Tag Archives: Joseph Bazalgette

London filth

Lee Jackson loves filth. His new book, Dirty Old London, is full of the stuff, as he explores Victorian London’s attempts to cleanse a city that is swilling in muck. I’ve often wondered what Victorian London would have smelled like, and Jackson’s book comes close to capturing what must have been a frightful stink. I knew about the horse shit and the smoke, but had never considered the mud, blood, unwashed bodies, corpses and human excrement that, collectively, would have made the Victorian city one of the foulest places on earth. It’s astonishing anybody wanted to live there.

Jackson shows how Victorians began to push against the tide of muck, which grew worse as London’s population swelled. Victorians did not consider dirt in itself to be a carrier of disease, but they believed the smell could be lethal as well as deeply unpleasant, so eventually set about doing something about it. They built pavements, sewers, public baths and indoor lavatories, improved housing, dug cemeteries and generally tried to do something about “that combined odour of stale fruit and vegetables, rotten eggs, foul tobacco, spilt beer, rank cart-grease, dried soot, smoke, triturated road-dust and damp straw’. They weren’t always successful – some of those aromatic problems lingered long into the 20th century when they were eventually dealt with, or in the case of horse manure, replaced by something even worse such as exhaust fumes.

In explaining how this happened, Jackson is far more entertaining than anybody has the right to be on such a subject. Rather than focus on the well-trod tales of John Snow and Joseph Bazalgette – both of whom barely feature, thankfully – Jackson resuscitates the lives of less well known figures in this lengthy campaign against dirt, characters like reformer Edwin Chadwick who laid much of the groundwork for what was to follow. In the process, he shows how Victorian London functioned – the haphazard, individual-driven nature that saw things get done, or not, as the case might be.

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Indecency by Isaac Cruikshank

This is a history with potentially narrow focus, but Jackson – a general historian of the unstuffy, non-academic variety – is removed enough from the subject to be able to show its wider importance and long-term effects. One theme of the book is the way sanitisation – in the form of sewage, rubbish and housing – was the hinge on which London’s social contract turned. For much of the 19th-century, the bewildering array of local authorities that ran London saw their role as, essentially, to keep out the way. They did as little as necessary, thus keeping rates low and relying on private enterprise to fill the gap. But as London grew, getting bigger and smellier every year, this system began to creak. A good example is with the dustmen. Collecting and recycling London’s rubbish was a lucrative job for some entrepreneurs, but not so much for the dustmen themselves, who had to rely on tips to make a living. And given that tips were much more likely to be acquired in rich areas, the poorer streets were increasingly neglected, allowing rubbish to pile higher and higher. Local authorities had to step in to fix this, and it gradually became the accepted role of local authorities in the UK until Thatcherite councils like Wandsworth in the 1980s began to perceive different, pre-Victorian, way of running things.

Jackson also touches on a related angle: the increasing movement of public buildings into private hands. In this case, it’s centred round the Victorian public lavatories, which were only built after ferocious lobbying from some notable figures who recognised the desperate need on the streets for London loos.  The story of how those toilets were eventually built is fascinating in itself, but Jackson also notes the fact that so many have recently been closed, flogged, refurbished and then sold back to us as coffee shops, galleries and an “award winning urban spa”. Perhaps this is the fault of the Victorians, for making things so well and so adaptable, but you can’t help feeling that, now as then, it stinks.

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Secret London: stink pipes

There is one of these just around the corner from where I live.

Herne Hill stink pipe

It’s long, thin, green and old and thrusts straight into the air like a giant’s, er, finger. It’s not a telegraph pole – there are no wires coming off it – and it’s too tall to be a broken street lamp.

It is, in fact, a stink pipe, one of four such items of street furniture that can be found within a half-mile radius of Brixton Water Lane. These stink pipe were built around the same time as London’s Victorian sewer network in the 1860s and are basically just huge hollow pipes that allow potentially lethal gas to escape into the atmosphere, far above the rooftops.  They often seem to located near the locations of culverted rivers – these ones are found more or less on the route of the Effra or its tributaries – suggesting that when these rivers were incorporated into the sewer system, they required some sort of additional safety valve (the buried Fleet famously exploded at King’s Cross after just such a build-up of gas in 1846).

Some stinkpipes are rather elaborate, but the ones I’ve seen around Herne Hill and Brixton are pretty basic and utilitarian. If you want to find some finer examples, like the fine crowned stench pipes of Kennington Cross, you should check out the excellent London Stench Pipes blog, which is devoted to these marvellous oddities leftover from Victorian London.

Inside the Fleet: exploring London’s lost rivers

I wrote this piece for Time Out in 2005 and for some reason it’s never been available online. Until now.

It’s only as the filthy brown water rises above my thigh-high waders and my feet struggle to grip the tunnel’s slimy floor that I realise that drowning in a river of shit after breaking into a London sewer would be a really, really crap way to die.

It all began so well. I found Jondoe and Stoop, two urban explorers who get their kicks investigating drains, lost rivers and derelict buildings, on the internet and asked them if I could come on their next journey beneath the city streets.

We met near Farringdon. The plan is to explore one of London’s lost rivers, the Fleet, which once flowed from Hampstead to Blackfriars. Although long bricked over, the Fleet, like many of London’s old rivers, still flows underground through a series of pipes and culverts. Joseph Bazalgette integrated these rivers into his sewer system, using them as storm-relief drains to carry overspill into the Thames when the main east-west sewers were swelled beyond capacity. These days, heavy rain can still cause sewage to flow into the river via the Fleet.

