Wastewater management is one of the most important public services there is. The safe disposal of sewage and contaminated water is essential for our health, but for obvious reasons, it’s one of the least talked-about subjects. But sewers are vital, so maybe it’s time to put our disgust aside and shine a light on this fascinating underground world.

Sewers are so much more than a way to get rid of our waste - they provide an insight into social history, architecture, engineering, geology, society, public health and politics. All of these are explored in Sewer, the recently published book, in which science journalist Jessica Leigh Hester takes a look at the past, present and future of sewers. This includes a look at the new Thames Tideway Tunnel, but more on that later.

So, let’s get the conversation started with a brief overview of sewers...

History of sewers

The first evidence of sewerage and drainage systems dates back to the Minoans and Harappans in around 3000 BCE, in what is now Crete and Pakistan. The technologies were further developed by the Romans and Hellenes who understood the need for sanitation, especially in urban areas. But then came the Dark Ages where the technologies of the early civilisations were pushed aside and forgotten.

In England, human waste was mostly dealt with by dumping it in the streets along with the rest of the rubbish or in cesspits. Most people used chamber pots and only the rich had access to toilets, but even then, they were not connected to a drainage system and had to be emptied by servants. In the cities, people simply dumped their rubbish and waste into the street. People who lived near a river would throw their waste into the water. While the river took the waste away from them, it wasn’t good news for the people who lived downstream and relied on the river for their drinking water. It’s no wonder disease was rife, and plague spread so quickly.

Sanitation didn’t improve until the Victorian era when the link between poor sanitation and disease was finally discovered.

The Great Stink

In London in the 1850s, there was a cholera epidemic that killed thousands of people - Dr John Snow, who was working in Soho at the time, linked the disease to sewage contaminating one particular water pump and had the pump handle removed, after which the outbreak came to an end.

Even though some of the richer households at the time had flushing toilets, the effluent was still sent into the inadequate sewerage system. Sewage had become a major problem in London, with human waste, slaughterhouse waste and industrial waste being channelled directly into the River Thames.

Then, in the summer of 1858, there was a heatwave which caused even more problems for Londoners. It became known as the Great Stink, which was so bad it disrupted the work of Parliament. It was only then that Parliament passed legislation to create a brand-new sewerage system for London.

The new system was designed by the engineer Sir Joseph Bazalgette, who had a career in public health engineering. The new sewerage system, which cost a massive £6m (around £844m today), was completed in the mid-1870s. The system was an enclosed tunnel design with four major pumping stations that lifted sewage from low-lying areas to aid with discharge. The system was so well designed and effective, the London sewers were in operation for 150 years before a major upgrade was approved to cope with the ever-increasing population.

The new Thames Tideway Tunnel began construction in 2016 and is due to be completed in 2024. It’s a 15-mile-long super sewer that’s the width of three London buses. The new sewerage system will deal with around 94% of London’s sewage waste, significantly relieving the pressure on Bazelgette’s overworked system and reducing the number of sewage spills every year.

Sewers as tourist attractions?

If you’ve ever fancied getting up close and personal with a sewer, you’re in luck. In some European cities, sewers have also become fascinating tourist attractions. Here are the ones you can visit:

Crossness Pumping Station, London - Crossness Pumping Station was part of Sir Joseph Bazalgette’s Victorian sewerage system. It’s a surprisingly beautiful building, which has gained it the nickname ‘Cathedral of Sewage’. It’s a Grade 1 Listed industrial heritage site where you can learn all about the Great Stink and London sanitation.​

The Paris Museum of Sewers - It may be thought of first and foremost as a romantic city, but Paris still needs an efficient sewer network! Below the streets there is a huge underground network of tunnels, most of which are over a hundred years old. There’s a permanent exhibition, and you can also book a guided tour by one of the sewer workers themselves.

The Vienna Sewer Tour - The Vienna sewers were used for one of the most iconic chase scenes in cinematic history. In the 1949 film The Third Man, the sewer’s tunnels provided the villain Harry Lime with a convenient way of getting around the city without being discovered by the police. However, in the climax of the film, the police chased him through the sewers and justice was served. More than 70 years later, there is still huge interest in the film and consequently in the sewers.

The Sewer Museum, Brussels - Take a stroll along Brussels’ hidden river 10 metres beneath the city. This is a working sewer where you’ll learn how the sewer was constructed and find out how it helps with flood defences.

Fatberg! at the Museum of London - Fatbergs are the modern scourge of the sewerage system, so when the massive Whitechapel fatberg was discovered - and disposed of - in 2017, the Museum of London preserved a piece of our history and put it on display.

Sewers in popular culture

Sewers have become the surprising backdrop to several books and films. They provide great hiding spaces for characters on the run or monsters desperate to get away from human beings. Here are the most famous:

The Italian Job - The scene where Michael Caine’s gang drive Minis through the sewers is almost as iconic as his “You were only supposed to blow the bloody doors off!” line. But not a lot of people know that the sewer scenes were actually filmed in Coventry!

The Shawshank Redemption - One of the most memorable scenes in this much-loved film takes place in a sewer. The central character, Andy Dufresne (played by Tim Robbins), escapes the prison through a sewer - a scene that’s so gaggingly realistic, it’s quite difficult to watch!

It - Stephen King’s horror novel, TV miniseries and 2017 film centre around Pennywise, the scary clown that lurks in the sewers and preys on the town’s children.

Les Misérables - The Parisian sewers play their part in Les Misérables, providing the rebel Valjean with somewhere to hide. In the musical adaptation of the book, the sewers provide the backdrop to the song Dog Eats Dog.

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles - As most children will know, the home of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles is the Manhattan sewer. The four masked turtles have used their expertise in martial arts to fight evil for the past 40 years


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