In 1856, the Metropolitan Board of Works was established in London and it appointed Joseph Bazalgette as its chief engineer. As a result, Bazalgette embarked on his greatest work: designing and overseeing the construction of the sewer network in London, which effectively removed the threat of cholera and greatly improved the health of London residents and the general environment of the city. With immense foresight, Bazalgette estimated the size of sewers required and then doubled it, meaning that his original system is still coping with the population of the capital today. Nevertheless, his sewers still just diverted waste away and raw sewage was collected in tanks, the contents of which were discharged directly into the Thames a little way downstream at high tide. It wasn’t until 1900 (nine years after Bazalgette’s death) that sewage treatment works were constructed to deal with the outflow.


Map of the London sewerage system developed by Joseph Bazalgette 1858-1870 (Rudolf Hering, 1882 [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons)

I am in awe of this amazing feat of engineering, but I’m also aware that it is the physical embodiment of Victorian values: the earth was created to serve man and human beings had a god-given right to use natural resources no matter the consequences to nature (which was also there for the benefit of mankind). And so, human waste was neatly and efficiently removed from sight (and smell), improving the lot of those in the city, but actually delivering the source of the problem to another location. Even during Bazalgette’s time, there were, apparently, those who objected to the fact that a valuable resource was simply being pumped into the Thames rather than collected and used for growing crops.

I wonder, therefore, what a different world we might inhabit had Joseph Bazalgette taken a different approach. What if he had valued this resource rather than simply seeing the (admittedly huge) problem? I’m not sure what sort of solution he might have come up with, but that change in perception in the nineteenth century might have seen modern homes not flushing fertility ‘away’, but having their own sources of compost production. Or maybe ‘away’ would have been to digesters or power plants or fertiliser factories.

There is no such thing as away. When you throw something away, it must go somewhere. Annie Leonard

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