Notes from the Underground

There’s a good chance you’ve never heard of Joseph Bazalgette, who was born on March 28, 1819, but if you’ve ever been to London, chances are you’ve taken advantage of his handiwork. Bazalgette was the chief engineer of London’s Metropolitan Board of Works who helped create central London’s sewer network, helping to rid the city of cholera epidemics and cleansing the absolutely filthy Thames.

Bazalgette got his start in railroads and ended up working himself into a complete nervous breakdown. While he was recovering, some genius decided to order all of London’s cesspits closed and house drains to connect to the Thames, which resulted in a massive cholera outbreak that killed over 14,000 people. Congratulations, unknown member of the Idiot Brigade! Bazalgette joined the Metropolitan Commission of Sewers in 1849 and took command in 1852, just in time for another cholera outbreak that killed more than 10,000 Londoners. Though most doctors at the time thought cholera was caused by bad air, one man—Dr. John Snow—believed it was spread by contaminated water. He was right.

In 1856, the Commission was replaced with the Metropolitan Board of Works and Bazalgette was named chief engineer. Two years later, London suffered under the aptly named Great Stink, caused by hot weather and the hideously polluted river. The stench was so bad Parliament agreed to let Bazalgette build an actual sewerage system, despite the colossal expense. Bazalgette planned to construct 1,100 miles of underground brick sewers, along with 1,100 miles of street sewers to direct waste downstream, where it was dumped into the Thames and directed away from the city. Pumping stations were built at Deptford, Crossness, on the Erith marshes, at Abbey Mills, and on the Chelsea Embankment. The system was opened by the Prince of Wales in 1865 and completed about 10 years later.

Thanks to Bazalgette, cholera virtually vanished from London, and actual life returned to the Thames. The system he built is still in use in central London today.

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