My last post was all sappy messages of love with pictures of pretty flowers and adorable children and adorable children holding pretty flowers. So, in the words of Monty Python, “And now for something completely different.” This time I’m taking a journey into the dark, smelly, watery underbelly of Victorian London: the sewer.
I’m excerpting from a four-part article titled “Underground London” found in All The Year Round, edited by Charles Dickens. These articles were published in 1861, three years after the Great Stink (Here’s a Stuff You Missed in History Class podcast on the Great Stink) and during the time that Joseph Bazalgette worked on the sewers. After All The Year Round, I’m excerpting from London Labour and the London Poor, by Henry Mayhew from 1851.
I couldn’t find many images of Victorian London sewers, so I’m using this eerie image “The Silent Highway Man” from Punch in 1858. It depicts Death rowing on the polluted Thames River.
Excerpt from Underground London Part III:
On applying to the proper authorities, I was obligingly told that they had not the slightest objection to gratify what they evidently thought a very singular taste. I was even asked to name my sewer. They could favour me with an extensive choice. I might choose from about one hundred and seventy miles of legally constituted “main” sewers, running through some hundred and eighty outlets into the Thames; or, if I liked to trespass upon “district” and “private” sewers, they could put me through about sixteen hundred miles of such underground tunnels. They had blood-sewers—a delicate article—running underneath meat markets, like Newport-market, where you could wade in the vital fluid of sheep and oxen; they had boiling sewers, fed by sugar-bakeries, where the steam forced its way through the gratings in the roadway like the vapour from the hot springs in Iceland, and where the sewer-cleansers get Turkish baths at the expense of the rate pavers. They had sewers of various orders of construction—egg-shaped, barrel-shaped, arched, and almost square; and they had sewers of different degrees of rcpulsiveness, such as those where manufacturing chemists and soap and candlemakers most do congregate. They had open rural sewers that were fruitful in watercresses; and closed town sewers whose roofs are thickly clustered with what our scientific friends call “edible fungi.” The choice was so varied that it was a long time before I could make up my mind, and I decided, at last, upon exploring the King’s Scholars’ Pond Sewer, which commences in the Finchley New Road, and ends in the Thames a little above Vauxhall-bridge.
If the literary executors of the late Mr. Leigh Hunt had not cut the ground from under me in the title of a book just published, I might possibly have called this chapter A saunter through the West-End. We have all our different ways of looking at London. The late Mr. Crofton Croker had his way, as he has shown in his Walk from London to Fulham; and I have mine.
Sewer-cleansers are a class of workmen who seldom come prominently before the public. They have never made any particular noise in the world, although they receive in London every year about five and twenty thousand pounds sterling of public money. Their wages, individually, may average a pound a week. They have never distinguished themselves by producing any remarkable “self-made men;” any Lord Chancellors, or even Lord Mayors; and have never attempted, as a class, to raise themselves in the social scale.” They are good, honest, hard-working underground labourers, who often meet extreme danger in the shape of foul gases, and sometimes die at their posts—as we saw the other day in the Fleet-lane sewer.
Some half-dozen of these men, with a foreman of flushers, attended me on the day I selected for my underground survey. They were not lean yellow men, with backs bent by much stooping, and hollow coughs produced by breathing much foul air. Their appearance was robust; and, as I measured bulk with one or two of them, I had no reason to be proud of any superior training.
There seems to be only one costume for underground or underwater work, and the armour necessary for sewer-inspecting will do for lobster catching on the coast, or for descending in a sea diving-bell. The thick worsted stockings coming up to the waist, the heavy long greased boots of the seven league character, the loose blue shirt, and the fan-tailed hat, may be very hot and stifling to wear, but no sewer inspector is considered properly fortified without them.
There is a fatal fascination about sewers; and, whenever a trap-door side entrance is opened, a crowd is sure to gather about the spot. The entrance to the King’s Scholars’ Pond Main Sewer, that I decided to go down by, is close to the cab-stand at St. John’s-wood Chapel, and twenty cabmen were so much interested in seeing me descend with my guides, that the offer of a fare would have been resented as an annoying interruption.
“Rather him than me; eh, Bill ?” said one.
“That beats cab-drivin’,” said another.
