History of Sir Joseph Bazalgette and how he created an improved sewerage system for London

One of the most significant Victorian inventions that genuinely saved lives is the creation of the modern sewage system by Sir Joseph Bazalgette in London during the mid-19th century. This development not only revolutionized urban living conditions but also drastically reduced the spread of fatal diseases such as cholera and typhoid.

In the article below, WHE explores the life and major accomplishments of Sir Joseph Bazalgette, a scion of a Huguenot family who significantly influenced Victorian London’s infrastructure.

The development of the modern sewage system by Joseph Bazalgette during the Victorian era is a prime example of an invention that saved lives. Image: Bazalgette (1819 -1891).

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Background and Urban Challenges

In the early 1800s, London was undergoing rapid urbanization due to the Industrial Revolution. This led to a tremendous increase in population density, with people flocking to the city for employment. However, this influx outpaced the city’s infrastructure capabilities, particularly in sanitation.

Most of London’s sewage was discharged directly into the River Thames, which also served as the city’s primary source of drinking water. This poor sanitation led to frequent outbreaks of disease, culminating in several cholera epidemics.

The situation reached a crisis point during the “Great Stink” of 1858, when the smell of untreated human waste and industrial effluent became overwhelming, particularly along the river.

In Victorian London, the River Thames had devolved into a hazardous open sewer devoid of wildlife. To tackle this crisis, Sir Joseph Bazalgette, inspired by an earlier proposal from painter John Martin, engineered a solution. Image: River Thames flowing through several iconic locations in London.

Joseph Bazalgette’s Contribution

Sir Joseph Bazalgette, an engineer appointed by the Metropolitan Board of Works, was tasked with designing a comprehensive sewer network to combat this public health crisis.

Bazalgette’s design was visionary. He proposed an extensive network of underground sewers that would intercept sewage outflows and divert them away from the Thames, directing waste instead towards treatment facilities.

This system not only aimed to eliminate the immediate health hazards but also to sustainably manage the city’s waste for future growth.

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The Engineering Feat

Implementing Bazalgette’s plan required ambitious engineering. The project spanned over 1,300 miles of street sewers and 82 miles of intercepting sewers that funneled the waste to treatment plants at the outskirts of the city.

The design utilized gravity to facilitate flow towards the treatment facilities, minimizing the need for pumping stations.

One of the ingenious aspects of Bazalgette’s design was the incorporation of broad sewer pipes. Initially criticized for their size—which was much larger than necessary for the time—these pipes proved instrumental in accommodating London’s growing population and increasing waste output over the decades.

Impact on Public Health

The impact of Bazalgette’s sewage system on public health was profound. By separating the city’s waste from its drinking water, the new sewers effectively halted the cholera outbreaks that had claimed tens of thousands of lives in the previous decades. The sewer system also greatly reduced the prevalence of other waterborne diseases such as typhoid fever.

Beyond London: Global Influence

The success of London’s sewage system set a precedent worldwide, demonstrating the vital role of adequate sanitation in urban planning. Cities across the globe began to adopt similar systems, acknowledging the direct link between public health and sanitation.

Bazalgette’s work became a cornerstone of modern civil engineering and public health, highlighting the importance of proactive urban infrastructure planning.

Environmental Considerations

In addition to improving public health, the sewage system indirectly contributed to environmental protection.

By managing human waste more effectively, the system prevented the rampant pollution of rivers, improving the overall quality of urban living environments.

It marked an early recognition of the need for sustainable urban waste management practices, an understanding that has continued to evolve into contemporary times.

Did you know…?

  • Despite being based on the incorrect miasmatic theory of disease, Bazalgette’s sewers unexpectedly removed cholera’s bacterial cause from London’s water supply, drastically reducing cholera and other waterborne diseases like typhus and typhoid.
  • This system also laid the groundwork for future improvements, including extensive sewage treatment facilities initiated after the Princess Alice disaster.
  • Bazalgette’s meticulous dedication to overseeing every sewer connection significantly impacted his health, testament to his commitment to transforming London’s public health landscape.
  • Bazalgette’s network of sewers was inaugurated by Edward, Prince of Wales (King Edward VII) in 1865, and fully completed a decade later.

Legacy

Today, Sir Joseph Bazalgette is celebrated not just as a pioneering engineer but also as a public health hero whose innovations provided a blueprint for modern sanitation. His work demonstrated that engineering could be harnessed to solve social issues, directly improving the quality of life and health outcomes for entire populations.

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FAQs

Sir Joseph Bazalgette was a British civil engineer who designed London’s sewer system, significantly reducing cholera and cleaning the Thames, following the Great Stink of 1858. He also designed Hammersmith Bridge. Image: Bazalgette’s Mausoleum in Wimbledon. 

Where was Bazalgette born?

He was born in Clay Hill, Enfield. His parents were Joseph William Bazalgette (1783–1849), a retired Royal Navy captain, and Theresa Philo née Pilton (1796–1850).

