Ah, the flushing toilet and the water closet–both English inventions that should make us feel grateful (mostly–more on this qualifier presently). The former is not, alas, the invention of Thomas Crapper as is commonly believed, though he did patent several improvements; neither can he take credit for the etymology of the word crap, a reasonable, though unfounded assumption many people make.
The company he founded, however, did produce several arresting ads that will long endure as decorations in modern bathrooms.
What, you might well ask, does any of this have to do with our adventures in London? Well, the invention of the water closet and flush toilet is a key part of a story about, um, crap in London, a story that demonstrates how inexorably the law of unintended consequences functions in environmental history. It is easy in a place like London in 2020 (or any place with a modern sewer system), to rarely give a second thought to what happens to our business when we flush the toilet. In mid-19th century London, however, flushing your toilet (if you were fortunate enough to have one–most Londoners were not), meant out of sight but not out of mind because you could not escape the smell of the collective effluvia. The flushing toilet became more popular in the middle third of the 19th century and succeeded in removing human waste from the immediate proximity of middle and upper class dwellings, but all of that waste was merely displaced to . . . the Thames. By the 1850s the odor of the Thames had become so foul it was know as the Great Stink. The eminent scientist Michael Faraday famously wrote a letter to the Times in 1855 lamenting the horrific smell and the general treatment of the river (provoking the Punch cartoon at left). In Little Dorrit Charles Dickens wrote that the Thames had become “a deadly sewer … in the place of a fine, fresh river.” The stench of sewage was so awful during a heat wave in the summer of 1858 that Parliament hung giant curtains soaked in lime chloride to try to fend off the smell. And then they finally acted, authorizing the Metropolitan Board of Works to borrow £3 million (about £400 million in 2020 money) to build a comprehensive intercepting sewer system that would, in essence, push the problem further downstream but rid the city of the most pressing problem.
The man chosen to design this system was Joseph Bazalgette, who had been a key figure in the development of England’s railroad system and an engineer of great standing in an age when engineers could become superstars. Over a period of five years a vast underground system of sewer tunnels were dug (mostly by hand) and pumping stations constructed. The famous embankments in Westminster and other parts of central London conceal portions of this sewer network–more than 50 feet of the river was “reclaimed” to construct them (see right). There’s a terrific overview of this crowning achievement of his career at the Museum of London website. Well worth the read.
The system led to two pumping stations several miles downstream, one on each side of the Thames. The most famous of these is the Crossness Pumping Station, which opened to great fanfare on April 4, 1865. Before the great underground reservoirs for holding sewage were flooded, they were the staging ground for a grand opening ceremony, attended by Prince Albert, among other luminaries (represented in the drawing at left). And then, for almost a century, these reservoirs would fill with millions of gallons of human waste (and waste from the streets as well–the storm sewers drained into the system too). Four enormous double-action beam pumps (named “Victoria”, “Prince Consort”, “Albert Edward” and “Alexandra”) would then draw the waste from the reservoirs and expel it into the Thames when the tide was going out. An inventive, but ultimately inadequate system for “treating” sewage.
From the start it was clear that the sewage problem was merely being displaced down downstream. Residents below the pumping station were forced from their homes and the estuary became so contaminated that fishing and the harvesting of other marine life became impossible. In the wake of the Princess Alice disaster on the Thames in 1878, investigators found that many of the victims did not drown but were asphyxiated by the sewage fumes emanating from the river water (imagine!). Shortly thereafter, the solid waste began to be collected in settling ponds and then dispatched (still untreated) on barges to be dumped in the North Sea, a practice that continued until . . . 1998 (when the E.U. put a stop to it)!
Whatever the shortcomings of Bazalgette’s system, the engineering work required to execute his vision is impressive. My class visited the Crossness Pumping Station two weeks ago. Crossness was in danger of being demolished in the 1980s, when a group of industrial heritage enthusiasts rallied to get the site listed in the British equivalent of the National Register and have since been painstakingly restoring the site to its high Victorian glory. You can see how ornate the space is from the gallery of photos below. Keep in mind that this kind of aesthetic is for a sewage plant. Even the engines were painted. There was added expense, of course, but such an aesthetic speaks to a commitment to celebrating public works in a way we seem to have lost. On the site is also a museum with a history of the system and the conditions that produced it–and models of early toilets, which are featured in the opening photo. A terrific overview of the decades that proceeded Bazalgette’s sewer can be found in Lee Jackson’s Dirty Old London, though I would advise against reading it while eating.
On a final personal note, I thought often of my paternal grandfather Bruce Smith while touring this site, and not for the first time during our sojourn across the drink. He was a civil engineer (his skills forged in the crucible of World War II) who would have been utterly fascinated by this place. As he would have by the Thames Tidal Barrier, which he was poised to visit shortly after its opening only to fall so ill that he and my grandmother had to return to the States prematurely before he made it there. And I’m quite sure he was familiar with the Mulberry Harbors used in the wake of the D-Day invasion (and tested in the bays of Scotland where we were a few weeks ago). It made me smile to think of his twinkling eyes taking in these scenes, far more adept than I at puzzling out how it all worked.
The big adventure of last week was a visit to Craven Cottage (the oldest stand of this lovely football ground next to the Thames in West London, right), home to Fulham FC, one of the founding members of the Football Association. We got our tickets through the IC London Center and assumed the seats would be average at best. To our pleasant surprise we were right behind the west end goal. Being that close to the action helped us to appreciate the astonishing skills footballers at that level possess. It was a spirited game, dominated by Fulham, but Swansea defended fiercely, including an 89th minute penalty save followed by a kick save off the line on the rebound. Four minutes into injury time, just seconds left in the game, Aleksandar Mitrović headed in a cross to win it, redeeming his PK failure which was, frankly, a pretty terrible effort. You can see the highlights here, along with the commentary by the Swansea announcers who were not happy about the outcome or the perceived missed calls. If you look carefully, you can see us (well, mostly me because of my royal blue jacket) just left of center behind the goal, about 5 rows back. As I mentioned, the seats were incredible. English football is meant to be experienced in an environment like this.