The side entrance is a square brick-built shaft, having a few iron rings driven into two of its sides. These rings form the steps by which you ascend and descend, putting your foot on one as you seize another. I felt like a bear in the pit at the Zoological Gardens, as I descended in this fashion; and I dare say many respectable members of parochial-sewer-eommittees have gone through the same labour, and have experienced the same feeling. Before the iron trap-door over us was closed by the two men left to follow our course above ground, I caught a glimpse of a butcher’s boy looking down the shaft, with his mouth wide open. When the daylight was shut out, a closed lantern was put in my hand. I was led stooping along a short yellow-bricked passage, and down a few steps, as if going into a wine-cellar, until I found myself standing knee-deep in the flowing sewer.
The tunnel here is about four feet high, and six feet broad; being smaller higher up towards the Finchley New Road,and growing gradually larger as it descends in a winding course towards the Thames. All main sewers may be described roughly, as funnel-shaped; the narrow end being at the source in the hills; the broad end being in the valley, where it discharges into the river. The velocity of their currents varies from one to three miles an hour. The most important of them discharge, at periods of the day, in dry weather, from one thousand to two thousand cubic feet of sewage per minute, the greatest height being generally maintained during the hours between nine in the morning and five in the afternoon. At other periods of the day the same sewers rarely discharge more than one-fourth of this quantity. The sizes of these underground tunnels, at different points of their course, are constructed so that they may convey the waters flowing through them with no prospect of floods and consequent bursting, and yet with no unnecessary waste of tunnelling. Here it is that the science of hydraulic engineering is required.
Turning our face towards the Thames, we waded for some time, in a stooping posture, through the sewer; three of my guides going on first with lanterns, and two following me. We passed through an iron tube, which conveys the sewage over the Regent’s Canal; and it was not until we got into some lower levels, towards Baker-street, that the sewer became sufficiently large to allow us to stand upright.
Before we arrived at this point, I had experienced a new sensation. I had had an opportunity of inspecting the earthenware pipe drain—I am bound to say, the very defective pipe drainage—of a house that once owned me as a landlord. I felt as if the power had been granted me of opening a trap-door in my chest, to look upon the long-hidden machinery of my mysterious body.
When we got into a loftier and broader part of the tunnel, my chief guide offered me his arm: an assistance I was glad to accept, because the downward flood pressed rather heavily against the back of my legs, and the bottom was ragged and uncertain. I could not deny myself the pleasure of calling this chief guide, Agrippa, because Agrippa is a Roman name, and the Romans have earned an immortality in connexion with sewers. Whatever doubts the sceptical school of historians may throw upon the legends of Roman history, they cannot shake the foundations of the Roman sewers. Roman London means a small town, bounded on the East by Walbrook, and on the West by the Fleet. You cannot touch upon sewers without coming upon traces of the Romans; you cannot touch upon the Romans without meeting with traces of sewers. The most devoted disciple of Niebuhr must be dumb before such facts as these, and must admit that these ancient people were great scavengers, as well as great heroes.
Agrippa took a real pleasure in pointing out to me the different drains, private sewers, and district sewers, which at intervals of a few yards opened into our channel through the walls on either side.
“We’ve nothin’ to do with the gover’ment of any of these,” he said; “they are looked after, or had ought to be looked after, by the paroch’al boards.”
“You look after branches?” I replied.
“Only when they’re branches of prop’ly construed main sewers. We,” he continued, and he spoke like a chairman, “are the Metropolitan Board of Works, and we should have enough to do if we looked after every drain-pipe in London.”
“What’s the length of those drain-pipes all over London,” I asked, “leaving out the sewers?”
“No one knows,” he said. “They do tell me somewhere about four thousand miles, and I should say they were all that.”
We went tottering on a little further, with the carriages rumbling on the roadway over our heads. The splashing of the water before and behind us, as it was washed from side to side by the heavy boots of all our party, added to the noise; and when our above around followers let the trap-door of some side entrance fall, a loud booming sound went through the tunnel, as if a cannon had been fired. The yellow lights of the lanterns danced before us, and when we caught a glimpse of the water we were wading in above our knees, we saw that it was as black as ink. The smell was not at all offensive, and Agrippa told me that no man, during his experience in the London sewers, had ever complained of feeling faint while he moved about or worked in the flood; the danger was found to consist in standing still. For all this assurance of perfect comfort and safety, however, my guides kept pretty close to me; and I found out afterwards that they were thus numerous and attentive because the “amateur” sewer inspector was considered likely to drop.
