the River Thames within the Metropolis."

Sir Joseph Bazalgette’s scheme

Responsibility for realising the scheme fell upon the shoulders of Joseph Bazalgette, Chief Engineer of the Metropolitan Board of Works. He and his team constructed a series of interconnecting sewers which carried the effluent eastwards and out to the Thames Estuary. Once away from the main centres of population, it would be dispatched on the outgoing tide.

The scheme also involved the construction of embankments along large sections of the river in central London. The embankments not only concealed the new sewers, they also acted as flood defences.

Embanking the river proved unpopular with some. Many houses, warehouses and businesses with river frontages lost their boat access to the Thames. This caused inconvenience to some and the loss of livelihoods for others. In some areas whole stretches of the waterfront were demolished resulting in the loss of entire communities.

Embanking the Thames – gallery of lost London

Bazalgette’s embankment scheme resulted in the loss of a number of streets and wharfs close to the Thames foreshore. Lambeth, on the south side of the river, was particularly affected. The remarkable photographs below are a window back in time to the communities and businesses that were lost to the project.

Cannon Row Wharf, downstream from Westminster Bridge, specialised in the trading of coal. A wagon laden with sacks of produce (probably coal) can be seen beside the vessel moored at the water’s edge. The wharf and much of the surrounding area was swept away during the construction of the Victoria Embankment.

These buildings near Lambeth Palace were demolished for construction of The Albert Embankment. They stood on the south bank of the Thames opposite Millbank. From the medieval period a horse ferry, connecting Lambeth Palace to Westminster, operated close to this site. With the opening of Lambeth Bridge in 1862 the ancient ferry crossing became redundant.

... the people in Lower Fore Street, Lambeth obtained their water by dipping a pail into the Thames, there being no other supply in the street.

'On the mode of communication of cholera' by Dr John Snow, 1849

Lower Fore Street in Lambeth was demolished during the building of the Albert Embankment in the late 1860s. Inhabitants of this part of Lambeth, close to the waterfront, lived wretched lives in damp, cheaply built houses. The lack of indoor plumbing or standpipes in the streets meant they had little option but to take their drinking water from the Thames.

The first victim of the cholera outbreak of 1848 was unemployed labourer John Murphy who lived at 26 Lower Fore Street. He may have been one of the many migrants who moved to Lambeth from famine stricken Ireland.

In 1849 Dr John Snow, a London based physician, published a paper 'On the Mode of Communication of Cholera', in which he posited the theory that cholera was a waterborne disease. His theory was based partly on his observations in Lower Fore Street. In his paper he described how "... the people in Lower Fore Street, Lambeth obtained their water by dipping a pail into the Thames, there being no other supply in the street."

When cholera struck Lambeth in 1848 it was the poor people, living in streets such as New Street, who suffered most. Over 1,500 of Lambeth’s waterfront population died in this one outbreak alone. Contemporary reports describe 3 deaths within 12 hours in Princess Street which lay immediately adjacent to New Street.

Many took their drinking water straight from the polluted river. Where piped water existed the outlook was little better. This part of the borough received water from the Southwark and Vauxhall Company which drew its supplies direct from the Thames. Households served by the Southwark and Vauxhall Company were almost five times more likely to contract cholera than their neighbours supplied by the Lambeth Water Company.

The children seen here, some in bare feet, would not call New Street home for much longer. Shortly after this photograph was taken the street was demolished to make way for The Albert Embankment.

This view, looking south from Lambeth Bridge, shows the foreshore at Lambeth prior to construction of the Albert Embankment.

In the first half of the 19th century Lambeth was the industrial hub of London. It was particularly rich in pottery works. In the centre of the image are the works of Doulton and Company.

Although the presence of Doulton’s works undoubtedly added to the pollution in Lambeth, the company advanced the provision of clean water to households across the UK and beyond. In 1846 Henry Doulton established a works for the production of glazed stoneware pipes. The pipes provided a cleaner, more sanitary means of supplying piped water – ultimately improving the health of the population.

Many of Lambeth’s potteries closed in the mid-20th century as a result of restrictions caused by clean air regulations.

These are the premises of James Cann, bone, soap, lime and whiting merchant, at Lion Wharf, Lambeth. They were demolished with the construction of the Albert Embankment.

In a letter to The Times newspaper in 1849 ‘A Ratepayer’ articulated the common belief that ‘bad air’ was to blame for the spread of cholera. He placed responsibility, in part at least, at the door of businesses such as James Cann’s.

Sir, Surely the undoubted fact that there have been more cases of malignant cholera in Lambeth than in any other district ought to rouse the authorities … to stay its progress, by demanding the immediate removal of those pestiferous nuisances existing under the name of bone and soap boiling manufactories, etc. If, as Dr Bely asserts, the spread of cholera … is attributable to the dreadful stench thrown over the river from these works, how much more fearful must the effect be in the immediate locality!

'A Ratepayer' Letter to 'The Times', 1849

Embanking the Thames – gallery of construction photos

By embanking large sections of the River Thames in central London, Bazalgette's scheme not only concealed new sewers, but also created flood defences for the capital.

