Monday, 18 May 2020

The man who took the piss out of London; Sir Joseph Bazalgette (1819-1891), St. Mary's Churchyard, Wimbledon

The hygienist is a hero. He overcomes the most visceral repugnance, rolls up his shirt sleeves, and takes on the cloaca. He faces the foul unnameable and speaks of that thing of which no one else will speak. No one else dare name it for fear of soiling the image of his knowledge. He alone speaks of it; he alone makes it speak.

Blood, milk, shit, sex, corpses, sperm, sewers, hospitals, factories, urinals – for three quarters of a century, the hygienist has spoken of these ceaselessly. He is the prince consort of bourgeois civilisation, of colonialist Europe as embodied by Queen Victoria. Excremental issues are at the heart of his accounts, memoirs, observations, reports, letters, essays bulletins, etc.

Dominque Laporte ‘Histoire de la merde: Prologue’ (1978)

A tap dripped in the sink behind the counter. Albert thought with awe of the vast resources behind that tap: the miles of pipes, of mains, the reservoirs, the rivers, the rain. He imagined with what wonder an African immigrant must regard the water supply: “It comes in pipes, you just have to turn a tap thing, man. And that same water is the same as the Queen drinks. When I turn that tap thing, man, I’m connected with the same water that she uses. And the sewers, man, thy connect, too, she don’t use no special sewer, they all connect up and side by side hers and mine come out at Barking Creek. That’s a democratic country for you, man.”
B.S. Johnson ‘Albert Angelo’ (1964)

The death of Sir Joseph Bazalgette removes from this generation one who must be memorable in its annals. What Baron Haussmann was to Paris Sir Joseph Bazalgette was to London. He drained and purified London, and he did much to beautify it giving the Thames a swifter course, by building Embankments planted in boulevard fashion with trees, and by constructing bridges. The main system drainage, defective as theorists may call it, is his. The theorists can do nothing better practically, or they would have given their views application long ago. Sir Joseph Bazalgette liberated London from many nuisances. That London has still a few nuisances left is not his fault. Complete success is impossible. There is one monument of his skill as engineer that will endure as long as any monument in Venice. That is the Embankment between Blackfriars Bridge and Westminster. The health of London was advanced immensely by this great work and its consequent enterprises.

Montgomeryshire Echo - Saturday 21 March 1891

The cathedral of sewage - Abbey Mills pumping station in Stratford
Before the Metropolitan Board of Works’ chief engineer, Joseph Bazalgette, was called upon to solve the problem, London’s waste had gone straight into the Thames converting the river into the world’s largest open sewer. Because it is so strongly tidal a turd dropped into the Thames at Westminster can take up to a fortnight to travel out into the open sea. When the tide is flowing out anything riding it will make good progress downriver for six hours or so before the tide turns, at which point it will gaily journey back almost to the point at which it originally embarked. A river full of faeces can swish up and down on the current for days on end, gradually rotting and becoming increasingly offensive. In 1858 London suffered the notorious ‘great stink’ when low rainfall lowered the level of the Thames and weak tides failed to carry away the sewage lying in the river. Unusually hot weather fermented the faecal soup until it was so rank that huge swathes of the population fled the city to escape the stench that led to an epidemic of giant bluebottle flies, necessitated curtains soaked in chloride of lime being hung in the Houses of Parliament to allow the business of government to continue and saw tons of chalk lime, chloride of lime and carbolic acid dumped into the river in a desperate and futile attempt to treat it and make it less noxious.

The cholera epidemics that periodically swept London and killed hundreds were bad enough but Parliamentarians incommoded by the vile stink of rotting faeces was the last straw. Clutching hankies doused in eau de cologne to their faces the Commons passed the Metropolis Local Management Amendment Act which gave the capitals Metropolitan Board of Works the powers necessary to construct drainage and sewerage systems that would finally rid the Thames of filth for ever. Work started in 1859 on the construction of 82 miles of intercepting sewers north and south of the river which would link 1200 miles of sewers and drainage channels and carry it to one main outfall sewer and treatment plant on either side of the river. Abbey Mills pumping station was completed in 1868 and originally powered by steam. Its job was to pump the effluent in the low-lying intercepting sewers up to the main outfall sewer. From here it would flow downhill to Beckton for what was, in the early days, mainly cosmetic treatment, aimed at making the odour of the sewage as unobjectionable as possible before pouring it back into the Thames at Barking Creek.

