The opening of the West Middlesex drainage system in 1936 (image: courtesy of the City of London, London Metropolitan Archives and West Middlesex Chronicle)
Joseph Bazalgette’s subterranean network did more than prevent epidemics and reduce the city stink – it fundamentally altered the relationship between the individual and the modern metropolis
It is 155 years since construction began on a main drainage system for London. Often described as the biggest technical achievement of the Victorian age, and still in use today, few people deny the importance of London's sewers.
But in this "flush and forget" age, it is almost impossible to comprehend how radically sewerage altered the environment, social order, and human subjectivity. When first introduced, it single-handedly reshaped the experience of modernity.
The outlines of its history are well known. By the mid-19th century, London had well over 2.5 million inhabitants and therefore needed to deal with its public health problems in a coordinated way. This was driven home by repeated outbreaks of cholera, which in 1848-9, left 14,000 dead.
Yet Parliament dithered until the Great Stink of London, in 1858, when at last it authorised the Metropolitan Board of Works chief engineer, Joseph Bazalgette, to build a citywide drainage system.
At this time, diseases were still believed to spread through noxious gases or miasmas. Hence, Bazalgette's system was designed mainly to do one thing: flush waste away from the most densely populated areas before it could fester. He built main sewers to the north and south of the Thames that intercepted effluent before it reached the river's central stretch; it was then pumped swiftly downstream and discharged (untreated) into the river at ebb tide.
Ironically, although it was based on an erroneous theory of disease transmission, Bazalgette's design successfully prevented epidemics because it separated drinking water intakes from the sewage outfalls.
History books like to present sewerage as a purely technological "solution" to a given set of problems, but it was a far from neutral intervention into existing conditions. In fact, many saw it as a turning point in capitalist modernisation, a total rupture from what had gone before – and were anxious about its effects.
Even the most prominent sanitary reformers had doubts about a system that used the same water sources for drinking and for waste disposal. They also worried that diluting excrement with water ruined its value as fertiliser: Karl Marx rightly warned that sewerage, along with cheap imports of guano, would kill the organic economy and create a metabolic "rift" between man and land.
As the management of waste shifted away from households to a central system run by experts, the traditional relationship between individuals, the environment and the state was also reconfigured.
Legally compelled to hook up to the drainage system, houses became nodes in a larger network, connected by every flush. Yet, due to the system's mostly invisible operations, people began to feel distanced from it, even as it shaped their most intimate routines.
In contrast to the chorus of objections raised in the 19th century, we have largely stopped questioning the logic of flushing today. Indeed, given the massive investment in sewage infrastructure, realistic alternatives are hard to imagine. Thames Water largely relies on a "big system" approach and on engineering fixes to problems inherited from Victorian times.
But London, like much of the developed world, will soon find itself facing problems that put far greater pressure on this model: the stress on the world's water supplies; the high costs of energy required to move waste large distances; and the expense of maintaining crumbling infrastructure. Will big system approaches be enough to deal with these challenges?
Or is it time to rethink more profoundly our impressive but imperfect infrastructural legacy?