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10 Things You Didn't Know About The London Sewerage System

Currently undergoing renovations, the London Sewerage System is among the most fascinating in the world. The existing network of sewers is an upgrade from the old sewers that used to run beneath the city. Originally carrying waste directly to the River Thames, these sewers resulted in thousands of Londoners falling ill, losing their lives, or having to live amongst one of the most putrid smells imaginable.

Word of warning: if you’re eating, it might be a good idea to stop before reading this article. Continue at your peril! Here are 10 things you didn’t know about the infamous London Sewerage System.

10 Originally, Sewage Was Deposited Into The River Thames

The River Thames is one of the icons of London. It’s hard to believe that before modern infrastructural advancements, it was used as a sewage deposit. Yep. As Ranker explains, raw waste from the people of London flowed directly to the River Thames.

To have a city’s beautiful river ruined in such a way is unthinkable enough by modern standards. To make matters worse, the Thames was where the city’s drinking water came from. So in effect, people were drinking particles of their own bodily waste. It’s no wonder that disease soon followed.

9 The Terrible Smell In London Provoked The Creation Of The Sewerage System

If you’ve ever walked past an open sewer, you’ll know how terrible the smell can be. It shouldn’t be too difficult to imagine, then, the stench in London during the time that the Thames was used as a sewer. Called the Great Stink of 1858, the stench became so insufferable during a particularly bad heat wave that it prompted the government to take action.

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During the summer of that year, local residents couldn’t even walk outside without gagging. The Great Stink interrupted day-to-day activities so badly that the problem could no longer be ignored.

8 Before The Sewers, Thousands Died From Cholera

It’s no wonder that there was a pandemic in 1853. Five years before the Great Stink caused misery around London, more than 10,000 Londoners lost their lives to cholera.

Cholera is an infection of the small intestine that was brought on by ingesting the unsanitary water. Symptoms were terrible, leaving victims with wrinkled hands and feet and sunken eyes. Their skin was also known to turn blue and feel cool to the touch. One of the side effects of the infection was also increased bowel movements, which worsened the cycle.

7 The New Sewer System Cost $5 Million

Finally, the British government decided to take action, not to address the cholera epidemic but rather the stench that was particularly potent around the Houses of Parliament. Engineer Joseph Bazalgette was hired to craft a network of sewers that would fix the problem in London. The new sewer ended up costing the equivalent of $5.3 million.

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82 miles of sewers were built running parallel to the Thames. There were also 1,100 miles of street sewers implemented. These sewers alleviated the problem by carrying waste to treatment plants beyond the city boundaries.

6 The Engineer Was Knighted For His Work

Thanks to Joseph Bazalgette and his team, the city of London was free from the stench that once tormented it (at least from that of the Thames). In 1874, he was knighted for his services to the city, later retiring in 1889. He passed away two years later in Wimbledon.

According to the Open University, the sewers were completed in 1868. Some of the sewage pumps were named after members of the British Royal Family, and members of the famous family also attended the openings of the pumping stations.

5 The New Sewers Didn’t Account For The Current Population Growth

The new sewers fixed the problem of the mounting waste in the Thames, but they didn’t account for the current population growth to continue treating the problem in the future. Bazalgette did consider growth when he designed the system of sewers, but he only estimated that the population of London would grow from 2 million to 4 million.

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As of 2019, London is home to more than 8 million people, which is more than double what the sewers were designed to cope with. Business Insider explains that this has caused the sewers to become overloaded.

4 There Is Still Some Sewage That Goes Into The Thames

Although the new sewers were a godsend, they didn’t totally eradicate all raw waste from finding its way into the Thames. The Environment Agency in London estimates that around 39 million cubic meters of untreated sewage and waste are dumped into the river each year.

It has also been reported that each week, there is at least one spillover of sewage into the river. While the system isn’t perfect and is currently being addressed, it’s still much better than what Londoners had to deal with in the mid 19thcentury.

3 The Thames Tideway Tunnel Is Rectifying This

So what’s the answer? The Thames Tideway Tunnel. Currently being constructed, the tunnel will be able to catch the sewage that would normally be dumped to the Thames and deposit it elsewhere. The tunnel has also been designed to catch rainwater discharges which currently overflow into the river.

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Set to open in 2023, the tunnel runs for 16 miles under the tidal section of the famous river. It has cost £4.2 billion to construct and will rectify the current issue with spillovers from the sewer.

2  In The 19th  Century, You Could Be A Sewer Hunter

Before the new sewer was built in London, sewer hunting was a legitimate occupation. These “hunters” would trudge deep into the sewers and search for items that were valuable, such as pieces of metal, cutlery, and coins. They would also search the River Thames shoreline for treasures.

They earned the equivalent of $50 a day, which was impressive by the standards of the time. Down in the sewers, they ran the risk of suffocating, dying in an explosion, and being bitten by disease-ridden rats. And you thought your job sucked!

1 Londoners Originally Tried Masking The Smell With Lime Chloride

Today, it’s hard to fathom just how intense the Great Stink of London would have been. Members of Parliament, who worked right by the Thames, bore the brunt of the smell and found their daily work intolerable. To try and make the situation more bearable, they soaked their curtains in lime chloride. Unfortunately, this didn’t mask the stench as they’d hoped.

Before the sewers were fixed, many Londoners worked with handkerchiefs pressed to their faces. This helped them cope with the nauseating odor of the Thames.

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