‘Sewer workers were sent to unblock tunnels clogged with everything from ‘coals, cinders, bottles, broken pots’ to ‘old hats, dead cats, scrubbing brushes’; and they frequently suffered cuts from broken glass. But there were more serious hazards – drowning, explosions and suffocating gases.’
Throughout this month, Lee Jackson reveals the background to Dirty Old London: The Victorian Fight Against Filth. The Victorians invented ‘sanitary science’ – the study of public health, dirt and disease – and were obsessed with sewers, sanitation and cleanliness. Why, then, did Victorian London remain so notoriously filthy?
Day 23: Sewer Dangers
Joseph Bazalgette, chief engineer of Metropolitan Board of Works, would build vast ‘intercepting sewers’ to purify the Thames in the 1860s, but they were still fed by ancient tunnels and drains. Local improvement works, therefore, would continue for decades and, even in new tunnels, there was always a need for repairs and maintenance. Consequently, the work of ‘sewer flushers’ – the men sent to clear blockages and make repairs – remained crucial. And it was rather dangerous work.
Blockages were often the result of the public’s negligence. Sewer workers were sent to unblock tunnels clogged with everything from ‘coals, cinders, bottles, broken pots’ to ‘old hats, dead cats, scrubbing brushes’; and they frequently suffered cuts from broken glass. But there were more serious hazards – drowning, explosions and suffocating gases.
Smaller sewers – which could be only three or four feet high – might fill with water with astonishing rapidity during spells of bad weather. Flushers had to be aware of the both the Thames’s tidal flow and whether there had been any recent heavy rainfall. A certain Alfred Ash and Joseph Rutherford, for example, were at work in a sewer in Kilburn in 1884, ignored one warning to leave, then were overwhelmed as storm waters flooded the tunnel. Their bodies were found the next day at the Chelsea outfall.
The principal cause of explosions was a build up of ‘carburetted hydrogen’ – methane – which, of course, was highly inflammable. A typical case in Bermondsey in 1858 involved three men ‘dreadfully brunt about the head, face and neck and arms, their eyebrows and hair being almost completely burnt off’, as well as half a dozen others with minor burns. The gas was ignited by a sewer flusher’s lamp (London flushers reportedly disdained safety lamps as too dim).
Gases from the decomposition of waste included ‘sulphuretted hydrogen’ (hydrogen sulfide) – the source of the familiar ‘rotten eggs’ smell of drains – and ‘choke damp’ (carbon dioxide). In compact spaces, they could cause suffocation. Labourers connecting an old sewer to a main sewer in the Whitechapel Road in 1857, opening up the tunnel, received ‘a rush of foul air’. The man nearest to the bottom of excavation fell forwards; another man went down to investigate and likewise fell immediately unconscious; three more followed, until five men lay in a heap – and had to be pulled up by grappling hooks. The first three men were found to have died.
Finally, there were miscellaneous outpourings from badly regulated factories and chemical plants. In 1875, a gang of flushers, employed by the Wandsworth District Board, entered a local sewer near to the works of ‘Messrs. Wallace, manufacturing chymists’. The works had already been the subject of an ‘indignation committee’ formed by local residents, prompted by the ‘ventilators in the road … emitting dense hot vapour in the evening’ which made passers-by feel ill. Inside the sewer, the flushers discovered a blue substance ‘which burnt their hands fearfully and turned them all sorts of colours’. Whilst attempting to clear some debris, the men were overcome by a burst of steam, ‘a hissing noise like opening ginger beer’, together with a sudden smell of sulphur, ‘like brimstone going down their throats’. All four flushers were knocked unconscious; and one died before he could be rescued.
You can find out more about Lee Jackson’s Victorian London from his website: Victorian London or read more about the new book at Dirty Old London. You can also find Lee Jackson on twitter @VictorianLondon.
Lee blogs at The Cats Meat Shop.