Ask anyone to name a great engineer of the Victorian era, and they will probably say Isambard Kingdom Brunel. The little man with the big hat, the big cigar, the big chains, the big railway gauge, the big ships and the big ideas.
So yes, he did quite a lot of big stuff. But far more significant to millions of people was Joseph Bazalgette, one of two heroes who rescued London from death, disease and stinking squalor. London, which was a constant prey to cholera, was little more than one vast sewer, the streets awash and drains leaking into water pipes.
The connection between cholera and contaminated water was established by hero number one, Dr John Snow, who traced an outbreak in 1849 back to a water pump on Broad Street. It turned out a sewer had leaked into the well supplying the pump. What finally prompted serious action was the Great Stink of 1858, so bad that MPs in Parliament couldn’t cope, and they decided something had to be done. Something involving the spending of money.
The metropolitan board of works commissioned engineer Joseph Bazalgette to solve the problem and he created – or, okay, supervised the creation of – the sewers of London which still exist today. Via major sewers, including those under the newly built embankment, all of London’s effluent was siphoned away from houses, offices, shops and streets to be pumped out downstream… into the Thames.
His work undoubtedly saved thousands of lives and made London a more bearable city to live in, but it also contributed to the disaster of the Princess Alice, a pleasure steamer, which sank in 1878 after being struck by a coal ship. More than 600 passengers drowned, a tragedy outdone by the Titanic in the number of fatalities but not in the scale of horror. Because the Princess Alice threw her passengers into the water just downstream of Bazalgette’s pumping stations, which had, a few minutes before, discharged 75 million gallons of raw sewage into the river. The passengers drowned in shit. It did at least result in the development of sewage treatment plants.
Today we are faced with water companies pumping sewage into our rivers and seas, and their excuse is always that they are having to work with sewers built in Victorian times. Nothing was done about the sewers of London until MPs were personally impacted. So I suggest that the best way to solve present-day problems would be for large pipes to be connected to these undesirable sewage outflow points, and run to the houses of every water company executive who receives gross bonuses, every shareholder who rakes in dividends and every MP who voted to let them continue getting away with it. If it were literally dumped at their doors, I’d guarantee that in less than a year we’d be on our way to having a brand new water and sewage network, capable of dealing with 21st century requirements. And we’d have a whole new set of executives, shareholders and MPs because the old ones would have died of cholera.