The Impact of the Embankment on Erith

Written by Chad Hansen

In 1882, environmental concerns in Erith, located along the river Thames to the south east of London (now in the London Borough of Bexley), led to the Royal Commission on Metropolitan Sewage Discharge. The building of the Embankment and the placement of the Crossness Pumping Station near Erith were blamed by local people for worsening conditions in the area adjacent to the river. However, the Metropolitan Board of Works contested it was not as much the installation of the Embankment, as it was the emergence of industrialization throughout the metropolis that was responsible for the foul condition of the river near Erith.

The people of Erith did not take the increasingly foul conditions of the river lightly. Repugnant smells in the air were still a major concern during this time; because the theory that many deadly diseases were miasmic had not yet been disproven. Residents of Erith took it upon themselves to eradicate the problem, establishing a Committee, appointing a Legal Council and calling a multitude of witnesses to attest to the problems they believed had been created by the outflow at Crossness.

The witnesses called to the stand included 55 Watermen and Lightermen, 32 Fisherman, 38 Yacht Captains and 18 General witnesses. Each individual claimed that the quality of the river had severely deteriorated since the redesigned sewer system had been established. Yacht Captains complained that they no longer could use the river water to wash their boat decks, and witnesses saw increases in mud banks that they believed to be raw sewage. While these people claimed that the smell worsened and the purity of the water was declining, a key factor was the lack of a single illness or death attributed to the River Thames.


At the Royal Commission hearing, The Metropolitan Board of works examined Dr. Jessop, the Medical Officer for Erith. During this exchange, it was founded that Erith had one of the lowest death rates from sewage related disease in the London area. This severely undermined the argument provided put forward by Erith’s Council that the location of the outflows, and the condition of the river were serious health concerns that must be addressed.

It was eventually established that there were numerous factors that were to blame for the poor condition of the River Thames near Erith. While it is unfair to claim that the Crossness Pumping Station had no impact, factories at Barking, the Gas Works at Beckton and increasing River traffic all contributed to the depletion of environmental conditions in southeast London. Additionally, manure factories, bone burning factories and glue factories greatly contributed to the putrid smell and pollution of the river. While the Erith Council believed it was the fault of the Metropolitan Board of Works, these factors were out of their control.

Much thought went in to the placement of the Crossness Pumping Station. When examined by the Erith Council, Joseph Bazalgette justified his decision by noting the area already contained factories that produced these offensive odors. He further defended his decision by explaining that the area was relatively unpopulated compared to central London.

While the Erith Council was unsuccessful in forcing the Metropolitan Board to address the situation, their efforts were not in vain. The Royal Commission exposed the main sources of pollution in the areas near Erith, the industrial factories. As such, many of these businesses were mandated to shut down until they could improve their manufacturing processes and limit the negative affect they had on the river, as well as the environment in general.

For more information about Erith visit the Bexley Local Studies and Archive centre