There are 68,000 kilometres of sewers under central
Venture down into the sewers of modern London, and along with the obvious effluence
you'll find discarded kitchen fat that has congealed and hardened
against the cool stone, tissue paper and wet wipes that refuse to
dissolve, and rats. The last, at least, are regarded with a kind of
respect by the sewer workers, who are known as flushers.
There was a time when the capital's sewage system
ran overground. When the Great Fire of 1666 facilitated Sir
Christopher Wren's magnificent rebuild of the City of London, it was
akin to slipping a clean petticoat over soiled knickers.
the city's one million inhabitants had to be content with 200,000
The eighteenth century had been a time when London
suddenly began to expand in size. Its more wealthy inhabitants
wanted to escape the overcrowding and the noise and filth of the
city - which in essence still occupied the area inside the old Roman
walls - so they purchased plots to the west.
Within half a century the 'west end' of London,
between the site of the former Savoy Palace on the banks of the
Thames and the Tyburn gallows out by the location of the old Roman
marble arch at the far end of Oxford Street, were laid out. New
streets, such as Savile Row, Baker Street, and Regents Street were
filled with grand houses.
As the owners of these new houses moved out of the
city itself, the working population there quickly filled the gaps. Their
numbers swiftly doubled,
but the old cesspits were unable to
cope with this increase in numbers, not to mention the new flush toilets
being used by the wealthy, and so the effluence overflowed
into the rainwater drains and straight into the Thames.
of the capital's drinking water was drawn from the river, the
citizens of the metropolis were literally drinking one another's
sewage," wrote Stephen Halliday in his book, The Great Stink of
While the physician John Snow had linked outbreaks
of cholera in Soho, in 1854, to water pollution, many still believed
that the disease was spread through foul smells. The 1853-54
outbreak of cholera was one of the worst, killing over 10,000