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13 November 2014

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You are in: London > History > History Features > Smells Like Thames Sewage

Inside Crossness

Inside Crossness pumping station

Smells Like Thames Sewage

In the summer of 1858, the smell of untreated sewage overwhelmed central London to such an extent that government ground to a halt and MPs considered fleeing the capital. The unbearable stench of that summer is now forever known as the Great Stink.

For the politicians, having to endure the horror and filth of the capital's sanitation was the final straw. The Great Stink became a catalyst for the creation of a modern sewage system in London.

The Victorian engineer, Joseph Bazalgette, proposed a network of underground sewers to solve the problem once and for all. Now 150 years after the Great Stink, a vital component of his solution, the Crossness Pumping Station in Bexley, is being fully restored and re-introduced to the public.

Graphic of Crossness Pumping Station

Graphic of the pumping station at work

Flushing the problem away

By the 19th century, the River Thames had become little more than a large open-air sewer. The river was not only unable to sustain life – it was also a threat to life. Cholera, which for a long time was wrongly thought of as an air-borne disease, claimed thousands of London lives every year.

The introduction of flushing toilets exacerbated the problem. The new toilets were gradually replacing the old chamber pots and used far more water. As a result more waste was being poured into the 200,000 cesspits that stored the capital's sanitation. The cesspits would frequently overspill, contaminating the water supply and running human excrement into the Thames.

The foul smell and festering slime was getting worse and worse. And to top it all off, in 1858 a summer heatwave made life in the capital intolerable. Tentative proposals were formulated to move the work of Parliament and the Law Courts out of London.

Benjamin Disraeli said it was "a stygian pool reeking with ineffable and unbearable horror." When a break in the weather signaled an end to the immediate crisis, a parliamentary committee was formed to find a solution, and Joseph Bazalgette stepped forward with his idea.

London Underground

Enfield-born Joseph Bazalgette spent the early part of his civil engineering career working on railway projects. By 1858 he was the chief engineer for London's governing body, the Metropolitan Board of Works (MBW).

His proposal for a network of underground sewers was hugely expensive, but deemed necessary. Creating underground sewers would solve both the problems of smell and disease.

Crossness 1865

Crossness pumping station, circa 1865

Bazalgette's scheme involved 1,000 labourers building more than 85 miles of brick sewers underneath London and took eight years to complete. To this day, those same sewers form the backbone of London's modern sewage system despite the ever increasing population and the advent of tower blocks.

Joseph Bazalgette was knighted in 1875 and there is a blue plaque at Hamilton Terrace in St John's Wood, north London, where he lived for many years. He is also commemorated with a monument on Victoria Embankment.

Crossness Pumping Station

A vital part of the system was the pumping stations built at Deptford, Crossness, Abbey Mills and on Chelsea Embankment so that steady a flow could be maintained through the sewers.

The Grade 1 listed pumping station at Crossness will now be the subject of an ambitious £2.7m restoration project, which will include a new café, exhibition, education rooms and archive. The Heritage Lottery Fund (HLF) has contributed £1.5m towards the project.

The ornamental and highly decorative building is said to feature the four largest rotary beam engines in the world and was in service until 1956, although it has since fallen into a state of disrepair.

Keeping it in the family

Peter Bazalgette is perhaps best known for being a successful TV producer, who brought Big Brother to British screens. However, he is also President of the Crossness Engines Trust and great-great-grandson of Sir Joseph.

Of the decision to restore Crossness he said:

Peter Bazalgette

Peter Bazalgette

"The Trust's volunteers have worked tirelessly to restore one of the magnificent engines and to create an experience which visitor’s already enjoy. This project will allow us to improve on that experience, safeguard the fabric of the buildings and make possible new community ventures that will allow this monument to Victorian engineering to take on a new lease of life."

Wesley Kerr, chairman of the HLF London Committee said:

"The London Committee is thrilled that this unique part of our city's heritage, including some of the finest and largest steam engines in existence, housed in cathedral-sized buildings on an inspiring Thameside site, is to be fully restored and opened to all.

The volunteers have done sterling work already. This vital part of London's past will become a cherished local community asset and an exhilarating destination for future generations."

last updated: 13/11/2008 at 15:50
created: 12/11/2008

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