Many people will instantly recognise the names Brunel, Stephenson and Telford, as engineers who helped change the face of the English landscape. However, there is one engineer to which Britain, and London, owes a wealth of gratitude and whose name is rarely uttered, except by those in the know.
Joseph Bazalgette was born in London 1819 and died in 1891 after a successful career as one of the most eminent engineers in Europe. He began his working life as a railway engineer and specialised in land drainage and land reclamation. He set up his own private company in 1842 and worked for most of his life in the UK.
But, it is Bazalgette’s career working for London’s metropolitan board of works which gained him his place in engineering history – as the chief engineer who devised most of London’s still functioning sewer network.
The River Thames had long been the city’s main sewer, carrying all types of unmentionables to the sea. The problem with this was that the Thames was also London’s main supply of drinking water, creating a serious health problem for the residents.
In the mid 1800’s, London was suffering from recurring cholera epidemics, with over 10,000 people alone killed in 1853. In 1858, after the ‘Great Stink of London’ which engulfed the city, Parliament passed legislation to begin work on the city’s sewer system and enforced many street improvements in an effort to improve health. And the system was finished in record time, in only eight years most of the city was connected to a sewer and drainage network, which was designed by Bazalgette.
Bazalgette’s main task was to divert foul water flows from overground and underground rivers from entering the River Thames. To do this he devised and built low level sewers, which were created behind huge embankments situated on each side of the river. In an effort to move the sewerage from these embankments, and against the flow of gravity, he then had to create pumping stations at the sewer and river outfall stations, which could pump the sewage to newly created treatment works.
The outfall sewers Bazalgette created were major feats of engineering, with the Northern Outfall sewer over four miles long and concealed beneath the huge embankment he created.
When all the work on the sewer system was complete, over 1300 miles of sewer pipe had been laid and 82 miles of main intercepting sewers created, which is a feat which would be difficult to match even today.
Other notable achievements for Balgazette included The Albert and Victoria embankments, which were opened in 1870 and created land on the edge of the river for roads, whilst also creating space for the new underground system. He also created the Chelsea embankment, which opened in 1874 and reclaimed 52 acres of land from the tidal Thames.
The idea of creating a sewerage system and embankments along the Thames had long been discussed, but it was Bazalgette who had the foresight to make these ideas a reality.
And Bazalgatte’s legacy? Most of the sewers which were designed and built by perhaps London’s most notable engineer are still in operation today, over a century after they were laid.