Grotesque as it may be, the mass of fat provides an opportunity to reflect on the engineering genius of Joseph Bazalgetteby Nick Hilton / September 18, 2017 / Leave a comment
‘Of the great sewer that runs beneath, Londoners know, as a rule, nothing, though the Register-General could tell them that its existence has added some twenty years to their chance of life.’
So wrote The Times in their 1891 obituary of Joseph Bazalgette, the engineering genius behind London’s Victorian sewers. In it, they evoke the image of Gustav Doré’s 1872 print ‘The New Zealander’, which shows a cloaked figure gazing across the Thames at the ruins of St Paul’s. How prescient the Times were in calling to mind Doré’s apocalyptic vision, for, just 126 years later, London would be brought to its knees by a coagulated mound of fat, nappies, oil and condoms dubbed ‘The Fatberg.’
The Fatberg is 250 metres long and weighs 130 tonnes. That’s about four times longer than Cutty Sark, though only a seventh as heavy. That’s a less random counterpoint that it at first seems: Cutty Sark was built in 1869, at the same time that Bazalgette was setting to work on his sewers. Imagine if, in 2017, Cutty Sark was still at sea, selling and buying tea to and from our remaining free trade allies. Imagine she were not simply a novelty, but the height of competence and beauty. Imagine she were not subject to regular arson attacks and held together with sellotape.
It seems incomprehensible—but that is the effective status of our Victorian sewers. They are not a tourist attraction, roped off in a dry dock, but a living, essential part of modern London. When someone uses the top most toilet in The Shard, that flush will find its way through the Qatari-owned neo-futurist furnishings of its host, and eventually end up travelling the same route as every Londoner’s excretions since Disraeli was Prime Minister.
In 1861, when Bazalgette broke ground on his plumbing system, London’s census recorded a population of 2,803,034. It had been the world’s largest city from 1815, but had tripled in size since then. With it came a sanitation crisis born of overcrowding in slum tenements coupled with enormous demand on a limited clean water supply. Into that mix strode Bazalgette, tasked with building more than 80 miles of underground rivers, as well as over a 1000 miles of street sewers. Bazalgette applied himself to the task with the rigorous hard work of an engineer, but also the eye of an artist.