“There,” said Agrippa, pointing to a hole at the side, down which a quantity of road sand had been washed, “ that’s a gully-trap. People get a notion that heavy rains pour down the gutters and flush the sewers; for my part, I think they bring quite as much rubbish as they clear away.”
At different parts of our course we passed through the blue rays of light, like moonlight, that came down from the ventilator gratings in the highway above. While under one of these we heard a boy whistling in the road, and I felt like Baron Trenck escaping from prison. Some of these gratings over our heads were stopped up with road rubbish; and Agrippa, who carried a steel gauging-rod, like a sword, in his hand, pierced the earth above us, and let in the outer light and air.
“They’re nice things,” he said, alluding to the ventilating gratings, generally set in the top of a shaft-hole cut in the crown of the arch.
“I remember the time when we’d none of those improvements; no side entrances, no nothing When we wanted to get down to cleanse or look at a sewer, we had to dig a hole in the roadway, and sometimes the men used to get down and up the gully-holes to save trouble.”
“You must have had many accidents in those days?”
“Hundreds, sir, were suffocated or killed by the gas; but since Mr. Roe* (*The late Mr. Rose, for many years surveyor to the Holborn and Finsbury Commissioners of Sewers.) brought about these improvements, and made the sewers curve instead of running zigzag, we’ve been pretty safe.”
The “gas” alluded to by Agrippa includes carburetted hydrogen, sulphuretted hydrogen, and carbonic acid gas. The first is highly inflammable, easily explodes, and has frequently caused serious accidents. The second is the gaseous product of putrid decomposition; it is slightly inflammable, and its inhalation, when it is strong, will cause sudden death. The third is the choke damp of mines and sewers, and its inhalation will cause a man to drop as if shot dead. These are the unseen enemies which Agrippa and his fellows have constantly to contend against, more or less.
As we staggered further down the stream, it was evident that Agrippa had his favourites among the district sewers. Some he considered to be “pretty” sewers; others he looked upon as choked winding channels, not fit to send a rat up to cleanse, much less a Christian man. Looking up some of these narrow openings with their abrupt turns, low roofs, and pitch-black darkness, it certainly did seem as if sewer-cleansing must be a fearful trade. The sewer rats, much talked of aboveground, were not to be seen; and their existence in most of the main sewers is a tradition handed down from the last century. Since the improved supply of water, which is said to give to every dweller in London, man, woman, and child, a daily allowance of forty gallons per head, the rats have been washed away by the increased flood.
Although underground, we passed over the metropolitan railway in the New-road, and then along the line of Baker-street, under Oxford-street, and through Berkeley-square. This aristocratic neighbourhood was loudly announced to us by our aboveground followers, down an open “man-hole ;” but there was nothing in the construction of our main sewer, or in the quality of our black flood, to tell us that we were so near the abodes of the blest. Looking up the “man-hole,” an opening in the road, not unlike the inside of a tile-kiln chimney, down which some workmen had brought a flushing-gate, I saw another butcher’s boy gazing down upon his mouth wide open.
The flushing-gate was an iron structure, the exact width of the sewer, and about half its height. These gates are fixed on hinges at at the sides of the all the main sewers at certain distances from each other; and when they are closed by machinery, they dam up the stream, producing an artificial fall of water, and so scouring the bed of the sewer.
As we got lower down our great underground channel, the roof became higher and higher, and the sides broader and broader; but the flooring, I am sorry to say, became more jagged and uneven. The lower bricks had been washed out, leaving great holes, down which one or other of my legs kept slipping at the hazard of my balance and my bones. We peeped up an old red-bricked long-disused branch sewer, under some part of Mayfair, that was almost blocked up to the roof with mountains of black dry earthy deposit. Not even here did we see any traces of rats, although the sewer was above the level of the water in our main channel. The King’s Scholars’ Pond (so Agrippa told me) has had five feet of water in it, at this point, during storms; but this was not its condition then, or we should hardly have been found wading there. The bricks in this old Mayfair sewer were as rotten as gingerbread; you could have scooped them out with a teaspoon.
