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Last Updated: Friday, 8 February 2008, 15:57 GMT
Flushed away
Bazalgette - top right - and others view the Northern Outfall sewer being built below the Abbey Mills pumping station
Victorian engineer Sir Joseph Bazalgette inspects his handiwork

By David Cannadine

Sewers and water mains are as vital to the lives of cities as arteries and veins are to the lives of individuals.

A few weeks ago, I received an estimate from a plumber which I duly accepted, and he recently completed the work to our mutual satisfaction. But this might never have happened, because the estimate arrived in an envelope that was incorrectly addressed to me at Sewage Street in London.

It's true that the name of the thoroughfare on which I reside begins with an S, and it also includes the letters e, w and a in that order; so this is the sort of Freudian slip that I suppose a plumber of all professions might be forgiven for making.

Thames Water workers dig up a residential street
Replacing ageing water mains
But it was only thanks to the lateral thinking of someone in our local sorting office that I ever received this communication. Yet the address on the envelope also reminded me that what goes on beneath the roads and pavements of our towns and cities is in many ways at least as important as what goes on above ground.

At present, there can be scarcely anyone in London who needs telling this because so many of our streets are being dug up. As I walk to work, from my non-Sewage St address, I've been passing just such a scene of urban excavation.

A billboard informed pedestrians that the men digging and drilling down there in the trenches are "replacing London's Victorian water mains", because at least half of the pipes were more than 100 years old.

I could never make up my mind what the word "Victorian" was intended to mean in this particular context. It might have been put in as a shorthand expression for the 19th Century, in the same way that Asa Briggs used it in his celebrated book, Victorian Cities.

Or it could have been intended more critically which was how Lytton Strachey deployed it when he entitled his most iconoclastic book Eminent Victorians, but this time implying that 19th Century sewers were structurally defective, badly built, and didn't last as long as they should have done.

Or it could have been inserted as a term of praise, as when Margaret Thatcher celebrated those "Victorian values" of self-help and self-denial, by reminding us just how long these 100-year-old water mains have lasted, so it's scarcely surprising, and absolutely no criticism, that they need replacing now.

Sewer king

Whichever way the word Victorian was being used, it's undeniable that sewage systems and water mains were one of the great achievements of the 19th Century; and in Britain, the most famous civil engineer associated with such works is a remarkable figure, who rejoiced in the splendid name of Sir Joseph William Bazalgette.

In recent years tours of sewers have become quite the fashion in many of Europe's great cities

This suggests his family were of French origin, and Bazalgette's grandfather, Jean Louis, arrived in England in 1784. Joseph William Bazalgette was born in Enfield in 1819, he trained and practised as a civil engineer, and in 1856 was appointed chief engineer to the Metropolitan Board of Works, which had recently been established to oversee the provision and regulation of what we would now call London's urban infrastructure, and which was the forerunner of the London County Council, which later became the greater London Council, until Margaret Thatcher abolished it in 1986.

Bazalgette wasn't particularly tall, and he was slight and spare of physique; but in every other way he was a big and masterful man, and his face, with its keen grey eyes and its grey whiskers gave all those who met him the impression he was a man "of exceptional power".

It was Bazalgette who directed the construction of 1,000 miles of sewers, which made London a more sanitary and better smelling city than it had ever been before. He also superintended the building of the Victoria, the Albert and the Chelsea Embankments along the Thames, and he was responsible for creating such major thoroughfares as Northumberland and Shaftesbury Avenues.

Workers by torchlight
Inspecting London's sewers in 1950
London's water, by contrast, was supplied by private companies, and it was they who put in many of the mains that are now being replaced. But as the chief engineer of the metropolitan Board of Works, it was once again Bazalgette who was the man who oversaw these important installations.

Many of Bazalgette's greatest engineering achievements were either hidden from public view, or were just taken for granted. But among those in the know, his reputation as a public health engineer was unrivalled, he advised on many sewage systems, drainage schemes and water supplies in Britain and overseas, and he was knighted in 1874.

