Bazalgette’s Actions


Joseph Bazalgette (1819 - 1891) (Docklands Past and Present)

Joseph Bazalgette (1819 - 1891).

Londoners, in the midst of repeating cholera outbreaks, searched for solutions everywhere. There were experts who believed they could solve the dilemma, but only one made the correct actions to save the lives of Londoners: Joseph Bazalgette.

A picture illustrating the poor sanitation problems of London's Streets. (CSL Vintage Cartoons).
"Dirty streets in London"

"...as the city's [London's] population exploded, and as more and more houses discharged their waste into the existing sewers, the quality of the Thames water declined at an alarming rate... Chadwick's work in the 1840s and early fifties had the perverse effect of exacerbating this problem, both through his position as head of the Board of Health and his seat on the newly formed Metropolitan Commsion of Sewers... nothing practical was done for years, until a brilliant engineer named Joseph Bazalgette took charge of the project " (Johnson 120). Chadwick's removal of the cesspools would lead to catastrophic results. "...the primary focus was on eliminating cesspools. As Bazalgette would later report: 'Within a period of about six years, thirty thousand cesspools were abolished, and all home and street refuse was turned into the river'" (Johnson 120). Although it was a start in cleaning London, this disposal of waste would pollute the Thames.

A comic illustrating the polluted water from the Thames River. (Victorian London).

"A drop of London water"

After the cleansing of the London cesspools, the Thames faced unbearable pollution. "Herein lies the dominant irony of the state of British public health in the late 1840's... Sure enough, the cholera returned with a vengeance in 1848-1849" (Johnson 120). Bazalgette took a short break in the countryside, but he was quick to get to work on his actions against cholera.

"Bazalgette returned from the country in 1849 to find the city in the final throes of its second cholera epidemic. In the spring, he applied for a post as assistant surveyor to the Metropolitan Sewers Commission... Bazalgette devised a detailed proposal to send in with his application. His suggestion was to provide public toilets throughout the capital to provide 'relief from frequent personal inconvenience, and occasional pain, if not physical in fury.'... But the Sewers Commission remained unmoved and his plan was not taken up" (Cadbury 125). In his applications to the Sewer commission, Bazalgette showed his attention to detail and his persistence. These traits represented his excellent work ethic and determination that would be applied later in his actions of building the intercepting sewers. "Well aware of the urgency of the crisis and anxious that no more time be wasted, Bazalgette reapplied to the Sewers Commission in August 1849. This time he was successful, and was duly appointed assistant surveyor to the second Metropolitan Sewers Commission" (Cadbury 126). At this position, Bazalgette would do much good to London by reversing the effects of Chadwick's phrase of "All Smell is Disease."

"...the Metropolitan Sewers Commission invited engineers and others to submit proposals to redesign the sewers. On Bazalgette's desk sat a stack of documents, representing a fraction of the 137 proposals sent in for consideration... By the spring of 1850, Bazalgette duly presented his findings to the... third Sewers Commission... The committee... on March 8, 1850, threw out the lot as totally unworkable" (Cadbury 127). Once again Bazalgette's hardheaded mentality would take part in his actions of eliminating cholera from London.

Metropolitan Body of Works headquarters. (Victorian London).

"Metropolitan Body of Works headquarters"

When Forster, engineer to the 4th Sewers Commision, died in 1852, Bazalgette received a promotion. "Next in line for this most stressful of jobs was Forster's deputy, Joseph Bazalgette, who had been rapidly promoted. Bazalgette... took up the challenge: but, as he set to work, an old enemy was waiting in the wings. In 1853, unexpected and unwelcome, the cholera returned to the city for a third time" (Cadbury 130). Bazalgette's abilities were put to the test as a dying populace pushed him to find a solution. "On the 12th inst. the general committee passed the following resolution:- 'That the engineer, Mr. Bazalgette, do prepare for presentment to the general committee, at its next meeting, special report, explanatory of the mode of conducting the works of the Commissioners in building and repairing sewers and covering open sewers; the ordinary precautions taken for the prevention of nuisance and dangers to the public health...'" (Times, 1854).

"On January 1, 1856, after six successive sewers commissions had failed to resolve the crisis, responsibility was handed over to a new body with enhanced powers: the Metropolitan Board of Works" (Cadbury 131). This was Bazalgette's final opportunity. "Bazalgette, with a growing reputation and recommendations from leading engineers of the day such as Isambard Kingdom Brunel and Robert Stephenson, soon found himself promoted to the prestigious position of chief engineer to the board. His objective was to ascertain as quickly as possible the very best design 'for the complete interception of the sewage of the Metropolis'" (Cadbury 132).

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(The Day the Universe Changed: "What the Doctor Ordered").

However, this was going to be Bazalgette's toughest challenge.

"Bazalgette, now 37, faced a daunting task. He was to transform an ancient network of ill-matching sewers into a modern system capable of serving the largest city in the world. Not only did he need to find a way to carry millions of gallons of waste away from the city, he must do so with minimum disruption to the city and its 2.5 million inhabitants. This was an engineering project so vast it could only be carried out once, and yet it must be good enough to last for hundreds of years" (Cadbury 132).

