Arts feature

The poetry of sewers

28 September 2019

9:00 AM

28 September 2019

9:00 AM

‘Welcome,’ says our guide Stuart Bellehewe, with an imperious sweep of his arm, ‘to the cathedral of shit.’ Before us rises Abbey Mills Pumping Station in all its grade II*-listed glory. It arose on east London’s marshes in 1868, giving Victorians a fecally fixated premonition of postmodernism’s fetish for mashing up architectural styles. Observe, urges Stuart, the Russian Orthodox-style cupola surmounting the cathedral, clearly quoting church design. Savour, he urges, the gothic Venetian design of the arched windows and of the corkscrew twist incorporated into the rainwater downpipes. The steeply pitched mansard roofs evoke Flemish designs; brass and copper florets on the doorways are derived from Celtic art.

Until 1940, there was more. Twin venting chimneys 212-feet high richly ornamented in Byzantine and Moorish styles and surmounted with minarets flanked the pumping station. They were demolished for fear that if the Luftwaffe bombed them they might collapse on to the pumping station.

This cathedral exists because in the 1850s Londoners were bathing in and drinking water that contained raw sewage. It flowed into the tidal section of the Thames and got stalled in a hellishly insanitary circulation system. London’s water had become unfit for purpose — and porpoise. Cholera abounded. But what catalysed change was the so-called Great Stink from the Thames that prompted MPs in Sir Charles Barry’s then new Houses of Parliament to adjourn proceedings in the summer of 1858. Soon after, they commissioned Sir Joseph Bazalgette to build what turned out to be 1,300 miles of sewers, river embankments and pumping stations. Abbey Mills’s role was to lift sewage from low-lying sewers in central London, send it 4.5 miles to Beckton and thence the North Sea.

Only ten years later, London dignitaries settled down for a sumptuous banquet at Abbey Mills to celebrate its opening. They appreciated the cathedral’s cruciform shape, Charles Driver’s wrought ironwork, the light and airy galleries. Mostly, though, they appreciated the dearth of pong.

Three years earlier, a similar shindig had taken place when another of Bazalgette’s pumping stations opened across the Thames at Crossness. On that occasion, though, the guests descended into the underworld, gents in top hats and ladies in long gowns. The new sewers were decorated with fairy lights that night. The flow of sewage had been temporarily halted by unseen hands. Human effluent was unseen and unsmelled. Had Sigmund Freud been one of the party, he surely wouldn’t have been able to resist speculating on the anal retention of the Victorian character. Some visitors were uneasy about being in such close proximity to human waste, even fearing the ‘filthiest mess in Europe’ was ready to ‘leap out like a black panther’ after they had returned to ground level.

London was not alone at the time in offering sewer tours. In Paris, Baron Haussmann arranged for 400 visitors a day to be conducted through the city’s sewers at the 1867 Paris Exposition. Steered by cloacal Charons, visitors travelled by bateau-vanne (sewer boat). In 1894, one visitor described the sewer boat as ‘a veritable gondola with carpeted floor and cushioned seats; lit up by large lamps, less picturesque perhaps than a Venetian but much more luminous’. Harper’s Weekly described ‘ladies in stylish costumes, light bonnets and high heels’, some of them walking along galleries lining the sewers described as ‘so neat and clean that a lady might walk along them from the Louvre to the Place de la Concorde without bespattering her dainty skirts’.

What a mimsy crew I and my fellow guests on a Thames Water sewer tour are by contrast with these Stygian outliers. After visiting the cathedral, we travel to Thames Water’s nearby Wick Lane depot where we don hazmat suits, hard hats and thigh-high waders before descending into the realm of the fatberg. But only after we sign insurance waivers so we won’t sue Thames Water for mental harm or something.

Below ground we’re met by one of London’s 60 or so sewer technicians. ‘You can call me a flusher,’ says Colin O’Connor. That was what his Victorian predecessors were called and the nickname stuck. There are no fairy lights at Wick Lane, only helmet lamps.

Are there still toshers, I ask. Colin looks at me blankly. Toshers were just as common as flushers in Victorian times. In his four-volume London Labour and the London Poor, published from 1851, Henry Mayhew not only met the girl who sold dog mess to tanners, but also unearthed the existence of around 200 sewer scavengers or toshers. Each was known only by nickname: Lanky Bill, Long Tom, One-Eyed George, Short-Armed Jack. Although headline writers have since dubbed toshing ‘quite likely the worst job ever’, Mayhew explained its appeal: toshers then earned an average of six shillings a day and, he surmised, the property recovered from the sewers of London would have amounted to no less than £20,000 per annum (£2.6 million today).

Even though toshing was made illegal in the mid-19th century, it still exists. Where there’s muck there’s brass. And what muck!

As Stephen Halliday reports in his superb new book An Underground Guide to Sewers, or: Down, Through and Out in Paris, London, New York, &c., in the sewers beneath Bazalgette’s Abbey Mills, mechanical filters remove rags, tampons, condoms, corks, branches and other larger objects including a motorbike. ‘Nobody really knows how that got there,’ says Colin. There is even a cabinet of curiosities in the office above this sewer that includes phones, jewellery, watches and coins — all of it flushed, but not, it seems, toshed.

