Sir Joseph Bazalgette

By Chad Hansen

Londoners who can remember the state of London and of the Thames about thirty-five years ago, before those vast undertakings of the Metropolitan Board of Works, the system of main drainage and the magnificent Thames Embankment, which have contributed some much to sanitary improvement and to the convenience and stateliness of this immense city, will regret the death of the able official chief engineer, Sir Joseph Bazalgette.

- Illustrated London News, March 1891

Although the Bazalgette name resonates with many Londoners, Sir Joseph’s legacy should be commemorated on a much higher scale. While architects such as the famous Marc Brunel have enormous memorials in their honor, Bazalgette has a rather modest plaque on the Victoria Embankment. Joseph Bazalgette was responsible for a revolutionary sewer system that supported the most massive city at the time and vastly improved the quality of live in London in the late 19th century.

The Bazalgette family is of French Origin. Sir Joseph Bazalgette’s Grandfather came to England in 1784. Jean Louis, Bazalgette’s Grandfather, married several times, and birthed a son, Joseph William, in 1783. Joseph William eventually joined the Royal Navy and participated in the Napoleonic Wars, ending his career with the rank of Commander. Joseph William married Theresa Philo Pilton and gave birth to nine children, one of whom being their only son, Sir Joseph Bazalgette. Bazalgette’s father died in 1849, and his mother passed a year later in 1850.


Little is known about the early childhood of Bazalgette, however it is believed that he was educated privately. By the age of nineteen, Bazalgette was pursuing a course of study that would allow him to become a civil engineer. On 20 February 1845, Joseph married Maria Keogh at St. Margaret’s Westminster. The 1851 Census lists Joseph as ‘civil engineer, born Enfield, aged 32’. Joseph and Maria would eventually have ten children.

Bazalgette began his engineering career in 1836 when he became an Articled Pupil of John McNeill, the eminent Irish civil engineer. Bazalgette was a Resident Engineer under McNeill, focusing on Land Drainage works at Loughs Foyle and Swilley in Londonderry. This work was the subject of Bazalgette’s first paper to the Institution of Civil Engineers, for which he was elected a Graduate on 13 March 1838. In 1842, at the age of 23, Bazalgette established a private practice as a consulting engineer on Great George Street, Westminster. He was elected a Member of the Institution on 17 February 1846 when he had:

Served a regular period of pupilage under Sir J. McNeill, was for 2 years Resident Engineer on works in Ireland, 1 year laying out lines for the Railway Commissioners & has been upwards of 2 years in business for himself as a civil engineer.

During 1847-1848, the pressure of work resulted in Bazalgette having a mental breakdown. Bazalgette was later quoted saying that, “I began my work when the great railway mania broke out, and nearly killed myself before I joined the old Commission of Sewers.”

By the 1840s, population growth during the early Victorian period resulted in frequent flooding and a failing sewer system. By 1847, a Royal Commission was held to inquire about the severity of the issue. In 1848, the year of ‘The Great Stink’, the Metropolitan Commission of Sewers was established. This new body combined what were previously seven different drainage districts. This transformed the structure of public works in London and resulted in a faster and more efficient approach to solving the city’s drainage problem. Bazalgette, recovered from his breakdown, was appointed assistant Surveyor of the Commission in 1849. In 1852, following the death of Engineer Frank Forster, Joseph Bazalgette was appointed Engineer of the Metropolitan Commission of Sewers.

In 1855, the Metropolis Management Act was created, establishing the Metropolitan Board of Works. Joseph Bazalgette was appointed Engineer of the Board earning a salary of 1000 pounds per year. The function of the Board, consisting of 45 members, was to oversee and carry out public works inside the city of London, spanning 117 square miles. Additionally, the Board was designed to carry out all the Metropolitan improvements, including roadwork, street lighting, bridges and tunnels.

Joseph Bazalgette’s first project as the Chief Engineer of the Metropolitan Board of Works was a complex network of intercepting sewers, pumping stations (which includes the now re-opened Crossness Pumping Station) and treatment works that would cleanse the polluted River Thames, sustain the cities growing population and eradicate cholera, a disease that had taken nearly thirty thousand Londoners lives since 1831. This revolutionary undertaking that would span nearly twenty years to complete, was considered the engineer’s shining achievement.

Bazalgette’s most famous scheme was embanking the River Thames. This project narrowed the river by fifty yards, and aided in the cleansing of the polluted river by creating a scouring affect. These embankments, named Victoria, Albert and Chelsea, contained intercepting sewers that ran adjacent to the River Thames and carried waste to outfall centers in East London. These embankments would eventually house various Underground lines. In 1874, Joseph Bazalgette was knighted for his groundbreaking work on the sewer network and the Thames Embankments. His contribution eradicated cholera in London and purified the River Thames. In 1884, Sir Joseph Bazalgette became the President of the Institution of Civil Engineers, a premier organization that represents civil engineers. In 1889, Bazalgette retired after a long and illustrious career, following the creation of the London County Council that replaced the Metropolitan Board of Works. Two years later, in 1891 Sir Joseph Bazalgette died at his home in Wimbledon. Bazalgette’s true legacy is captured in 1890 in an interview for the Saturday Journal:

If the malignant spirits whom we moderns call cholera, typhoid and smallpox, were one day to set out in quest of the man who had been, within the past thirty or forty years their deadliest foe in all of London, they would probably make their way to St Mary’s, Wimbledon.

To find out more about the recently re-opened Crossness Pumping Station and to arrange a visit go to