He took justifiable pride in what he described as "those engineering works which promote the health and comfort of the inhabitants of large cities, and by which human life may be preserved and prolonged". Bazalgette retired from his labours in 1889, after more than 40 years service, when the Metropolitan Board of Works was superseded by the London County Council. He lived the rest of his life in Wimbledon, and on his death in 1891 he was interred in a splendid neoclassical tomb at St Mary's Church, which survives to this day; and there's also a bust of him at the far west end of the Victoria Embankment.

Escape route

And he was not the only Briton whose 19th Century construction works were primarily subterranean. For during his own lifetime, there were two engineers, who happened to be a father and a son, whose international reputation was even greater, and a book has recently been published about them, in Polish, which rather bears this out.

Orson Welles in The Third Man
Harry Lime takes refuge in Vienna's sewers in The Third Man
The senior figure was Bazalgette's near-contemporary William Lindley, who made his reputation as engineer in chief to the city of Hamburg, where he superintended the construction of its sewage system and water supply during the 1840s; and in later years he offered advice in Dusseldorf, St Petersburg and Warsaw. His son, Sir William Heerlin Lindley, was even more eminent, and did similar work for the cities of Moscow, Bucharest, Prague, Trieste and Vienna.

It's not often realised how many central European sewage systems and water mains were built during the second half of the 19th Century with British advice and assistance.

But if you were to play a game of free association with the words "sewers" and "Vienna", it wouldn't be long before you came up with a very different sort of British connection, namely Graham Greene's "third man" Harry Lime. A selfish corrupt racketeer, who made his money from selling watered-down penicillin on the black market in the aftermath of World War II. The Third Man was filmed about 60 years ago and the climax is the underground chase in the sewers of Vienna, where Lime is finally cornered and shot, as he makes one last despairing effort to escape to the streets above.

Almost 10 years later, in 1957, it was the turn of the sewers of Warsaw to be depicted on the big screen in Kanaly, directed by Andrzej Wajda, which once again was powerfully shot in black and white. But unlike The Third Man, Kanaly was based on real events during the Warsaw uprising of 1944 and it depicts a band of Polish resistance fighters, who escaped from the Nazis by retreating through the sewers as they made their way to freedom through the maze of dank brick tunnels.

A boy scout marks 60th anniversary of the Warsaw Uprising, in which insurgents used the sewers to escape
Insurgents escaped via Warsaw's sewers in 1944
Today, sections of both the Vienna and the Warsaw sewers are open to visitors, and in recent years such tours of sewers have become quite the fashion in many of Europe's great cities, though they remain something of a specialised recreational pursuit.

It's highly unlikely that Bazalgette or the Lindleys would ever have imagined that their great subterranean works might become the backdrops to films, or tourist attractions in their own right.

And these are not the only surprises that history has had in store for these great British burrowers and builders beneath the streets and cities of Europe. The Lindleys would probably have been amazed, flattered and disappointed that they've been more written about in Polish than in English.

As for the great Sir Joseph: one of his descendants, Edward Bazalgette, made a documentary for the BBC in 2003 entitled The Sewer King, which described the life and achievements of his illustrious forebear; but another relative, who also works in television, produces programmes of a rather different kind. His name is Peter Bazalgette, and he's best known for bringing reality TV to Britain in the form of Big Brother. What, I wonder, would his great Victorian great grandfather have thought of that?

Below is a selection of your comments:

Sewers that were over-engineered and properly constructed, so lasted over 100 years... you would never get the government or water companies to pay for that kind of long-term thinking these days. Let's hope we can have more modern engineers who stick up for long-term quality over short-term cost-cutting.
Fiona, London

As a follow up for those wanting to pursue their interest in subterranean London, I am running a ten-week course on this very subject at Birkbeck College from April 2008. Contact me or Birkbeck's London Studies for more details. The course is titled 'Subterranean London: the View from Below'
Paul Dobraszczyk, Oxford

Sorry, Richard of Leicester - the Mini chase in 'The Italian job' was actually filmed at a sewage treatment works in Coventry.
Robert Day, Coventry, UK

But no mention of the dinner parties and balls which are still held in the Paris sewers and catacombs from David Cannadine .
Cat, London