Using all his resources, he was finally able to start construction. As Bazalgette would explain, "The idea was very simple. The existing streams and drains all ran down to the river on both sides. All that had to be done was to carry main sewers at varying levels on each side of the river, so as to intercept those streams" (J. Bazalgette). Bazalgette and his crew would carefully design these massive sewers so they would be parallel to the Thames.  "The street sewers, drawn up by Bazalgette's draftsmen to his exact specifications, resembled the shape of an egg, posititioned with the stronger, rounded-end uppermost and the pointed end below. This ingenious  tilted form not only provided optimum flow but meant the sewers were self-cleaning, as even when not very full there would always be water moving through at the narrow bottom end. Most important, allaying public fears that the streets of London might collapse into the sewers, the ovoid design also provided the strength required to bear the weight of the city from above" (Cadbury 133).

Oval sewer design. (Sewer History).

"Oval sewer design"

During the process, he faced many tough decisions, such as the method to construct the sewers. "Bazalgette favored the 'cut and cover' method, where open trenches were dug out, sewers laid within them, and then covered again with earth. This was widely accepted as the simplest and safest method. His choice of materials, however, was far more controversial...When he chose to use portland cement for the largest engineering scheme London had ever seen, he took an enormous risk...Portland cement was made from finely ground limestone, clay, and water in exacting quantities that were crucial, as was the manufacturing process. Perfectly ground, mixed, and baked, the hardened cement appeared to be unaffected by immersion in water, and was even believed to grow stronger over time. Overheated or inexpertly mixed and it became weak and unstable..." (Cadbury 139). Bazalgette had to be  confident in every action he made, for he was carefully monitored. "Bazalgette was involved at each stage, convening himself with all the exacting minutiae of every contract. The board required endless progress reports as plans for each section of the northern, western, and southern drainage were prepared; bids scrutinized; and working methods and materials specified" (Cadbury 138). Signs of frustration were seen throughout Bazalgette's crew. As he would later explain, "It certainly was a very troublesome job. We would sometimes spend weeks in drawing up plans and then suddenly come across some railway or canal that upset everything, and we had to being all over again" (J. Bazalgette).

Bazalgette's intercepting sewer network. (Floating Down the River).

"Bazalgette's intercepting sewer network"

Then the unthinkable happened: accidents that took the lives of workers.

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(Seven Wonders of the Industrial World: The Sewer King).

Once all the hardships ended, Bazalgette was able to celebrate the opening of his system's first phase. "They day was a great triumph. At the celebration afterwards, the prince[of Wales] proposed a toast: 'Success to the great national undertaking,' he declared as all in the room raised their glasses high, 'and congratulations to the eminent and skillful engineer, Mr. Bazalgette, on having made this great public work so successfully'" (Cadbury 143).

The final step for Bazalgette was left: creating the Thames embankments. These mounds would support Bazalgette's complex lines of sewers.

"To create the embankments, cofferdams were constructed by driving rows of wooden piles deep into the river and plugging the gaps with a mixture of clay and earth thrown up by the excavation. The water behind the piles could then be pumped outleaving a dry space for workers to lay the sewers. In some places bedrock was too deep to use piles, and here caissons-not unlike large iron diving bells-were lowered into the water at low tide and sunk into the riverbed to provide firm foundations. On top of the northern embankment, a new main road would be constructed, 100 feet wide with paved footpaths on either side, with a row of trees between the road and the river. This would bring great weight to bear from above. Once again, Bazalgette relied on the strength and the special water-resistant properties of portland cement. He had such faith in the material by this stage that for some sections of the sewers he used portland cement in place of brickwork, which proved cheaper as well as stronger" (Cadbury 147).

The Victoria Embankment. (The Victorian Web).

"The Victoria Embankment"

The Victoria, the last embankment, was completed in 1870. After a few weeks, London saw cholera come to a halt. Then William Farr, the old miasma supporter , concluded that cholera was in fact, stemmed from the water supply.

"With the help of the visionary engineer Joseph Bazalgette, the city embarked on one of the most ambitious engineering projects of the nineteenth century: a system of sewer lines that would carry both waste and surface water to the east, away from Central London. The construction of the new sewers was every bit as epic and enduring as the building of the Brooklyn Bridge or the Eiffel Tower. Its grandeur lies below-ground out of sight, and so it is not invoked as regularly as other, more iconic, achievements of the age. But Bazalgette's sewers were a turning point nonetheless: they demonstrated that a city would respond to a profound city wide environmental and health crisis with a massive public-works project that genuinely solved the problem it set out to address. If Snow and Whitehead's Broad Street investigation showed that urban intelligence could come to understand a massive health crisis, Bazalgette's sewers proved that you could actually do something about it" (Johnson 207).

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More detailed map of the sewers. (Sewer History).

More detailed map of the sewers.

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