Joseph Bazalgette and the sewer system

NPG x646; Sir Joseph William Bazalgette
Sir Joseph William Bazalgette. National Portrait Gallery, London. Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

The London Water Crisis consisted of constant water shortages, contaminated drinking water, frustration with London water companies, and repeated attempts at reform that persisted throughout the Victorian Age. Marked by major outbreaks of cholera, the London Water Crisis caused a big stink both literally and figuratively for Londoners throughout this period. Indeed this problem was so bad it was even known as the “Great Stink”. By the late 1850s, parliament was fed up with this problem and wanted a solution, in which they allocated 3.5 million pounds to improve London’s sewerage disposal. This crisis was a part of the slow-to-take-hold sanitary reform movement that while seemed slow in development, eventually led to the development of an elaborate sewage system by Joseph Bazalgette, which is still in use today.

Growing concern for public health led to the creation of the Metropolitan Board of Works by the Metropolis Management Act of 1855. The board consisted of 45 members and was responsible for the built environment within the capital’s area of 117 sq. miles. Joseph Bazalgette was elected chief engineer of the Metropolitan Board of Works. In addition to the main drainage and the London Water Crisis, Bazalgette and the board was also responsible for a range of other works that included street improvements, street lighting, new roads, river bridges, tunnels, flood prevention and the Metropolitan Fire Brigade. In January of 1856, Bazalgette dramatically described the problems with London’s sewage; and after further study and additional reports, in August 1858, the board obtained its enabling Act and site work began on the northern mid-level sewer just months later. This solution was to construct underground brick main sewers to intercept raw sewage which that up until then had flowed freely through the streets and thoroughfares of London. The entire system was launched on April 4, 1865 and was proposed as a “Success to the great national undertaking” by the Prince of Whales. However, the system was not completed for another 10 years. Bazalgette and the Board were praised for this great success and received much recognition from the public.

V0024387 Civil engineering: construction drawings for the Thames Emba
Civil engineering: construction drawings for the Thames Embankment. Coloured drawing, 1865. Credit: Wellcome Library, London.

Joseph Bazalgette was a brilliant engineer and arguably did more for the health of the people of London than anyone before or after him. Bazalgette was knighted in 1875, and elected President of the Institution of Civil Engineers in 1883. While reading Bazalgette’s work On the Main Drainage of London: and the Interception of the Sewage from the River Thames, one can easily see his attention to detail and strict study into the London Water Crisis. He performed an extensive amount of research on the problem and his contributions to the solution cannot be overpraised. His hard work and development of the London Sewer system virtually eliminated cholera by removing the contamination from the water. This system also decreased the incidence of typhus and typhoid epidemics. The contributions of Joseph Bazalgette to public health and engineering are unparalleled and he is definitely one of the great sanitary reformers of the 19th century.

Written by Robert Andersen


Bazalgette, Joseph William. On the Main Drainage of London: and the Interception of the Sewage from the River Thames. W. Clowes and Sons, 1865.

Cook, Gordon Charles. “Construction of London’s Victorian sewers: the vital role of Joseph Bazalgette.” Postgraduate medical journal 77, no. 914 (2001): 802-802.

Cordulack, Shelley Wood. “Victorian Caricature and Classicism: Picturing the London Water Crisis” International Journal of the Classical Tradition, Vol. 9, No. 4 (Spring, 2003), pp. 535-583.

Smith, Denis. “Sir Joseph William Bazalgette (1819-1891) Engineer to the Metropolitan Board of Works.” Transactions of the Newcomen Society 58, no. 1 (1986): 89-111.