Cometh the moment, cometh the man. Joseph Bazalgette did an astonishing job with London's sewers. I saw the 2003 documentary, and I also seem to remember he formulated a new mixture for the makeup of the bricks used. They had to be made on site, and to conform to very strict guidelines, Joseph Bazalgette invented modern quality control. As the documentary said, we can only guess how many lives he saved over the years.
Leonard Day, Cardiff, South Wales, UK

That's the problem of the developed world of today. We take so many things for granted, we have been conditioned to look at such technical wonders with disgust - maybe a casual shrug with a throwaway comment to praise them. People have simply relied on that someone else, that "expert", to fix things when something goes wrong.
Howard , Manchester

I live in the suburban Atlanta, here despite the continued drought, the sewer system dating back over 100 years is the worst ever. For starters, right in the middle of the city there thousands of residences and facilities with septic tanks. On account of the over 100 year old infrastructure, the sewer system along with water deliver system is worst ever, where sink holes occur every third day along with water pipes that leak more water then is delivered. Adding insult to injury, where sewer system exist, the cost is based on water delivery and much higher then the cost of water, which is supposed to be in gallons. But the word gallons does not appear on the bills and neither are these meters calibrated for any particular units. All water from the river systems is Federal Property, that states and County get it for free. However all the water utility companies, that are private businesses under the mandate of the good old boys who run the system, manipulate price controls. During the drought where by consumers have reduced consumption, but are paying more and unprecedented use, abuse and waste is the name of the game. Some small county jurisdictions even have schemes in place that charge house holds for rain runoff into the local sewer systems.
Mohinder L. Jerath, Atlanta, USA

I took a tour of the sewers under Prague some ten or so years ago and was astonished at the carved marble, herringbone brick work and gilded edging. at the time we were the first people that were not working on the sewers to see them for what we were told was 100 years. Incredible.
Caitrin, Longridge, Lancashire

As an engineer (mechanical rather than civil) I have always had enormous respect and admiration for Joseph Bazalgette and his achievements. The story of the building of the London sewers and the appalling condition of the Thames and its environs before that massive project, is graphically described in Deborah Cadbury's 'Seven Wonders of the Industrial World (a BBC book). Worth a read.
david, Cambridge UK

How thoughtful of Sir Joseph to have supplied Peter with the appropriate conduit through which to pass Big Brother.
Bruce Osborne, Hampshire UK

"The Third Man was filmed about 60 years ago and the climax is the underground chase in the sewers of Vienna, where Lime is finally cornered and shot, as he makes one last despairing effort to escape to the streets above." There were a few shots of the real sewers, but after Orson Welles refused to act in any part of the Vienna sewage system most of those scenes were shot in a nice clean studio.
Kate, London

Well, Peter Bazalgette is certainly 'keeping it in the family', as his programme provides a view of the open sewer of today's society.
B Jones, Coventry

What about the great 3 mini race through the sewers in The Italian Job. Brilliant - I want a go
Richard, Leicester, UK

I would recommend a reading of Victor Hugo's description of the Paris sewers in Les Miserables. The pursuit of Jean Valjean by Inspector Javert and Valjean's rescue of Marius plus the role of sewers in city life is beautifully told.
C. Ogawa, Kanagawa, Japan

I note with amusement that Peter Bazalgette continues his illustrious forebear's interest in sewage in spawning Big Brother.
P. Hewitt, Borehamwood, UK

A most interesting talk. What a shame that over the years we haven't lauded Engineers for what they have done and still do. Maybe then we would have encouraged more of our young people to train as Engineers to design, build and maintain our vital infrastructure. The rail chaos at Christmas was due to a shortage of Engineers, but never mind, perhaps all our English literature buffs who we laud and cherish so much could have solved the problems by reading poetry to the frustrated travellers. As our infrastructure gets older we will need more poets to soothe nerves, but for the future let's hope our young people choose to study Engineering
Ken Owen, Reading

Great article, as a London cabbie it's great to read about what's under ground, thank you
Jon Lancaster , London

Wow, Joseph William Bazalgette dispensed with the sewage, and Peter Bazalgette pumped it straight back into our living rooms.
Duncan, Dublin

It takes great vision to work at something so important but unseen. Sir Joseph was a true hero.
Edward James, Southport, England

