Credit: Otto Herschan/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Historical Insights Building the London Sewer System

More than 82 miles of brick-lined sewers were constructed in nine years along the Thames and under the streets of London. 1862, London, England. Credit: Otto Herschan/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Building the London Sewer System

In an incredible feat of engineering, the London Sewer System cleaned up the city’s water supply in the mid-19th century, improving everyday life and greatly reducing the risks of water-borne diseases.

For hundreds of years, the people of London, England, knew to take cover whenever they heard a “gardyloo,” a warning cry that waste was about to be thrown from a nearby window or doorway. At this point in time, Londoners emptied their chamber pots into the streets and into the Thames River, the very source of their drinking water. That dual use of the river was lethal—in 1853 alone, more than 10,000 Londoners died from diseases associated with contaminated water and only half of the babies born in the city lived to celebrate their fifth birthday. By 1858 the river and the people reached their limit when a particularly hot summer caused the “Great Stink” to overpower the city. Drastic action was needed, and the government called on Joseph Bazalgette, one of the nation’s most talented engineers, to help. Some nine years and 318-million bricks later, the London Sewer System was completed. Bazalgette’s triumph was also seen above ground in the creation of the Albert, Victoria, and Chelsea Embankments, new walkways for pedestrians along the Thames that covered the main sewer pipes. Drinking water was now separated from sewage, the spread of diseases like cholera was curbed, and life was cleaner and sweeter-smelling in London.