In Piccadilly wo went up the side entrance, to get a mouthful of fresh air and a glimpse of the Green Park, and then went down again to finish our journey. I scarcely expect to be believed, but I must remark that another butcher’s boy was waiting with open mouth, watching every movement we made, with intense interest.
We had not proceeded much further in our downward course, when Agrippa and the rest of the guides suddenly stopped short, and asked me where I supposed I was now?
“I give it up,” I replied.
“Well, under Buckingham Palace,” was the answer.
Of course my loyalty was at once excited, and taking off my fan-tailed cap, I led the way with the National Anthem, insisting that my guides should join in chorus. Who knows but what, through some untrapped drain, that rude underground melody found its way into some inner wainscoting of the palace, disturbing some dozing maid of honour with its mysterious sounds, and making her dream of Guy Fawkes and many other subterranean villains?
Before I leave this deeply-interesting part of the King’s Scholars’ Pond Sewer, I may as well say that I am fully alive to its importance as the theatre of a thrilling romance. That no writer of fiction may poach, upon preserves which I have made my own, I will state exactly what kind of story I intend to write, as soon as I have got rid of a row of statistics that are beckoning to me in the distance. My hero will run away with one of the Royal Princesses, down this sewer, having first hewn a passage up into the palace through its walls. The German Prince, who is always going to marry the Royal Princess, whether she likes him or not, will be murdered in mistake by a jealous sewer-flusher, the villain of the story; and the hero having married the Princess at some bankside church, will live happily with her ever afterwards, as a superintendent of one of the outfall sewers. If this story should meet with the success I anticipate, I promise to raise some memorial tablet in the sewer under the palace, to mark my gratitude and the royalty of the channel. If any reader think the mechanical part of this story impossible, let me tell him that two friends of mine once got into the vaults of the House of Commons through the sewers.
Soon after we left this spot, we came upon a punt that had been poled thus far up the stream to meet us, and carry us down to the Thames. I took my seat with Agrippa, while the other guides pushed at the sides and stern of the boat, and I thought this was a good time to put a few
questions to the men about the treasures usually found in the sewers. The journey was wanting in that calmness, light, and freshness, which generally characterise boat voyages; and while there was a good deal of Styx and Charon about it in imagination, there was a close unpleasant steam about it in reality. Still, for all this, it furnished an opportunity not to be thrown away, and I at once addressed Agrippa.
“Well,” he said, “the most awful things we ever find in the sewers is dead children. We’ve found at least four of ’em at different times; one, somewhere under Notting-hill; another, somewhere under Mary’bone; another, at Paddington; and another at the Broadway, Westminster.”
“We once found a dead seal,” struck in one of the men pushing the boat.
“Ah,” continued Agrippa, “so we did. That was in one of the Westminster sewers—the Horseferry-road outlet, I think, and they said it had been shot at Barnes or Mortlake, and had drifted down with the tide. We find mushrooms in great quantities on the roof, and icicles as well growing amongst ’em.”
“Icicles!” Isaid; “why, the sewers are warm in winter. How do you account for that?”
“I don’t mean what you call icicles,” he replied. “I mean those white greasy-looking things, like spikes of tallow.”
“Oh, stalactites,” I said.
“Yes,” he answered, “that’s the word. We sometimes find live cats and dogs that have got down untrapped drains after house-rats; but these animals, when we pick ’em up, are more often dead ones.”
“They once found a live hedgehog in Westminster,” said another of the men. “I’ve heard tell on it, but I didn’t see it myself.”
“Of course,” continued Agrippa, confidentially, “a good deal may be found that we never hear of, but there’s lots of little things picked up, and taken to the office. We’ve found lots of German silver and metal spoons; iron tobacco-boxes; nails, and pins; bones of various animals; bits of lead; boys’ marbles, buttons, bits of silk, scrubbing-brushes, empty-purses; penny-pieces, and bad half-crowns, very likely thrown down the gullies on purpose.”
“We’ve found false teeth—whole sets at a time,” said one of the men, “‘specially in some of the West-end shores.”
“Ah,” continued Agrippa, ” and corks; how about corks? I never see such a flood of corks, of all kinds and sizes, as sometimes pours out of this sewer into the Thames. Of course we find bits of soap, candle-ends, rags, seeds, dead rats and mice, and a lot of other rubbish. We enter these things in our books, now and then, but we’re never asked to bring’ em afore the Board.”
