Changing London

Overhauling London’s water supply – Dr John Snow, Joseph Bazalgette and the drive for purification

The John Snow in Soho is like many other pubs in central London with people drinking knee deep on the pavement outside when the weather is good. Inside there is little that makes this establishment any different from many others in and around the city.

Serving a good range of beers, it’s pleasant enough however, with wood panelling in its main room and cosy snugs. Upstairs, traditional pub food is offered in the dining room.

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The name of the pub is however perhaps more significant than the establishment itself as it remembers a man who achieved so much for the improving the public health of Britain.

In the 19th century London faced a cholera epidemic killing thousands, but it wasn’t till 1855 that it was proved by a Dr John Snow that it was being spread through the water supply (others had suggested diseases such as cholera were caused by fermenting particles of decomposed matter than were spread through the air in a miasma, or poisonous vapour). He noted that all those suffering from the disease in the Broad Street area (today called Broadwick Street, where the pub is situated) had all sourced their water from one particular pump, as he noted in a letter to the Medical Times and Gazette:

“On proceeding to the spot, I found that nearly all the deaths had taken place within a short distance of the [Broad Street] pump. There were only ten deaths in houses situated decidedly nearer to another street-pump. In five of these cases the families of the deceased persons informed me that they always sent to the pump in Broad Street, as they preferred the water to that of the pumps which were nearer. In three other cases, the deceased were children who went to school near the pump in Broad Street…

“With regard to the deaths occurring in the locality belonging to the pump, there were 61 instances in which I was informed that the deceased persons used to drink the pump water from Broad Street, either constantly or occasionally…

“The result of the inquiry, then, is, that there has been no particular outbreak or prevalence of cholera in this part of London except among the persons who were in the habit of drinking the water of the above-mentioned pump well.”

It was later discovered that the well serving the pump had been dug close to an old cesspit containing a nappy from a baby who had contracted cholera from elsewhere and the structure began to leak faecal bacteria.

Dr Snow had to fight hard to have the handle of the pump removed by the authorities (a red granite kerb stone outside marks the site of the original pump and there is usually a replica of it nearby, although it has temporarily been taken away to allow construction work to take place). But when it finally was, the outbreak stopped. The pump handle was later replaced and there was an attempt to cover up Snow’s theory.

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Site of the Broad Street pump

Snow died in 1858, aged just 45, but his work would have a lasting impacting. Several years ago a poll of doctors in Hospital Doctor magazine voted him the greatest doctor of all time.

Cholera arrives

Believed to have been brought from India, the first cholera outbreak was recorded in East London in 1831 (killing some 52,000 people across the country) and then it returned several times in all corners of the metropolis in the 1840s.

Researchers prepared a report for the General Board of Health which considered the devastation of the 1848-9 epidemic, charting the impact of the disease, as well as assessing how it may have come about. It included an account of a visit to Christopher Court in Whitechapel where 13 inhabitants had been struck down by cholera. The author found a “large dust hole, full of filth of every description” and as they entered they were “repeatedly driven back by the horrid odour and stench from a privy down stairs”. It was the “worst sewer in London” which “could not have been more dangerous to life,” adding:

“This was one of the dirtiest places which human beings ever visited; the stench, the horrible stench which polluted the place, seemed to be closed in hermetically among the people; not a breath of fresh air reach them, all was abominable. After getting up the stairs my head reeled in the sickening atmosphere; and on reaching the top, and surrounded by the dead and dying, I was compelled to rush to the window to open it.”

While there were plenty of accounts like the one from Christopher Court highlighting the squalid conditions that many faced in London, proving that cholera was carried in water was more difficult. Water companies refused to accept that there was anything wrong with the purity of what they of what they provided to Londoners (one even claimed “there is probably not a spring, with the exception of Malvern, and one or two more, which are so pure as the Thames’ water).

Problems stemmed from the fact that in the 19th century London was expanding fast as more people flooded into the metropolis for work, yet it was relying on a simple network of drains, clay pipes and streams to get rid of its waste. Thick sewage poured onto the streets and (particularly in the poorer parts of the city where they couldn’t afford emptying costs) cesspools overflowed.

And when water closets were introduced in 1810, raw waste was transported directly into London’s water system. Most of London’s private water companies sourced their piped water from the Thames between Chelsea and London Bridge, the same place where the capital’s sewage was being deposited.

As London grew, its problems got worse, as sanitary reformer James Hole notes in an 1866 comment on Kentish Town:

“The inhabitant whose memory can carry him back thirty years recalls pictures of rural beauty, suburban mansions and farmsteads, green fields, wavy trees and clear streams where fish could live – where now can be seen only streets, factories and workshops, and a river or brook black as the ink which now runs from our pen describing it.”

Given the worsening pollution, it’s no surprise that the capital’s water supply became deadly.

Edwin Chadwick, the social reformer and member of the relatively short-lived Metropolitan Commission of Sewers for London, proposed that self-flushing earthenware pipes should be installed across the capital to transfer waste straight to farmers’ fields. He believed that improvements would pay for themselves because epidemics increased the amount of poor relief that needed to be paid from rates. But Chadwick’s plan – and others that followed –came to nothing

‘The Great Stink’

Joseph Bazalgette, the engineer for the newly established Metropolitan Board of Works, was adamant that a new sewage network needed to be built. But his plans were repeatedly rejected by the government. It wasn’t until the smell from the Thames became unbearable in parliament in 1858 that the stalemate was broken and action was taken. Charles Dickens recorded how that from crossing the river “I can certify that the offensive smells, even in the short whiff, have a most head-and-stomach-distending nature.”

As a result of what became known as ‘The Great Stink’, Bazalgette was given approval on plans for a new covered sewer system on either side of the Thames – hidden away under the Victoria and Chelsea Embankments – which carried the waste to outfalls at Beckton and near Plumstead. In total, Bazalgette’s scheme involved the construction of 1,300 miles of sewers.

Not all were happy with the Embankment plans however, with Arthur Mumby who lived at Inner Temple and saw buildings removed at the south side of his courtyard noting in his diary how on his “way home, went to look at the great mound of earth, now an acre in extent, which carts are outpouring… at the foot of Norfolk Street, for Embankment.” And later in 1864 he said it had “grown a more horrible chaos than ever.” Although Mumby did cheer up once the building work was complete and said it was a “change from the vulgar riot of the Strand! Here is stateliness and quiet, and beauty of form and colour.”

Today, the Embankments are established fixtures on London’s landscape. Below ground on the north side of the Thames, run Circle and District line Tube trains travel through the tunnels. And above ground much has been made of the promenade – both for traffic and places for pedestrians.

My favourite part of the Embankment has to be Victoria Embankment Gardens right next to Embankment station. This well-maintained grassy space which runs parallel to the Strand and just a stone’s throw from Embankment station, is a pleasant place to chill out on a warm sunny day. And it’s like walking through a who’s who of London’s history with statues of a range of characters ranging from Sir Arthur Sullivan to Robert Burns.

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Victoria Embankment Gardens

It is also the perfect spot to take appreciate how the water’s edge of the Thames has changed over the years. In front of the outdoor terrace enjoyed by punters visiting Gordon’s wine bar on Villiers Street you can see the remains of a watergate which originates from the time when the Thames was much wider and guests visiting what was then York House would arrive by boat. It is a fitting reminder of how London’s water supply has changed for the better over the years.

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