Dirty Old London: 30 Days of Filth: Day 21

‘They built poorly-designed flat-bottomed sewers, prone to clogging and producing miasma.’

Throughout this mjackson-blog-click thruonth, Lee Jackson reveals the background to Dirty Old London: The Victorian Fight Against FilthThe 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 21: Sewers Before Bazalgette

Edwin Chadwick and his fellow sanitary reformers vigorously denounced the state of London’s drains in the 1840s. In particular, they heaped blame on the eight ancient Sewer Commissions which had control of metropolitan drainage. The Commissions were run by unpaid Crown appointees, plus small teams of surveyors, inspectors and clerks. Chadwick described their work as ‘a vast monument of defective administration, lavish expenditure and extremely defective execution’ and successfully lobbied for their dissolution. This would lead – after many twists and turns – to the creation of the Metropolitan Board of Works in 1855,  and the great sewer works of their chief engineer, Joseph Bazalegette.

The Sewer Commissions were, however, something of a scapegoat. They had, admittedly, already been twice investigated by parliamentary committees over the collection of sewer rates and tenders for contracts. But the more technical charges which Chadwick levelled against them – e.g. that they built poorly-designed flat-bottomed sewers, prone to clogging and producing miasma – were very dubious. Certainly these supposed technical failings were not universal. Richard Kelsey, Surveyor to the City of London, wrote a private forty-page rebuttal to his accuser, categorically stating that such tunnels were unknown in the City since the mid-1700s.

The Commissions, in reality, were faced with an almost impossible task. First, they had no real power to prevent the public connecting their cesspools and toilets to existing drains, which were really only fit for ground water. Second they faced the notorious reluctance of Londoners to actually pay for improved sewerage.

The working classes considered paying sewer rates an unnecessary expense, not least because they often lived in properties with poor sanitation. The middle- and upper-classes were equally reticent. Many attended tribunals and court hearings, citing the ancient legal principle that only houses that ‘derived a benefit or avoided damage’ should be rated for local drainage. Respectable folk argued that their house had no connection to the main drainage; that they had no interest in improving the property of those in distant suburbs – or even neighbouring streets. The residents of Hampstead, for example, refused to be rated, since they lived on hilly ground, where water swiftly dissipated. In 1815, following a court case, which went against the sewer authority, the district was effectively exempted from rating.

The fact that residents had to pay extra to make connections to newly-constructed sewers – if the business was done legally – posed further difficulties. Slum landlords refused to foot the bill. The well-to-do middle-classes, mostly on short-term lets, were equally loathe to spend their money to improve rented property. In fact, the majority of new sewers were not planned by the Commissions, but constructed on an ad hoc basis by the builders of London’s ever-expanding suburbs. And many a hastily-constructed ‘jerry-built’ house had equally dubious sewerage.

The Sewer Commissions, therefore, although technically responsible for this chaotic system, lacked the power to effect real improvements. Certainly, the metropolis needed a stronger, more organised, central administration for sewerage in the 1840s – but largely because of the introduction of the water closet, and London’s unchecked, unprecedented growth. Indeed, Edwin Chadwick, having lambasted the Commissions for their utter incompetence, taking the reins himself, struggled to make any impact.

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.

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