A motorbike is not the biggest thing that’s been found down here. Two years ago, a congealed mass of fat, wet wipes and nappies the weight of 11 double-decker buses and stretching the length of two football pitches was discovered. Thames Water feared that, like the subterranean black panther of Victorian nightmares, the fatberg was going to flood raw sewage on to the streets of Whitechapel. Had flushers not worked their way through 250 metres of it, sometimes using only shovels, that might have happened.

Today there are no fatbergs or motorbikes but two things immediately strike me. One is that the fragrance isn’t that of human effluent, but a not unpleasant outdoorsy bouquet recalling a Domaine Clavel Coteaux du Languedoc Les Garrigues 2007.

The other is the hand-laid brickwork in the sewers, an impressive feat of erosion-defying engineering. Not all the beauty is upstairs in the pumping station: beautiful blue-glazed Staffordshire bricks arch around me and glisten in my headlamp light. Poets should come down here and hymn this darkling grandeur.

What Bazalgette didn’t envisage, no doubt, is how broadband and telecoms providers would piggyback on his sewage system, lining walls with fiber-optic cables. More ingeniously yet, the cables have been designed to be larger than the mouths of common European rats, to avoid them being chewed through.

It was Moses, Halliday relates in his book, who first advised us how we must deal with human waste. You’ll recall Deuteronomy 23:12–13: ‘You are to have a place outside the camp where you can go when you need to relieve yourselves. Carry a stick as part of your equipment so that when you have a bowel movement you can dig a hole and cover it up.’ Although sophisticated sewage systems, from Mohenjo-daro in modern-day Pakistan to the Roman Cloaca Maxima, adhered in this respect to Mosaic law, Tudor aristocrats clearly didn’t get the memo. When Bess of Hardwick awaited the arrival of Queen Elizabeth I to visit her two great houses, Chatsworth and Hardwick Hall, she tasked her servants with seeking out excrement from corners and cupboards where residents had relieved themselves. Even before Bess, Londoners struggled to distance themselves from their excrement. It is recorded that in the 1320s one Richard the Rayker, a medieval nightsoil man, fell through the rotten boards of his privy. According to a contemporary he ‘drowned monstrously in his own excrement’. Clearly the ancient toilet demon Sulak, who in the 1st millennium BC was reported to lurk near dark holes threatening to bring bad luck upon a house, had struck again.

Halliday’s beautiful book (that’s right — an illustrated guide to the world’s sewage systems can be beautiful) shows us how waste disposal and treatment have got more sophisticated since Moses’s day. He devotes some unexpectedly gripping pages to activated sludge process, by means of which microbes in sewage can be stimulated to purify the effluent — a process devised by Manchester chemists early last century.

To get a sense of how that works, I cycle from Abbey Mills to Beckton, along the so-called Greenway, a 4.5-mile footpath raised over the Northern Outfall Sewer. The Greenway has been fancifully described as the London Borough of Newham’s answer to New York’s High Line. The High Line, though, doesn’t smell of human effluent. Nor are any roses flanking it so suspiciously superb as these.

At Beckton Sewage Treatment Works aeration paddles pump oxygen into sludge, thereby encouraging microbes to digest pathogens. Until 1998, solid waste was dumped by sludge boats in the North Sea where it would be dispersed and consumed by microbes. Today, the waste is deposited in settlement tanks at plants such as Beckton that consume pollutants until the liquid can be safely released into the Thames. The river, once pronounced biologically dead, is now a nursery for 138 baby seals, according to the first comprehensive seal-pup count by the Zoological Society of London.

London, though, still has a sewage problem. Bazalgette’s sewers were designed for four million people, not today’s eight million, nor the ten million predicted to live in the capital by 2031. Even the cathedral of shit has been replaced by another more fit- for-purpose pumping station, a zinc-coated temple of a pumping station nearby, and today only stands and waits in readiness to serve should its successor be overwhelmed by the growing excrescence of London.

Bazalgette did not envisage how future Londoners would be showering, using dishwashers, watering gardens and washing cars. Still less did he imagine that today £1 million a month would be spent clearing blockage from his sewers, chiefly caused by wet wipes and cooking oil.

London is also suffering from Bazalgette’s decision to put human waste and rainwater in the same subterranean channels (they separate them in Paris). Rainfall patterns have changed since his time: rain today is less steady and more prone to intense bursts that overwhelm the Victorian system.

The solution to this inadequate Victorian suite being built right now is the Thames Tideway Tunnel, a super-sewer running from Acton in the West to Abbey Mills in the east, and bored using the same tool used to construct London’s new underground Crossrail. This is a formidable engineering achievement, no doubt. But something is missing. Where is the 21st-century riposte to the cathedral of shit that Bazalgette built? Where are the minarets, the Celtic motifs, the wrought ironwork for this masterpiece of subterranean architecture? We have buried our achievements where the sun doesn’t shine. The Victorians knew better than us how to celebrate their accomplishments with proper pride.

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