Here the wall of Chelsea Embankment, west of Albert Bridge, is virtually complete. Paving of the walkway is underway. Newly planted trees can be seen along the pavement.

The buildings in this photograph of circa 1873 are on Duke Street (foreground) and Lombard Street. The south side of both streets has been demolished to allow for construction work to begin. Neither of these streets exists today. Other than the embankment, only Chelsea Old Church (All Saints) and the Albert Bridge still survive.

This view is looking east from the Albert Bridge along the newly constructed wall of the Chelsea Embankment. The houses visible to the left, behind an avenue of trees, are on Cheyne Walk.

In contrast to the impoverished streets of Lambeth, this part of London was inhabited by some of the capital’s most affluent residents. When Charles Booth compiled his ‘Maps Descriptive of London Poverty’ between 1898 and 1899, the houses shown here were classified as belonging to the ‘Upper-middle and upper classes’.

These houses originally fronted onto the Thames foreshore. During the process of embankment, approximately 40 metres of land was reclaimed from the river. This reclaimed land, visible beyond the wall, became Chelsea Embankment Gardens.

The men are posed on a platform beside the Thames just upstream of Hungerford Bridge, which is partially visible in the background. The photograph was probably taken from a point now within Victoria Embankment Gardens. Behind them, across the Thames, the Lion Brewery and the shot tower of Lambeth Lead Works can be seen. In the mid-19th century this part of the river’s south bank was heavily industrialised.

Somerset House was built in 1776 on the site of a Tudor palace belonging to the Duke of Somerset. Prior to the embankment of the Thames it fronted directly onto the river. An archway allowed boats to pass into the building. In this view life appears to be continuing as normal in spite of the construction work. Boats moored in front of Somerset House carry advertisements for theatre shows and pleasure trips.

Cleopatra’s needle is an Egyptian obelisk dating from about 1475 BC. It was brought from Egypt in 1877 and erected on the Victoria Embankment in 1878. This stretch of embankment was laid out in 1864-70 under the direction of Joseph Bazalgette for the Metropolitan Board of Works. It runs from the Palace of Westminster to Blackfriars Bridge.

The construction of Queen Victoria Street took place between 1867 and 1871. It was part of a programme of road and rail improvements, and was designed to link Bank with Bazalgette’s newly built Victoria Embankment, from which easy access could be made to Westminster. This view is looking due east from a point close to Victoria Embankment. The dome of St Paul’s Cathedral can be seen in the distance, with the brick tower of St Andrew’s by the Wardrobe in the middle distance. St Andrew’s survived construction of Queen Victoria Street only to be badly damaged during the London Blitz. It was rebuilt in 1961 and is now a Grade I listed building.

Bazalgette’s pumping stations – cathedrals of sewage

Alongside the sewers and embankments, the scheme included a whole series of pumping stations. They served to remove waste from the metropolis.

Crossness Pumping Station, now a Grade I listed building, was designed by Sir Joseph Bazalgette and architect Charles Henry Driver. It was opened on 4 April 1865 by Edward, Prince of Wales.

The architectural historian Nikolaus Pevsner, author of the 46-volume series ‘Buildings of England’, described its ornamental cast ironwork as "... a masterpiece of engineering – a Victorian Cathedral of ironwork." 

Like Crossness, Abbey Mills Pumping Station in East London was designed by Bazalgette and Driver. It was used to pump much of the sewage from the East End of London towards its discharge point at Beckton. Nicknamed the 'Cathedral of Sewage', it was listed Grade II* in 1974.

The legacy and the future

Parliament approved expenditure of £2,500,000 (about £300 million today) in order to undertake Bazalgette’s scheme. This remarkable feat of engineering resulted in the replacement of over 150 miles of old sewers and the construction of over 1,000 miles of new ones, requiring 318 million bricks. Not only were bricks in short supply during the project, so were bricklayers whose wages increased by around 20% as a result.

Despite the costs in financial and human terms, Bazalgette's new sewerage system proved a success. It helped to keep contaminated waste from sources of drinking water and thereby significantly reduced the threat to Londoners from waterborne disease.

It also succeeded in removing, or rather displacing, the smell of raw sewage from central London. Unfortunately complaints began from those downstream where the untreated effluent now entered the Thames.

The solution was to commission a fleet of vessels to deposit the waste out at sea. This form of waste management remained legal until surprisingly recently – it was banned by a European Union directive in 1998.

We're building a super-sewer under the Thames to intercept those nasty spills and clean up our river for the good of the city, its wildlife and you.

Tideway website

Bazalgette’s Victorian sewers now struggle to cope with the waste created by London’s ever expanding population. As a result millions of tonnes of raw sewage are once again spilling into the Thames each year. To remedy this, construction of a new ‘mega’ sewer is underway with a target completion date of 2023. The mission of the Thames Tideway Scheme echoes that of Sir Joseph Bazalgette over 160 years earlier: "... to intercept those nasty spills and clean up our river for the good of the city, its wildlife and you."