A few days ago I discovered that the free Woolwich ferry service was introduced in 1889 at the behest of Sir Joseph Bazalgette (1819 – 1891). That man again. Once one begins to study London’s history in any kind of depth, his name crops up time after time. His dabs are everywhere. And yet, for one who made such an impact on the topography of our city and the health of its citizens, this Victorian engineer remains relatively obscure to the public at large.
Basil Jet. A strange name. Like his near-contemporaries the Brunels, Bazalgette’s family were immigrants from France in the late 18th Century. Isambard Brunel knew Joseph Bazalgette well and, in fact, strongly endorsed him for the post of Chief Engineer of the Metropolitan Board of Works in 1856. Bazalgette held this post for over 30 years, during which time he transformed London’s landscape – above and below ground – in a thousand ways.
His greatest achievement, that for which he is remembered at all, was to build London’s modern sewage system, the same one which serves us to this day, 150 years later. Bazalgette had already been heavily involved in improvements to London’s sewage works during the 1840s. Welcome as this was, it could not keep up with the twofold problem: raw sewage overflowing into the streets; and all sewage being dispersed directly into the Thames of Central London. Things came to a head in 1858, the year of the “Great Stink”. A particularly hot summer made life in London literally unbearable. Parliament was virtually unable to operate and almost decamped to Oxford or Henley. So they passed a Bill to give London’s chief engineer full rein to come up with a proper solution.
Bazalgette and his team set to work, building the new system in stages, which took until the early 1870s. In calculating the diameter of the pipes, he made a generous estimate of the daily “poo-age” of an adult and multiplied this by the population count. This gave him his figure. Then, the far-sighted engineer doubled it, hence giving at least four times the volume immediately required. Had he not done this, it’s estimated our sewers would have overflowed sometime in the 1960s.
In order to carry all of London’s sewage many miles downstream, Bazalgette had to build a huge main running parallel to the Thames. This involved embanking the river from Chelsea all the way to Blackfriars, creating the Albert (1868), Victoria (1870) and Chelsea (1874) Embankments and creating 52 acres of dry land. The work also allowed for the building of the Metropolitan District Line (now District/Circle) of the Underground through most of this section and above ground giving us the lovely Embankment Gardens between the river and the first ranks of buildings.
Of course, moving vast quantities of sewage required four massive steam-powered pumping stations and Bazalgette oversaw their construction: Deptford (1865), Crossness (1865), Abbey Mills (1868), and Western (1875). Although decommissioned, the linked stations still exist. They are remarkably beautiful given their mundane though essential duties.
The by-product of this magnificent system was that it almost eradicated cholera in the city entirely, quite apart from myriad other health benefits. Bazalgette viewed himself very much as a sanitation engineer first and foremost, taking great pride in his contribution to the public health.
While all this was going on, Bazalgette had to take care of all his day-to-day duties as well, which mainly involved managing surveys and reports of umpteen other projects to the Board.
In 1877, all London’s bridges were taken into public ownership and made toll-free. Bazalgette had to survey them all. Finding three of them not up to scratch, he rebuilt them to his own design: Battersea Bridge, the beautiful Hammersmith suspension bridge, and Putney Bridge. All are still with us today, although Hammersmith is not up to the hard work any more and is restricted. Only vociferous opposition by local residents has saved her from replacement in the recent past. Putney, perhaps surprisingly, is London’s busiest road bridge.
We come to the roads. Like the Thames and the sewers and the bridges, the roads of London were completely inadequate by the late 19C. Bazalgette involved himself of the building or re-building of at least five of our best-known thoroughfares: Charing Cross Road, Shaftesbury Avenue (new build), Northumberland Avenue (new build), Southwark Street, Queen Victoria Street.
Such was Bazalgette’s renown, he was approached by cities and towns, both in Britain and abroad (Pest in Hungary, Odessa in Russia), to act as consultant on improving their amenities. Somehow, he found time to do this too.
Born in Enfield, London’s greatest engineer was very much a Londoner. He lived for many years in St John’s Wood and died at his home in Wimbledon in 1891. He and his wife Maria had 10 children. One of his present day descendents gave us the TV programme Big Brother (O tempora, O mores!).
If you cross the road from Embankment Station and walk 50 yards or so upstream, you will see the portrait bust memorial to Sir Joseph Bazalgette, surely an inadequate commemoration for the man who gave us so much.
So next time you are “on the throne”, or wandering up Shaftesbury Avenue, or sitting on a bench in Embankment Gardens, or driving over Putney Bridge, or travelling on the District Line, remember Wren’s self-penned epitaph, which applies equally to Sir Joseph Bazalgette: LECTOR, SI MONUMENTUM REQUIRIS CIRCUMSPICE, Reader, if you seek his monument look around you.
Dictionary of National Biography portrait by Denis Smith (subscription required)
A very good book covering the sewers is The Great Stink by Stephen Halliday.