His name is Peter Bazalgette, and he's best known for bringing reality TV to Britain in the form of Big Brother. What, I wonder, would his great Victorian great grandfather have thought of that? I believe he created the means for conveying it back out again.
Nick, San Diego, Bristol Originally

Why not repeat the "The Sewer King" at some time on BBC 4?
Richard Stanbury

I understand that Sir Joseph Bazalgette was the engineer who gave Bombay a safe drinking water system BEFORE returning to England and doing the same for London. Further, a system to 'remove the night soil' was evolved for Madras City. This used battery driven nearly silent electric trams, each equipped with a warning bell on a metal spring rather like the old bell systems in big country houses. This is the origin of the term '"humdinger"
Leela Joseet, SW Greater London UK

I have an interest in London's sewerage infrastructure both as an historian and personally. My great-grandfather was a sewer man, and he was drowned whilst working in the River Fleet, which acts as a storm drain, about 100 years back when the water-level rose suddenly. It is fortunate that Bazalgette vastly over-engineered London's sewerage system, as it still operates very well today under pressures -- increased usage, heavier vehicles above -- which he could hardly have imagined.
Dr Paul Flewers, London, UK

You should see the work being undertaken to replace Brighton's sewers and water mains, it is causing chaos. Causing Gridlock in Brighton as hey are doing all the main routes at the same time
L Mandville, Brighton

How ironic.. Sir Joseph was responsible, all those years ago, of ridding us off effluence.. And his great, great grandson is now responsible for producing it
Ryan, Liverpool, UK

Good informative write-up
Ravinder Bhatti, New Delhi, India

Great story. How does one go about getting a tour of London's sewers?
Mr K Griffin, Verwood, UK

One commentator observed that while Sir Joseph made his reputation by removing effluent from our houses, Peter Bazalgette seems to want to reverse the trend.
Huw Williams, Ealing

We all seem to forget about the great things built in the past, I'm a bricklayer so i know how hard they had it in them days , every thing was made by hand even the bricks and mortar . The bricklayers that worked for Edward Bazelgette went on strike when the sewers were being built, for more pay , as the conditions were very bad he respected his men and gave them there pay rise, 1,100 miles of sewers and tunnels are beneath London and who thought trades men weren't worth there wages in those days i would rather employ people from Victorian times than the slap dash trades men of today.
Phil Kernot, Blackburn

Many of London's sewers were constructed by tunnelling. This meant that they had to be big enough for men to crawl through with tools. As a consequence, they were much bigger than was necessary to carry the sewage flows of the day. Londoners have benefitted from this as small houses have been demolished and replaced by tower blocks with hundreds of people where there were only a few before. Our use of washing machines, dishwashers and showers means that the amount of water entering these old sewers is many times what they were originally intended to carry. Fortunately, because they were built oversize, this extra flow has for the most part been carried without any significant problem.
Chris O'Hanlon, Oitti, Finland (Ex London)

Isn't it crazy how today's society pays footballers millions for doing nothing, yet the people who keep our sewage 'moving' get paid peanuts? Think we've got our values mixed up as a society and gone completely haywire
Mark, Exeter

When in Vienna a couple years back I took the 'Third Man Tour' which involved walking through the city's sewers. The tour included sounds effects (e.g. gun shot) and basic 'acting' by the tour guides. It was quite fun and awe-inspiring at the same time. I used to think it was magic whenever I flushed the toilet, now I know better
Carlos , Minneapolis, USA

Thank goodness for the creation of the sewer systems
Dennis Young. Jr., Madrid, United States of America

British plumbing isn't what it used to be. I had the taps in my London house replaced after they had been in use for 95 years. Five years later, the new ones needed replacing: the(Polish) plumber telling me they were already worn out Paul Surtees, London.
Paul Surtees, London

From sewers to Big Brother, the family trade continues.
Buzz, Norwich

I think you will find that Peter Bazalgette made an excellent documentary on Sir Joseph - a break-away from his game programmes
Evelyn Bazalgette,

History seems to have come full circle. Joseph Bazalgette pumped effluent out of Britain and now his distant relative, Peter, pumps it straight back in
Ian, Redditch


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