Thames River Embankments Completed (1874)

London in the 1850s was a stinking mess.  Air pollution was terrible, but water pollution had reached the breaking point.  An engineer named Joseph Bazalgette changed much of that by building the Thames Embankments.  The final section, called the Chelsea Embankment, was opened on May 9, 1874, by Prince Alfred, completing one of the great engineering projects of the Victorian Era.

London was a huge city by the 1850s, with millions of residents.  But it had nothing close to an organized sanitation system.  Where sewers did exist, they emptied into scores of small rivers that ran open and putrid to the Thames—which also ran putrid.  Things got really bad in the summer of 1858, known as the year of the Great Stink.  Abnormally low flows in the Thames coupled with abnormally high temperatures made the Thames a swamp of stinking human wastes.  So bad was the stench that Parliament had to suspend operations and Queen Victoria, out for a cruise down the river, was turned back after a few minutes.

Something had to be done, and the engineer Joseph Bazalgette had the answer.  He proposed to build a series of giant sewers that ran along the two banks of the Thames, collecting the outfall of smaller sewers and carrying them miles downstream, beyond the sight—and smell—of Londoners.  The project was approved, and Bazalgette set to work.

Contemporary drawing of the construction of the Thames River Embankments (photo by The Illustrated London News)

His project wasn’t just a set of sewer pipes.  It involved the entire transformation of the Thames River in central London.  Up to then, the Thames had broad, sloping banks that formed wide mud flats at low tide.  Bazalgette’s project narrowed the river within high straight stone walls.  Behind the walls and below the ground surface, he built sewers, of course, but also tunnels for trains (the famous London Underground) and channels for other needs, like electric cables and telephone lines.  On top, he built a road, with walkways along the river and on the land side of the road.  Gardens planted with trees at 20-foot intervals filled the intervening spaces.

The project was immense, and expensive.  Begun in 1859, it continued through 1874.  The total project includes the Albert, Thames and Chelsea Embankments, covering both sides of the river for a distance of more than five miles.  Bazalgette not only solved the current issues, but  anticipated the future.  He estimated the population of London, generously estimated how much each person would produce in sewage, and then doubled that amount to accommodate future growth.  The capacity of his sewers served the city for 80 years, until new capacity had to be designed.

The results produced marked improvements in public health.  Cholera, which is spread through contaminated water and had occurred in regular outbreaks in London, basically disappeared in the area covered by the new structures.  Public pride also soared.  A river that Londoners were “converting…into a sewer” became “a magnificent promenade.”

Bazalgette’s achievement is one example of the growing concern that Americans and Europeans had for their diminished environments during the last half of the 19th Century.  As the nastiest leavings of the industrial movement made shambles of urban areas around the civilized world, a growing movement began—and we all benefit from it today.

References:

Broich, John.  2013.  London—Water and the Making of the Modern City.  University of Pittsburgh Press, 214 pages (p. 47-48).

Grace’s guide to British Industrial History.  Joseph Bazalgette.  Available at:  https://www.gracesguide.co.uk/Joseph_Bazalgette.  Accessed May 4, 2018.

This Month in Conservation

May 1
Linnaeus Publishes “Species Plantarum” (1753)
May 2
“Peter and The Wolf” Premieres (1936)
May 3
Vagn Walfrid Ekman, Swedish Oceanographer, Born (1874)
May 4
Eugenie Clark, The Shark Lady, Born (1922)
May 5
Frederick Lincoln, Pioneer of Bird Banding, Born (1892)
May 6
Lassen Volcanic National Park Created (1907)
May 7
Nature’s Best Moms
May 8
David Attenborough Born (1926)
May 9
Thames River Embankments Completed (1874)
May 10
Birute Galdikas, Orangutan Expert, Born (1946)
May 11
“HMS Beagle” Launched (1820)
May 12
Farley Mowat, Author of “Never Cry Wolf,” Born (1921)
May 13
St. Lawrence Seaway Authorized (1954)
May 14
Lewis and Clark Expedition Began (1804)
May 15
Declaration of the Conservation Conference (1908)
May 16
Ramon Margalef, Pioneering Ecologist, Born (1919)
May 17
Australian BioBanking for Biodiversity Implemented (2010)
May 18
Mount St. Helens Erupts (1980)
May 19
Carl Akeley, Father of Modern Taxidermy, Born (1864)
May 20
European Maritime Day
May 21
Rio Grande Water-Sharing Convention Signed (1906)
May 22
International Day for Biological Diversity
May 23
President Carter Delivers Environmental Message to Congress (1977)
May 24
Bison Again Roam Free in Canada’s Grasslands National Park (2006)
May 25
Lacey Act Created (1900)
May 26
Last Model T Rolls Off the Assembly Line (1927)
May 27
A Day for the birds
May 27
Rachel Carson, Author of “Silent Spring,” Born (1907)
May 28
Sierra Club Founded (1892)
May 29
Stephen Forbes, Pioneering Ecologist, Born (1844)
May 30
Everglades National Park Created (1934)
May 31
The Johnstown Flood (1889)
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