What was his early life and career like?

In 1827, at eight years old, Joseph Bazalgette moved to a new house in St John’s Wood, London. He began his engineering career under Sir John Macneill, contributing to railway projects and gaining expertise in land drainage and reclamation. This experience allowed him to start his consulting practice in London in 1842.

In 1845, after selling his house, Joseph married Maria Kough from County Kilkenny, Ireland. During this period, he intensely focused on expanding the railway network, which led to a nervous breakdown in 1847 due to the demanding nature of his work.

In 1847, as Joseph Bazalgette was recovering from a nervous breakdown, London faced a significant public health challenge. The Metropolitan Commission of Sewers mandated that all cesspits close and house drains connect to sewers discharging into the Thames. This led to a cholera outbreak in 1849, resulting in more than 14,000 deaths.

Bazalgette joined the Commission as Assistant Surveyor in 1849 and became Chief Engineer in 1852 after his predecessor’s death from work-related stress. During his tenure, another cholera epidemic in 1853 claimed over 10,000 lives.

At the time, the prevailing medical theory attributed cholera to miasma, or bad air, though physician John Snow correctly argued it stemmed from contaminated water—a theory not yet widely accepted.

Sir Joseph Bazalgette, born in Enfield to a retired Navy captain, was the grandson of Louis Bazalgette, a wealthy Huguenot tailor and financier with close ties to the future George IV. Image: A memorial to Bazalgette, located on the Victoria Embankment in London.

How did Bazalgette solve the Great Stink?

Supported by the renowned engineer Isambard Kingdom Brunel, Bazalgette was promoted to Chief Engineer of the Metropolitan Board of Works in 1856.

His most significant work began after the “Great Stink” of 1858, which led Parliament to pass an Act allowing the overhaul of the sewage system.

Bazalgette’s revolutionary designs for enclosed sewers aimed to eliminate the pervasive stench believed to cause cholera, thereby preventing further epidemics. This project dramatically improved public health and sanitation in London, highlighting the critical intersection of engineering and urban well-being.

Sir Joseph Bazalgette’s solution to the Great Stink of 1858 was a monumental engineering feat involving the construction of an extensive network of sewers in London.

This ambitious project was designed to transform the city’s sanitation system and address the urgent public health crises caused by the discharge of untreated human waste directly into the River Thames.

Bazalgette’s plan entailed the creation of over 1,300 miles of underground street sewers and 82 miles of intercepting sewers, designed to capture and redirect sewage away from central London and the Thames. His approach was to build these sewers along the embankments of the river, which provided a new roadway and significantly reduced the amount of waste entering the river near populated areas.

The intercepting sewers were built on a gradient to utilize gravity, helping to transport the sewage from central London to outfall points far downstream. At these points, the sewage could be released into the river at high tide, where it would be carried out to sea, significantly reducing the impact on the city’s main waterway.

To address the problem of sewer gas, Bazalgette incorporated drop shafts and venting systems into the design, which helped to alleviate the buildup of dangerous gases within the system.

Regular maintenance and cleaning of the sewers were also part of his plan, ensuring they remained effective and reduced the risks of blockages and overflows.

The immediate effect of Bazalgette’s work was a significant reduction in the incidence of waterborne diseases such as cholera and typhoid, which had been prevalent in the city due to the contamination of the Thames—the primary source of drinking water.

The Great Stink, which had made parts of central London unbearable during hot summers, was effectively resolved through this engineering solution.

Bazalgette’s construction of the sewers also facilitated further development of the embankments along the Thames, leading to improved road transport routes and contributing to the urban beautification of London. Image: Tower bridge in London.

When did Sir Joseph Bazalgette die?

Raised at 17 Hamilton Terrace in St John’s Wood, he later moved to Morden in 1845, and in 1873, to Arthur Road, Wimbledon, where he passed away in 1891. His final resting place is at St Mary’s Church in London SW18.

Who was Sir Joseph Bazalgette’s wife?

In the same year he moved to Morden, Bazalgette married Maria Keogh, daughter of Edward Keogh, a Justice of the Peace from Ireland.

Together, they had eleven children, underscoring a robust family life alongside his professional achievements.

What are some of the honors he received?

Sir Joseph Bazalgette’s contributions to civil engineering were recognized in 1875 when he was knighted. Later, in 1883, he was elected President of the Institution of Civil Engineers, marking a pinnacle in his career.

Bazalgette’s legacy continues to be honored in various forms. A Greater London Council blue plaque at his former residence on Hamilton Terrace commemorates his life and work.

Additionally, a formal monument stands on the Victoria Embankment by the River Thames, celebrating his pivotal role in developing London’s sewer system.

More recently, in 2020, the City of London Corporation announced the naming of a new public space, the Bazalgette Embankment, following the Thames Tideway Scheme’s completion.

Dulwich College also honors his contributions with a scholarship in his name for students excelling in design and technology or mathematics and science.

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