Fleet Sewer looking north - by Matt Brown - Flickr
Fleet Sewer looking north – by Matt Brown – Flickr

With London offering such a rich history above street level, it is perhaps surprising that there are many Londoners who are truly fascinated by what goes on at a subterranean level. Yet, Thames Water receives hundreds of requests a year by those requesting tours of London’s elaborate sewage system.

History of London’s Sewage System

London was originally made up of a number of small settlements and problems with the removal of sewage from these locations were acknowledged as far back as the medieval period. Excrement lay in the street, which was then washed away into various streams and rivers that flowed into the River Thames. These streams and rivers would have also been a supply of water and fish, so over the centuries that followed, authorities were concerned about the safety of public health, particularly with diseases such as cholera becoming such an epidemic by the 19th century.

Various measures were put into place, such as the introduction of cesspools, but London didn’t really develop an effective way to deal with the constant build-up of sewage until the late 1800s, when the Victorian engineer, Sir Joseph Bazalgette, designed a complex sewage system that was one of the first modern sewage networks in the world. His design involved turning some of London’s rivers into culverts, covering them beneath ground and allowing them to flow together to create his vision.

Lost Rivers of London

Some of the rivers that got swallowed up and joined part of this Victorian sewage network are still visible beneath the streets of London today and certain walking tour companies will take you past their entrances. The River Effra in South London for instance, is now visible from beneath the crypt of St. Luke’s church in West Norwood and is also accessible in Effra Road, Brixton.

London’s Hidden Sewer Tours

Whilst guided sewer tours are not usually available to the general public, Thames Water have been known to periodically offer the occasional tour in locations such as the Abbey Mills pumping station in Stratford, dubbed the ‘cathedral to sewage’, or the Fleet Sewer which was formerly the River Fleet.

Those who are invited to attend such an event are often surprised that even though they’re wading around in waist-deep excrement flow, the smell isn’t as foul as they’d expect due to the tide also being heavily diluted with water from washing machines, showers and sinks. However, a strong stomach is still necessary as you’re likely to see human waste interspersed with used contraception and disposed sanitary products floating by. For those that go on a tour in the West End area of London, a more disgusting sight exists in the tunnels which are lined with fatty deposits produced by fast food outlets in Leicester Square and Piccadilly Circus. The fat is so solid and thick at 30-40 inches deep, that it’s barely possible to push a stick through it.

Super Sewer Construction

Bazalgette’s system has served London well for the past 150 years, but as our city grows, so too does the strain on our existing sewage network. A solution has been found in the construction of a ‘super sewer’, a 25km tunnel running from Acton storm tanks in West London to Abbey Mills in Stratford where it will connect to the Lee Tunnel which emerges at the Beckton Treatment Works. The tunnel will assist in capturing up to 97% of extra sewage that has been polluting the tidal River Thames. Only time will tell if future sewage enthusiasts will find themselves wading around in this creation in years to come.

Image credit: Matt Brown, Flickr

Enquire Today