Pat here—dragging you down into the sewers with me. Silly me, I started poking around Roman sewers for a plot point in next spring’s School of Magic series, and then, of course, I had to look up Victorian sewers to see how my various heroes would repair the plumbing in their respective renovations. (Ask me about our 21st century plumbing problems, and you’ll know where I get my ideas!)
My poking dropped me down a research bunny hole I thought you might find entertaining. I don’t suppose any of you have ever seen the fabulous Victorian pumping stations in London? (That's the Abbey Mills station in the photo) Absolutely enormous, decorated better than any early 20th century movie palace—for sewage. The mind boggles. So does the story.
The sewer story starts in June 1858 when London underwent a horrific heat wave. Now, that might not have been so problematic under normal circumstances, but it just so happens that the brand new Houses of Parliament were almost, finally, completed after the disastrous fire in 1834. All the lords and representatives were rightfully eager to move in. As the heat gathered, the River Thames, right outside the windows of Parliament, ripened—horrifically. Try to imagine a hot manure pile combined with an overripe outhouse coupled with the chemical sulfur smell of methane. . .
The Thames had been polluted since the beginning of time. Generally, houses had cesspools and the night-soil men would clean them out and haul the waste away as fertilizer. But liquids seeping through the cesspools, horse dung, and open sewers all washed into the river. To make matters worse, at the end of the eighteenth century, the invention of the flush toilet allowed sewage to be washed directly into the water, bypassing the rudimentary protection of the cesspools.
To show you how bad it was, here’s a gas light on Carting Lane that was originally lit by the methane gas from the build-up of decomposing–umm–materials in the sewers. Obviously, the lane was nicknamed Farting Lane.
Parliament tried everything to block out the stench of the river, including soaking sheets in disinfectant and hanging them in the windows. But the brand new, extremely expensive building, was quite obviously uninhabitable. Fear of disease alone prevented any work getting done.
In the 1850s they had microscopes that could examine the water and see all the filthy creatures floating around in it. They suspected a connection between disease and contaminated drinking water, but the prevailing theory was that disease was caused by foul air. Parliament didn’t fear the water—although they certainly should have. They feared the smell of it.
If the Thames couldn’t be cleaned up, they would have to abandon the new Parliament and relocate outside London. Desperate politicians performed the impossible—they passed a bill for a new sewage system for all London in eighteen days. By the end of July, they had approved the expenditure of £2.5 million (about £300 million in today’s money). The Big Stink had to have driven them out of their minds.
In 1855, an act had been passed centralizing the sewer and water systems. The act allowed a sewage system that would be for “preventing as far as may be practicable, the sewage of the Metropolis from passing into the River Thames within the Metropolis.” The language, plus the enormous allotment of funds, allowed Joseph Bazalgette, chief engineer of the Metropolitan Board of Works, to put into action an ambitious plan he’d been working on for years.
If you want to read more about how Bazalgette replaced 165 miles of sewer and built 1100 miles of new ones, start here. https://www.open.edu/openlearn/science-maths-technology/engineering-technology/how-london-got-its-victorian-sewers
Without mechanical diggers, they had to shovel 3.5 million cubic yards of earth and lay 318 million bricks and made previously unknown Portland cement a household word. It took until 1868 to finish the entire project, well over budget, needless to say.
My poor hero is a mere engineer without that kind of money or royalty to help him, but I now know he can use Portland cement to repair anything that needs repairing.
How much reality do you want to see in your historical romance? <G>