Cleaning the Thames

In the middle of the 18th Century, London began growing to the metropolis it is today. Population began to increase due to the benefits of the Industrial Revolution, such as a surplus of textiles and goods as well as great civil engineers allowing London to house this new and large population. However, there was a part of the city that Londoners could before they saw: the Thames River. The entire city of London dumped sewage and other waste into the Thames River.  This practice eventually caused the “Great Stink”, cholera outbreaks, and killed the ecosystem of the river. This caught the attention of London officials and they realized that they needed to change the way the sewage system worked. The Royal Commission of Health created the Metropolitan Commission of Sewers in 1848. This act gave funding to civil engineers to construct giant projects such as the main drainage. The first chief engineer of the Commission was Joseph Bazalgette. Originally born in France, Bazalgette was a key innovator in the new sewage system. Bazalgette realized that three things were needed to help protect the health and well being of London’s citizens: first, a better waste disposal system to prevent the Thames River from being harmed anymore; second, better land drainage or higher banks for the Thames River to prevent flooding London with the toxic waste in the river; and third, a safe water supply.

Joseph Bazalgette. National Portrait Gallery, London. Wikimedia Commons.

To solve some of these problems, Bazalgette came up with the Main Drainage. This was a series of sewers and pipes that went north and south of the Thames that collected the sewage that would have originally drained into the river but instead is taken east away from the Thames by the power of valleys and hills. This ultimately helped limit the future contamination of the river. This new sewage system would eventually provide agriculture with manure when the railway system became better developed.

Parliament passed the Rivers Pollution Prevention Act in 1876.  Dr. Robert Angus Smith (1817-1884) was the first inspector appointed to analyze the chemical and microbial content of the Thames water and to enforce the new law.

In 1879, the Thames River Prevention of Flood Act was created to prevent Thames’ water from reaching the lower parts of London through floods from rain. This allowed engineers to raise the banks by granite or docks 5 feet higher than the high point of river. This remodeling of the banks caused a remodeling of the road and bridge systems. The 1877 Metropolitan Troll Bridge Act was created to support funding of these new bridges. (Hughes, 2013)

Map of the London sewerage system developed by Joseph Bazalgette, 1882. Wikimedia Commons.

Map of the London sewerage system developed by Joseph Bazalgette 1858-1870.

File:Sir Alexander Cruikshank Houston. Photograph by Whitlock & S Wellcome V0026568.jpg
Sir Alexander Cruikshank Houston. Photograph by Whitlock & S Wellcome. Wikimedia Commons.

Filtration systems such as the sand filtration system, have been around centuries. It was not until the beginning of the 20th Century that London began producing an effective water filtration system. This growth was mostly due to the Metropolitan Water Board. They increased the number of water treatment plants to help keep the water safe from possible plant failure due to being over worked. This detailed understanding may have exemplified the kind of leadership skills of the Metropolitan Water Board’s leader, Alexander Houston. Alexander Houston, known for being charismatic and a positive influence on the board, was the man credited with creating a filtration system that satisfied the needs of London. He was able to find certain bacteria and their weaknesses such as chlorine to clean the water supply of London. (Howard, 1927) He eventually realized that filtering water through sand filtration was not safe enough for the public and eventually came up with a combination of sand filtration and chlorine treatments for the London water system. This was able to create water clean enough to bathe in and drink without the possible problem of cholera for the city of London.

Overall, the industrial age eventually forced the development of London’s infrastructure, which includes sewage systems, roads and bridges, agriculture, and docking systems. Events like the “Great Stink” and cholera outbreaks in London taught other industrializing countries to develop better water systems and to create committees to control public health. The Thames River has now began to produce life like it once did. A possible example of how the mistakes of the past can be forgiven.

Written by Brad Johnson


Calvert, John T. “The London Water Supply” Journal of the American Water Works Association 24.1 (1932): 110-117.

Howard, Norman J. “Report of Metropolitan Water Board of London: Twentieth Annual Report on the Results of the Chemical and Bacteriological Examination of the London Waters for the Twelve Months Ended March 31, 1926, by Sir Alexander Houston” Journal of the American Water Works Association 17. 2 (1927): 235–42.

Hughes, Mark, “The Victorian London Sanitation Projects and the Sanitation of ProjectsInternational Journal of Project Management 31.5 (2013): 682-91.

“London Water in 1931: Sir Alexander Houston’s Report.” British Medical Journal 1, no. 3729 (1932): 1178.