It might sound like strange bedtime reading, but An Underground Guide to Sewers is less distasteful and more fascinating than you might expect
For decades, sewer tourism was quite the thing among fashionable Parisians of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Dressed in their finery, ladies and gentlemen descended into the underground passages beneath the French capital, and took a tour through some of the 40 miles of sewers constructed at the instigation of Emperor Napoleon III. They weren’t the only sewer tourists – when the Grand Tour was at its height, young gentlemen were routinely taken to appreciate the remains of Rome’s Cloaca Maxima sewer.
This strange sightseeing activity is one of many gleaming nuggets of information among the shit (and I mean that quite literally rather than qualitatively) discussed in An Underground Guide to Sewers or: Down, Through and Out in Paris, London, New York &c., published next month by Thames & Hudson. Written by historian and broadcaster Stephen Halliday, it achieves the unlikely feat of engaging readers for more than 250 pages on all aspects of human waste and water disposal and, in particular, the often-impressive infrastructure created to deal with the age-old problem of sewage. It’s no mean feat, helped by a lively style and excellent maps, drawings and archive photography.
The scene is set in the foreword by television executive and former Arts Council chairman Sir Peter Bazalgette, the great, great grandson of Sir Joseph Bazalgette, creator of London’s celebrated Victorian sewage system. He describes the history of sewage as a story of ‘health, wealth and also beauty’, the latter through the quality of the design of the infrastructure. Cities can only grow and thrive through proper sanitation, without which, he says, there is ‘death and degradation’.
It is a far-ranging study, going back thousands of years to consider how ancient civilisations around the world dealt with sanitation –very well in the case of the Mayans, Minoans, Chinese and many others – before considering the pressures that more modern, fast growing cities put on sewage disposal. The narrative comes right up to date with anaerobic digesters and innovations such as a steam-powered processor that can convert human waste into drinkable water and Fitloos, which screen human waste for signs of disease and report findings to the individual via their phone. Along the way we deal with theories on disease transmission, cesspits, septic tanks, water closets, night soil and fatbergs, to mention just a few of the many unsavoury subjects tackled.
While there is much to fascinate – it’s often the quirky bits of information around the main narrative that are most enjoyable. We learn that the Babylonians believed in a toilet demon, Šulak, and that the Romans had a sewer goddess, Cloachina, who oversaw the Cloaca Maxima sewer. Rome was unsurprisingly a leader in sanitation infrastructure, and had 100 public latrines by the 4th AD (London had a mere handful).
The phrase Spend a Penny is derived from the charge for the public water closets installed at the Great Exhibition of 1851; for many of the 827,000 people who did just that it would have been their first chance to use such an innovative facility. We learn how the Berlin sewer remained as one system despite the partition of the city into East and West above ground, affording opportunity for the smuggling of goods and people. Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables, Charles Dickens’ Little Dorrit, and Orson Welles’ descent into the sewers of Vienna in the film The Third Man, all get a mention.
A good chunk of the story is taken up with accounts of the sewage systems of Paris and London. And while the Paris system is shown to be ‘magnificent’ but flawed in that it dealt only with water and street debris and not human sewage, the undoubted star of the show is Sir Joseph Bazalgette and his creation of London’s sewer system. The author sets the scene well. By the mid 19th century the capital’s waterways were heavily polluted and the city desperately needed better sanitation. It was susceptible to successive cholera pandemics, and the book evocatively describes the horrors of the disease and the lack of understanding as to why it spread even after the pioneering research of John Snow, who correctly identified water, not air, as the means of transmission. The jury was still out on the causes of cholera when Bazalgette finally got the go ahead for his major sewer works, prompted by The Great Stink of 1858, when the stench from the Thames was so foul that it disrupted Parliamentary business. Fortunately, Bazalgette’s impressive system was able to deal with both waste and water and when the city faced another cholera pandemic in 1892, deaths were greatly reduced and limited to areas where the new sewer hadn’t been completed. Not only that, Bazalgette did it for a fifth of the cost of the Paris system.
The book does justice to the ambition and elegance of the structures in Bazalgette’s new system such as the Crossness treatment works near Abbey Wood and Abbey Mills pumping station at Beckton as well as the associated works to create the Victoria Embankment. Even these are eclipsed by Tokyo’s newly completed storm drain, which took 17 years to build. An astonishing photo shows the cathedral-like space of the main water tank, which is supported by 59, 25m-high columns.
But I have to admit that however well presented, I felt a little overloaded by descriptions of the sewer systems of city after city around the world by the time I reached the end. As a Londoner, I found the content on the capital to be the most illuminating, whether on the cholera crises that spurred on Bazalgette’s London sewer system or, bringing us right up to date, the £4.2billion Thames Tidal Tunnel currently under construction. When this opens in five years or so, perhaps some of us will become tourists of that great piece of infrastructure too.