Drainage and Sewage

The Victorian period saw a revolution in how water and waste from the home was disposed of through drainage and sewage systems. This was made possible by advancements in the understanding of disease, and technological developments in how waste could be collected, transferred and treated.

For an example of the Victorian struggle with the challenge of drainage and sewage disposal, London offers the most extreme and well-documented example.

By the 18th century, London was the biggest city in the world. London's population surged during the 19th century, from about 1 million in 1800, reaching 2,362,000 by 1851 and over 6 million by 1900. A combination of this growth and scientific ignorance led inevitably to a major disease problem but also to the investigation of epidemics, and to the development of the infrastructure of the city.

Until 1800, the river Thames remained fairly clean. Although some sewage passed into the river, Some sewage was collected by the night-soil men. These workers would take the waste away in carts to farms for use as fertiliser.

The flush toilet, or water-closet, became increasingly popular in the 18th century but by the early 19th this was causing a major pollution problem in London. These WCs discharged into old cess-pits. These overflowed into the surface water sewers beneath the streets, and thence to old streams such as the Fleet, the Wandle, the West Bourne, the Ravensbourne, the New, and the Holbourne, some of which had been covered over, and finally to the Thames. All became no more than stinking sewers.

In 1848, Parliament passed the Public Health Act. This specified some kind of sanitary arrangement in every house. It could be a flushing toilet, privy, or an ash pit.

With inadequate drains and polluted rivers, it was inevitable that a disaster would occur, but at the time this was not understood. From 1831, there were several cholera epidemics in British towns and cities, the first in Sunderland. The London epidemics each killed as many as 20,000 people. In 1854 a doctor, John Snow, traced a London cholera outbreak to a specific water pump in Soho, and contamination from a nearby sewer.

In the summer of 1858 the 'Great Stink of London' overwhelmed all those in the vicinity of the Thames - including the occupants of Parliament. Parliament was suspended as window blinds made from sacking saturated with disinfectant failed to deal with the smell.

These two events led to legislation enabling the Metropolitan Board of Works to begin work on sewage improvements in London.

By 1866 most of London was connected to a sewer network devised by Joseph Bazalgette. The flow of foul water from the old sewers and underground rivers was intercepted and diverted to flow along 85 miles of new sewers built behind embankments at the edge of the Thames and taken to new treatment works. The East End was not included in the programme, and in 1866 this area suffered once more from cholera.

Similar projects were carried out in other British towns and cities, and newer suburban developments incorporated sewers as they were built. For example in 1849, Croydon became one of the first towns in England to set up a Local Board of Health. The Board constructed a reservoir, several miles of pipes and sewers, a pumping station, and a sewage disposal works.