“Do any thieves, or wanderers, get into the sewers,” 1 asked, “and try to deprive yon of these treasures?”
“Very few, now-a-days,” he replied. “Some of ’em creep down the side entrances where the doors are unlocked, or get up some of the sewers on this side when the tide is low, under the idea that they’re going to pick up no end of silver spoons. They soon find out their mistake; and then they take to stealing the iron traps off the drains.”
By this time our bark had floated out of the broad archway of the sewer—an arch as wide as any bridge-arch on the Regent’s Canal, and we were anchored in that pea-soup-looking open creek that runs for some distance along the side of the Equitable Gas Works at Pimlico. The end of this creek, where it enters the Thames, is closed with tidal gates which are watched by a kind of sewer lock-keeper who lives in a cottage immediately over the sewer. He cultivates flowers and vegetables at the side of the channel, and his little dwelling is a model of cleanliness and tasteful arrangement. His health is good, and he seems satisfied with his peculiar position; for, instead of reading pamphlets on sewers and sewage-poison in the intervals of business, he cultivates game-cocks, and stuffs dead animals in a very creditable manner:
He dwells amongst the untrodden ways
Beside the spring of Dove—
A spring that very few can praise,
And not a soul can love!
Let us hope that the sewer-doctors and their theories will never reach him, or they might painfully disturb his mind.
Excerpted from Underground London Part IV:
Still I asked for more. I wished to see one of lie oldest working hands on the sewer establishment; a hoary mudlark who had been seasoned by nearly half a century’s training, and who might fairly be regarded as a hermit of the sewers.
With some little difficulty, an old workman was found, who was not, surprised to hear that I had been down various sewers, and took a deep interest in them. Nothing appeared to him more natural than that people should like to go down sewers, and to talk about them for hours together.
My companion, encouraged from time to time by my questions, began to unfold his fifty years’ experiences. He was a stout, healthy-looking old man, with a face not unlike a large red potato. He was good-tempered, and proud of his special knowledge; but not presuming. In this be differed from one or two other workmen whom I had met, who seemed to wish me to understand that they, and they alone, knew all about the London sewerage system. His language was frequently rather misty; but a very little grammar will go a long way in the sewers, and working men have something else to think of beyond aspirating the letter H.
“They was like warrens,” he said, alluding to the old south-side sewers ; ” you never see such shores (sewers). Some on ’em was open; some was shut; an’ some was covered over with wooden platforms, so’s to make the gardings all the larger. Some o’ the shores was made o’ wood, spesh’ly about Roderide; an’ at S’uth’ark the people used to dip their pails in ’em for water. They made boles in ’em, so’s to get at the water when the tide was up, an’ I’ve seen ’em dippin’ often nigh Backley and Puckins’s.”
“Did you ever meet with any accident,” I asked, “during the long time you have worked in the sewers?”
“Oh yes,” he said; “I’ve bin knocked down a dozen times by the gas; spesh’ly nigh the dead ends o’ shores, an’ I’ve bin burnt over an’ over agen. When your light goes out, you may know summat is wrong, but the less you stirs about the muck the better. I’ve carried a man as ‘as bin knocked down, nigh a mile on my lines [loins] in the old days afore we could get to the man-hole. It’s pretty stuff, too, the gas, if you can only lay on your back when it goes ‘whish,’ an’ see it runnin’ all a-fire along the crown o’ the arch.”
“I dare say,” I said; “but sewers are quite bad enough to walk in, without such illuminations.”
“Shores is all right,” lie returned, rather pettishly ; “it’s the people as uses ’em that don’t know how to treat ’em. There’s the naptchamakers, an’ those picklin’ yards where they soaks iron in some stuff to make it tough; they’re nice places, they ar, an’ nice messes they makes the shores in, at t imes. Then there’s can’le an’ soap-manyfact’rers, which sends out a licker, that strong, that it will even decay i’on an’ brickwork, Then there’s gas-tar-manyl’act’rers agen. We’re ‘bliged to go to all o’ these people afore we goes down the shore, an’ ask ’em to ‘old ‘ard. If we didn’t do that, there’d be more on us killed than is.”
“I suppose,” I said—of course with a view of getting information—” the sewers you go up are often very small?”
