‘Full of visionary enthusiasm, he also proposed to simultaneously beautify the city with various fountains, grottos and water features. There would also be a massive public bath at Paddington, 500 by 150 feet, capable of holding 1,000 bathers.’
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 4: John Martin
Joseph Bazalgette is deservedly famed as the engineering genius who remade London’s sewer network in the 1850s/60s, a vast and costly enterprise. He did not, however, originate the scheme for ‘intercepting sewers’ to trap and remove the capital’s existing flows of waste. The idea was widely circulated, some twenty years earlier, by the painter John Martin.
Known for his dramatic renderings of apocalyptic biblical and historical disasters (the destruction of Pompeii, the fall of Babylon et al.), Martin became singularly obsessed with London’s water supply and sewerage. Martin’s interest in the subject began with a cause celebre in the late 1820s. The Grand Junction Water Works Company was called to account for drawing its water from a spot on the Thames adjacent to a sewer outfall. Martin, fascinated by the problem of pollution, immediately drew up ‘A Plan for Supplying the Cities of London and Westminster with pure water from the River Colne’ – a vast aqueduct running from Hertfordshire. Full of visionary enthusiasm, he also proposed to simultaneously beautify the city with various fountains, grottos and water features. There would also be a massive public bath at Paddington, 500 by 150 feet, capable of holding 1,000 bathers.
The plan, issued in pamphlet form, would go through numerous iterations. By the mid-1830s, it included a design for a vast new intercepting sewer, running beneath a spacious colonnaded embankment along the Thames; also, plans for skimming off the waste and selling it for manure. The public and various parliamentary committees responded with mild curiosity – but the scheme was never taken seriously. Martin, of course, was no civil engineer; and a well-known history of mental instability in the family cannot have helped. One brother claimed to have discovered perpetual motion in a dream; another, citing divine inspiration, had set fire to York Minster. Martin’s best friend would write of his sewer obsession: ‘his time is absolutely lost upon these subjects, but to oppose or dissent is to anger or offend him, so I am obliged to listen in torture’. The painter’s fortunes dwindled with each new edition of his pamphlet.
Martin’s plans would remain unrealised in his lifetime. Fortunately, a painting of Victoria’s coronation would rescue him from penury. Nonetheless – borrowing the words of his son, writing in the 1880s – there is good cause to describe him as the ‘original projector’ of Joseph Bazalgette’s grand scheme.
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.