Jondoe and Stoop have been in the Fleet before, but turned back when the stench became overwhelming for even these experienced drainers. This time, they are determined to reach the end. They believe no other UK urban explorer has made the trip, largely because it takes considerable planning to find a way into London drains. Urban explorers are driven by a combination of adrenalin and curiosity, and take their hobby seriously. This trip has been months in the planning. They’ve popped many manholes looking for the right entry point, and the weather has to be right – no rain for at least three days before we enter.

In a nearby car park, we change into waders, boiler suits, flourescent vests and hard hats – the latter more for disguise than protection. Carrying a couple of traffic cones, we’re suddenly transformed into construction workers, practically invisible to passers-by. Nobody bats an eyelid as we walk through busy streets to the selected manhole, stick some cones round it, lift the cover and climb down the ladder into the gloom.

We enter a feeder tunnel with a five-foot ceiling, which means we have to abandon our hats and walk with cricked necks. It’s cramped, damp, dank and dirty but doesn’t smell too bad. Stoop and Jondoe glide like skaters along the slippery floor while I splash clumsily behind, using slimy walls to keep my balance. We head downwards along a series of mini-waterfalls. The light and noise that intermittently emerges from the grates overhead suggest we aren’t getting deeper, but simply following the gradient of the road. It’s a curious feeling, being isolated in the dark but with occasional glimpses of London reminding us that normal life continues up above.

Eventually we reach the end of the feeder tunnel and swing into the Fleet itself using broadband cables that make useful subterranean handrails. It stinks in here and the air is heavy with a strange mist. Jondoe points north, to where the Fleet is blocked by the main east-west sewer. Ominous clumps of matter fester in pools all around. ‘Don’t disturb them,’ he says. ‘It’ll be full of gas that just sits there and collects.’

As he speaks, one of the hard hats we’d left by the entry point shoots out of the feeder tunnel on a wave and floats towards the Thames, bobbing along the shallow water that moves sluggishly down the centre of the tunnel.

We follow, heading south. The tunnel is around ten feet tall and wide, so we can walk two abreast. It’s about the same size as a tube tunnel. The smell slowly subsides, although lumps of faeces and toilet paper gather in places where they’ve washed against the brickwork. Otherwise, there’s just a trickle of brown water ferrying the odd cotton-bud downriver.

It’s no hellhole, but still a far cry from the Fleet’s sixteenth-century heyday as one of London’s key tributaries, when, flanked by wharves and warehouses, it was a centre of London commerce. It separated Westminster from the City and carried cargo to the Thames, was compared unfavourably with the four rivers of Hades by Ben Jonson, was briefly turned into a canal and then covered in portions from 1732, by which time it was little more than an open sewer.

But this was not the end of it. In 1846, the Fleet exploded, its sewage gasses bursting the street above, rendering King’s Cross Road impassable, destroying Clerkenwell poorhouses and smashing a Thames steamboat against Blackfriars Bridge. This river, it seems, has a habit of coming back to ambush those who thought it dead and buried.

Almost two centuries later, traffic and police sirens are audible overhead, competing with the constant crash of water that flows from numerous side tunnels, feeding the central trickle. Rats stop and stare as we walk past. I nervously keep my torch shining on them until we have moved on.

Before Ludgate Circus, the Fleet splits into two parallel tunnels, directly replicating the pattern of Farringdon Street overhead. Otherwise, it’s impossible to work out exactly where we are. The tunnel heads south, but is full of turns. At one point we notice large iron rings cemented into the wall. They are support for scaffolding, but look like mooring rings. Throughout, the Victorian brickwork is surprisingly beautiful for something that is so rarely seen.

 

After about two miles of trudging, we emerge into an enormous end chamber, more than 20-feet high and elaborate in design and construction. Two short tunnels lead from here, ending in huge metal flaps, which we assume open directly into the Thames.

After taking pictures, we head back. Immediately, we realise there’s a problem. It’s much harder to walk uphill against the flow of water. On the way down, the water was a stream, heading back, it’s more like a river. We labour onwards and upwards in the dark, but it’s tough work.

Stoop eventually says what we’ve all been thinking. ‘Is it just me,’ he asks, ‘Or is the water getting deeper?’

Water which before barely covered our feet is now above our knees, flooding downhill towards us at pace and rising slowly all the time. Wading into the tide, our clothes are heavy with water and our feet struggle to grip the slimy stone floor. Panicking rats scurry up the walls to get out the way of the bubbling water.

 It’s frightening. Nobody knows we are down here and as our pace slows I begin to ponder our options. Should we press on, or brave a side tunnel, where a ladder may at least take us above water level, so we can sit it out. But how long would that take? And what if the water keeps rising and the side tunnel we’re in doesn’t have access to the street? 

We reach a turn where the water has become a torrent and Stoop tries to brace himself against the tide but instead starts sliding backwards towards me, threatening to skittle us all into the dirty water. For a split second I consider what an undignified death this would make, and with one final effort we press on, forcing ourselves to a point where we can stand without getting knocked off our feet. But we’re exhausted.

Then Jondoe shouts, ‘That’s where we came in!’ It is indeed. We pull ourselves up into the feeder drain via the broadband cable and watch the river below us boil to a frenzy. The Fleet is back with a vengeance. Later Jondoe explains, ‘Somewhere further up the sewer they must have been doing some maintenance and so diverted the flow down the Fleet.’ It is, he says, something he’s never experienced before.

Twenty minutes later, after an exhausting walk through the smaller drain in the course of which I bang my head several times on overhanging pipes and bricks, I haul my battered, sodden body up the ladder and into the sunshine. It’s bright outside. The air smells clean. Half-a-dozen people across the road pay us no heed as we emerge from the manhole and sit slumped in the road, moving only to remove our waders and empty them back down the drain.

We trek back to the car in soaking socks, leaving a trail of footprints behind us.