“Some is two foot shores,” he replied, “an’ they’re tighteners; others is three foot barrels; an’ others is larger.”
“Did you ever hear of any murder being committed in the sewers?” I asked, not being willing to give up the chance of a romantic story without a struggle.
“There was one open shore,” he said, “that some o’ the foremen used to call ‘old Grinacre,’ in the S’uth’ark districk, but that’s bin covered over many years.”
“What about that ?” I asked, eagerly.
“Well,” he said, “it used to bother us a good deal. One mornin’, when the tide was all right, we goes down to work, an’ picks up a leg !”
“A human leg?” I asked.
“Yes,” he said, “all that, an’not a wooden one neither. Another night, when the tide was all right agen, we goes down, an’ we finds another leg!”
“Another human leg?” I asked, in astonishment.
“Ev’ry inch on it,” he returned, “an’ that ain’t all. Another time we goes into the same shore, an’ we finds a arm, an’ another time we goes down, an’ we finds another arm.”
It seemed very annoying to me that my companion was compelled to sneeze and cough at this point of his story for about five minutes.
“What did you do?” I asked.
“Oh,” he said, “the foreman put ‘cm down in his book, an’ they went afore the Board, an’ it was a long time afore the Board could make anythin’ of ’em. They sent a hinspector down, an’ we found a few more legs,—ah, an’ even ‘eads, to show ‘im.”
“What was the solution of the mystery?” I said, getting impatient.
“Well,” he replied, “the cat came out o’ the bag, at last. It was body-snatchers an’ med’cal studen’s. When the gen’elmcn at the hospital ‘ad clone cutting up the bodies, they gets rid o’ the limbs by pitchin’ ’em into the open shore.”
Excerpt from London Labour and the London Poor:
In my inquiries among that curious body of men, the “Sewer Hunters,” I found them make light of any danger, their principal fear being from the attacks of rats in case they became isolated from the gang with whom they searched in common, while they represented the
The following account is derived chiefly from official sources. I may premise that where the deposit is found the greatest, the sewer is in the worst state. This deposit, I find it repeatedly stated, is of a most miscellaneous character. Some of the sewers, indeed, are represented as the dust-bins and dung-hills of the immediate neighbourhood. The deposit has been found to comprise all the ingredients from the breweries, the gas-works, and the several chemical and mineral manufactories; dead dogs, cats, kittens, and rats; offal from slaughter-houses, sometimes even including the entrails of the animals; street-pavement dirt of every variety; vegetable refuse; stable-dung; the refuse of pig-styes; night-soil; ashes; tin kettles and pans (pansherds); broken stoneware, as jars, pitchers, flower-pots, &c.; bricks; pieces of wood; rotten mortar and rubbish of different kinds; and even rags. Our criminal annals of the previous century show that often enough the bodies of murdered men were thrown into the Fleet and other ditches, then the open sewers of the metropolis, and if found washed into the Thames, they were so stained and disfigured by the foulness of the contents of these ditches, that recognition was often impossible, so that there could be but one verdict returned—” Found drowned.” Clothes stripped from a murdered person have been, it was authenticated on several occasions in Old Bailey evidence, thrown into the open sewer ditches, when torn and defaced, so that they might not supply evidence of identity. So close is the connection between physical filthiness in public matters and moral wickedness.
The following particulars show the characteristics of the underground London of the sewers. The subterranean surveys were made after the commissions were consolidated.
“An old sewer, running between Great Smithstreet and St. Ann-street (Westminster), is a curiosity among sewers, although it is probably only one instance out of many similar constructions that will be discovered in the course of the subterranean survey. The bottom is formed of planks laid upon transverse timbers, 6 inches by 6 inches, about 3 feet apart. The size of the sewer varies in width from 2 to 6 feet, and from 4 to 5 feet in height. The inclination to the bottom is very irregular: there are jumps up at two or three places, and it contains a deposit of filth averaging 9 inches in depth, the sickening smell from which escapes into the houses and yards that drain into it. In many places the side walls have given way for lengths of 10 and 15 feet. Across this sewer timbers have been laid, upon which the external wall of a workshop has been built; the timbers are in a decaying state, and should they give way, the wall will fall into the sewer.”
Susanna’s note: You can find out more about sewer thieves in this Smithsonian article including additional excerpts from Mayhew.