Sewer Systems


Caricature published in Punch in 1858, at the time of the “Great Stink.” The River Thames introduces his children – diphtheria, scrofula, and cholera – to the city of London. Wikimedia Commons.

In the mid 19th century, the River Thames rapidly declined in cleanliness and healthiness. Huge amounts of industrial and human waste were dumped into the river.  This not only caused the water to become filthy and obviously unfit to drink or bathe in, but it generated horrible smells.  These smells were not just considered a nuisance; they were believed to cause disease.  The filthy state of the Thames caused the aggregation of many polluting gases and material in resident’s homes, which led to disease and death. Leading public health reformer Edwin Chadwick was one of the main proponents of this view that “sewer gas” caused disease.  He argued that the cleaning out of pipes and sewage systems was the highest priority of the time in order to prevent the declining health and the death of residents from the accumulation of dangerous gases (Chadwick 1842). Chadwick noted that the cleaning out of these pipes was delayed for a while due to the enormous financial burden it would place on the city. Also, it was a challenging process because it required a large amount of man power to clean the pipes. In order to combat the entire issue of the polluted water supply and waste buildup in the city’s pipes, he stated that the water supply and treatment in the city must be organized into a better system. The city needed to have more clean water flowing to houses and an improved disinfection process in order to deal with sewage water (Chadwick 1842).

While the Thames was largely polluted by the sewage water that washed into it, there were other sources that lead to the river’s appalling state. For example, the growing industrial culture of the times meant that more large factories were being built in London. These factories used the water in the Thames for making their products and allowed this used, dirty water to flow back into the Thames. This added to the pollution from sewage water  already present in the River Thames.  Also, these large industrial buildings created many opportunities for runoff off chemicals into the river following rain, further polluting the water (Michelle Allen 2008).

In order to determine if the gas resulting from sewage and waste water was actually harmful, as Chadwick and others argued, a physician, Dr. Barker, ran some experiments. His experiments consisted of exposing dogs to the gases created by sewage water over a period of time. He observed that the dogs would display symptoms that deviate from the way normal healthy dogs act. For example, the dogs would seem tired, thirsty, averse to food, and some even died from the experiment. Therefore, he concluded that water containing fecal matter did in fact produce gases that were harmful to dogs and likely humans. His findings were important since the outdated sewage pipes and inadequate ventilation of the houses in the city did not promote diffusion of these gases away from the resident’s houses. Therefore, citizens would likely begin suffering from declining health if the sewage pipes were not cleaned out. (Greenwich 1858).

In response to these calls to clean the existing sewer pipes, in 1858 the pipes in over 1700 houses were drained. All this waste and water ended up flowing into the Thames River.  Initially, the river was able to dilute the sewage to non-toxic levels, but rapidly it was overwhelmed. The situation was exacerbated by the summer heat, leading to the infamous “Great Stink” of 1858.  A Medical Officer of Health (MOH) reporting on the state of the river in 1858 stated that due to the massive number of sewage and waste water pipes washed into the Thames, it had become extremely polluted. Due to the large quantity of waste water flowing into the river and the high temperatures in the summer, the River Thames was unable to dilute all the sewage water and became extremely toxic (Greenwich 1858). The MOH pointed out that instead of the polluted water and gases remaining stagnant in the sewage and drainage pipes of the houses, it had become concentrated into one large waste pit in the river. The pollution of the River Thames forced residents to avoid getting into its waters and using it for recreation or drinking purposes. The MOH proposed the use of a device that would help reduce or completely eliminate the flow of waste water in the Thames. He suggested that residents should have their sewage pipes flow into a tank that collects the waste water, and the tank could be removed when it fills up with waste water. Next, it could be replaced with an empty tank and the process repeated. This would allow the Thames River to clean out over time without any additional sewage water from houses flowing into it (Medical Officer Health 1858).

As an article composed by the History Channel points out, London’s sewer system was allowing the buildup of polluted waste water prior to the Great Stink which occurred in 1858. However, the pinnacle of the problem was not reached until high temperatures along with the massive pollution buildup in the river resulted in the Great Stink of 1858.

After the River Thames was extensively polluted in 1858, a more advanced and beneficial sewer system was mapped out by Joseph Bazalgette. He designed the new sewage system to have a greater number of sewers to connect to already existing sewage pipes. Also, he had a novel idea for how to prevent sewage water from remaining stagnant in the sewers of houses. He proposed that the city should place pumping devices at particular locations along the city’s sewer pipes in order to prevent the backup of sewage water and to keep the flow of the waste moving (History Channel 2013)

In conclusion, mid 19th century London was bombarded with large amounts of water pollution. This pollution came from many sources, but primarily involved the inappropriate disposal of sewage water and the poor design of the sewage system. The sewage systems of the city were old and became clogged up, causing gaseous products of fecal containing water to harm the residents. Instead of replacing the sewage system initially and redesigning it to remove or limit the diffusion of gases from sewage water into people’s houses, the city washed out the sewage pipes. The sewage pipes lead to the River Thames, so once they were washed out, all the sewage water ended up in the river. So much sewage water had been washed into the Thames that the river was unable to dilute the waste to a safe degree. They did solve their initial problem of harmful gases building up in residents’ houses. However, they in turn polluted the River Thames to such an extent that the river was essentially useless as a water source and place of recreation. They did finally redesign the sewage system but the damage to the Thames was already done. The industrialization of the time also introduced polluted water into the Thames, compounding the issue of sewage pollution of the river

For more images of the sewers of the time, see this article in the Guardian.

Written by Dalton Frazier


Allen, Michelle E. “Good Intentions, Unexpected Consequences: Thames Pollution of and The Great Stink of 1858.” Victorian Web. 2008. Accessed April 12, 2016.

Chadwick, Edwin. “Chadwick’s Report on Sanitary Conditions.” Victorian Web. 1842. Accessed April 12, 2016.

Medical Officer’s Report For The Year 1858.” Wellcome Library. 1858. Accessed April 12, 2016.

Richardson, Henry S. “Greenwich District Annual Report For The Year Ended.” Wellcome Library. 1858.Accessed April 12, 2016.

Sir Joseph Bazalgette and London’s Sewers.” History Channel. 2013. Accessed April 12, 2016.