The Big Thames Clean Up

Written by Chad Hansen

During the mid nineteenth century, defeating cholera was of paramount importance to those responsible for the metropolis. Between 1831 and 1866, four separate epidemics took over forty thousand Londoners lives. Little was known about the cause of the disease at the time, as it was generally considered to be linked to London’s foul air or miasma. The miasmatists held sway until the truth about the cause of cholera, was conclusively proven by Robert Koch with his discovery of the cholera bacillus. This further scientific proof reinforced the theory put forward by Dr John Snow that the disease was spread through ingesting soiled water, rather than inhaling foul air. Although the cause of cholera was a subject of debate, it was agreed that the polluted River Thames, where the people of London drew their drinking water from, was to blame. It was clear that something had to be done to address this issue, however, the disorganized state of local government within London prevented many schemes from coming to fruition. Local government was based around church parishes and the vested interests that held sway were rarely wise enough to see beyond the narrow interests of their local parish to the wider interests of London as a city itself. The Metropolitan Commission of Sewers Act 1848, pushed through by the health reformer Edwin Chadwick, tried in a limited way to instigate a London wide system of waste management. However it was never powerful or decisive enough to implement the changes that were necessary for a London wide programme of reform.

By 1850, population growth and the inception of the water closet, popularized by the Great Exhibition in 1851, resulted in ineffective and overflowing household cesspools. Water closets were responsible for households producing nearly one hundred additional gallons of waste per day on average. In 1848, in order to eliminate this problem, the Metropolis Sewers Commission mandated cesspools and house drains be connected to sewers, which emptied, unfiltered, in to the River Thames. This worsened the problem and affectively turned London’s main waterway in to an open sewer.


In 1853, The Builder featured an article written by the famous scientist Michael Faraday, “The flood is now, below London Bridge, bad as poetical descriptions of the Stygian Lake, while the London Dock is black as Acheron . . . where are ye, ye civil engineers? Ye can remove mountains, bridge seas and fill rivers . . . can ye not purify the Thames, and so render your own city habitable?” Faraday continued to apply pressure for something to be done and wrote to The Times in July 1855 about the state of the river during a recent journey he had undertaken along the river. This letter led to the famous Punch caricature of him giving his card to Father Thames. This build-up of pressure from such eminent quarters led Parliament to pass the Metropolis Management Act, establishing the Metropolitan Board of Works.

In 1854, The Times expressed its opinion on the condition of the local governing bodies, writing that London had “a greater number and variety of governments than even Aristotle might have studied with advantage”. The lack of a centralized authority in London resulted in an inability to implement policy effectively. The Metropolitan Board of Works was assembled to provide infrastructure for the rapidly growing city. The Board’s first priority was to redesign London’s sewer network. Joseph Bazalgette, civil engineer and Commissioner of the Board of Works, was contracted to design a revolutionary system of intercepting sewers, pumping stations and treatment works that would cleanse the River Thames, sustain the cities growing population and inadvertently eradicate cholera in London indefinitely.

The most challenging aspect of the sewer system was embanking the River Thames. Joseph Bazalgette completed the Victoria Embankment in 1870, Albert Embankment in 1868 and Chelsea Embankment in 1874, totaling 3.5 miles. “The embankments reclaimed 52 acres of land from the river which provided not only footways and parks but also much-needed thoroughfares, notably between the City and Westminster.” These structures narrowed the river and increased its flow, resulting in a “scouring” affect that aided in the cleansing of the river. Additionally, the embankments were designed to function as roads, relieving congestion in the crowded metropolis. The structure was also engineered to house an underground railway, today’s District Line. Bazalgette’s commitment to quality was unwavering, discernable in his choice of materials, such as Portland cement instead of the standard Roman cement. Bazalgette calculated how wide the sewers needed to be, and then doubled it. If he did not display this foresight, London’s drainage system would have been overwhelmed by the 1950s.

Joseph Bazalgette’s sewage design was easily one of the most incredible engineering feats of the nineteenth century. Work began on the system in 1859, and took twenty years to complete. The last epidemic of cholera took place in 1866 in the East End of London, a section not yet connected to Bazalgette’s system. Bazalgette’s work saved countless lives, earning him knighthood in 1874. “If the malignant spirits whom we moderns call cholera, typhus 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 London, they would probably make their way to St. Mary’s, Wimbledon.” This quote, referring to Sir Joseph Bazalgette, epitomizes the magnitude of his work and the affect that it had on London in the mid nineteenth century.



Cassell’s Saturday Journal, 30 August 1890,
PP. 1160-1: ‘Representative Men at Home; Sir Joseph Bazalgette, CB, at Wimbeldon’.
The Times, 12 September 1849, p. 3. Cols 3-4;
13 September, p. 4, cols 2-3.
The Times, 20 March 1855, p. 9
The Times, 7 November 1854 p. 7
The Great Stink of London: Sir Joseph Bazalgette and the Cleansing of the Victorian Metropolis
Quondam’ writing in The Builder, 19 Febuary 1853


‘A Drop of London’s Water’ – Punch 1850
Guildhall Library, Corporation of London – A view of somerset house in 1817
Opening of Victoria Embankment, July 1870 – illustrated London news
Faraday giving his card vol 29 (1855) pg 27
Bazalgette signed Map