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Extract: 'Underground Guide to Sewers'

Posted on 09 Oct 2019

Read the foreword from the 'Underground Guide to Sewers'.

King's Scholars' Pond sewer, Adam Powell

I was born with an unusual medical condition: sewage in the blood. In Victorian times, my great great grandfather designed and executed a modern sewerage system for London. In the family we like to think of Sir Joseph Bazalgette as the ‘Drain Brain’. Now here comes a book that puts good old Sir Joe in the context of history – from the ancient Romans and their Cloaca Maxima to London’s new Thames Tideway Tunnel, with several civilizations in between, including the genius of the 8th-century Mexicans.

Bazalgette's contract drawing of the entrance to Crossness, Institution of Civil Engineers Library and Archives

An Underground Guide to Sewerstells the revealing and entertaining tale of how we’ve dealt with our ordure over the centuries. But it’s about so much more: health, wealth and also beauty. Without sanitation there is death and degradation. But without it cities, the engine of our economies, cannot function or grow either. It’s their growth which delivers the wealth. And in the process engineers have constructed, through the centuries, wonderous infrastructures which are not only functional but often beautiful to behold. This generously illustrated work makes the last point eloquently. And it’s packed with heroes and heroines – engineers, scientists, environmentalists and social reformers. These are the people who advanced civilization by elevating humankind above its own detritus. A heady story, indeed.

1920s sewer workmen, Bibliothèque nationale de France

In this rich history, narrated with gusto by Stephen Halliday, we learn how engineers of common sense had to come up with practical solutions prior to any clear scientific proof. James Simpson filtered water from the Victorian householders of Chelsea long before the definitive clinical purification experiments of Lockett and Ardern in the 20th Century. Doctor John Snow first proposed that cholera was water borne in 1849, contradicting the belief that it was an airborne contagion, a ‘miasma’. Many life-saving schemes, such as Bazalgette’s, had been constructed by the time Robert Koch actually identified waterborne bacteria in 1883. In fact, the ferocious Florence Nightingale died in 1910 still believing in miasma. Hence Lytton Strachey’s description of the great sanitary reformer’s immovable faith in eminent Victorians: ‘She felt toward (God) as she might have felt towards a glorified sanitary engineer… She seems hardly to distinguish between the Deity and the Drains.’

1880-89 men examining sewer stone work, Boston Public Library, Edgar Sutton Dorr Photograph Collection

So what you’re about to read is a work of scholarship which entertains. A sort of Around the World in Eighty Toilets…how could that fail to provoke a smile? I was particularly taken with George-Eugène Haussmann, who masterminded Paris’s system in the 1850s. He was so proud of the results that he conducted candlelit tours ‘in which ladies need have no hesitation in taking part’. Pride is one thing, fastidiousness quite another. He apparently would accept the passage of storm water and urine, but not faeces. His sewers were too good for that. This reminded me of the answer I once got when I asked an extravagant maker of gold baths whether they were not a bit too much for a simple wash: ‘Wash? Wash?’ he exploded, ‘people should wash before they get in my baths!’


Read more in An Underground Guide to Sewers.

An Underground Guide to Sewers

or: Down, Through and Out in Paris, London, New York, &c. Stephen Halliday, Peter Bazalgette