There are early photographs of Bazalgette inspecting the progress of work on what is now known officially and euphemistically as the Greenway, but was once more bluntly and honestly called the Great Northern Outfall Sewer on Plaistow marshes. The chief engineer of the Metropolitan Board of Works stands proprietorially in the foreground in top hat, frock coat and muddy trousers with the gaping mouths of the huge brick-built tunnels behind him.  This massive raised sewer carries the flushed evacuations of the 3 million bowels and bladders of London north of the Thames down to Beckton Sewage works at Barking Creek for treatment and disposal. When HRH's are in residence in Buckingham or Kensington Palace it is only a matter of time, if one stands for long enough on the Greenway, before a royal turd passes a mere yard or two beneath one’s feet. Good form would, surely, be to salute it on its way but of course it is impossible to be exactly sure when the monarchical movements are in the vicinity. B.S. Johnson has a character note in Albert Angelo that her majesty “don’t use no special sewer, they all connect up and side by side hers and mine come out at Barking creek. That’s a democratic country for you, man.” Rather than a sign of egalitarianism the identical treatment of plebeian, aristocratic and royal bodily waste is an indication that faecal matter, no matter what its origin, is never more than just shit.  

Bazalgette was born in 1819 in Enfield; the unusual surname is the result of his Huguenot ancestry. His grandfather was an émigré tailor and his father a Royal Navy Captain who saw service in the Napoleonic wars. He became articled to the celebrated Irish engineer Sir John Benjamin MacNeill in his mid-twenties and went to work in Ulster and China where the practical experience of drainage and land reclamation he gained would prove invaluable in his later career. He set up his own civil engineering practice in 1842 and married in 1845. He suffered a nervous breakdown in 1847 as a result of overwork and when he returned to work it was as the assistant surveyor to the Metropolitan Commission of Sewers. The Commission was in the midst of a crisis when Bazalgette joined in 1849; the previous year the commission had ordered the closing of all cesspits and the connection of all domestic drains to the sewage system which discharged all its effluent directly into the Thames. The decision led to an outbreak of cholera which killed 14,137 people. Bazalgette was in his element. He became the chief engineer for the Commission in 1852 and then for the Metropolitan Board of Works in 1856. His main works were all done under the aegis of the latter organisation and included not only the whole scale reform and rebuilding of London’s drain and sewage systems but the construction of the Albert, Victoria and Chelsea embankments, Putney, Hammersmith and Battersea Bridges and the remodelling of Charing Cross Road and Shaftesbury Avenue. He had a vigorous constitution and fathered 11 children and rode for two or three hours a day during his retirement in Wimbledon saying “I find it splendid exercise for counteracting the effects of a sedentary life.” He also kept cows and made hay. He would have been startled on Monday 02 March 1891 to read in the newspapers that he had died the previous Saturday but once he got over the shock would have been gratified by the flattering eulogies and obituaries in the newspapers. The newspaper accounts of his death proved to be only marginally premature, he died on the 15th March.

The foundation stone of the Western Pumping Station in Grosvenor Road, Pimlico was laid in 1873 and was completed in 1875. The pump house is 71 feet high and the chimney 192 feet (just ten feet shorter than the Monument) and cost £183,000. The Pumping Station was part of Bazalgette’s improvements to London’s sewage system and could lift 38,000 gallons of raw sewage an hour 18 feet from the local drains and sewers to the main Low Level Sewer which runs from here to Abbey Mills in Stratford. 
The Surrey Comet of Saturday 28 March gave a detailed account of Bazalgette’s funeral;

The remains of the late Sir Joseph Bazalgette C.B, whose death was chronicled in our last issue, were interred on Saturday afternoon in the family vault at the parish church, in the presence of a large assemblage of persons of every class and creed, the poor, in whom the deceased was specially interested, being very fully represented. The funeral was a walking one, the deceased’s late residence being only a short distance from the church. The body was enclosed in coffin of polished oak with brass fittings, and was covered with a purple pall. The inscription on the plate was "Sir J. W. Bazalgette born 28th March, 1819, died 15th March, 1891." The principal mourners were deceased's five surviving sons… [there follows a long list of persons present at the funeral]. As many of the deceased’s servants as could be spared were also in attendance to pay a last tribute of respect to the memory their honoured master. The procession was met at the western entrance by the Vicar of Wimbledon, the Rev. Canon Haygarth, who read the opening sentences of the Burial Service as the coffin entered the church, where it was deposited on trestles in the nave, while the first portion of the service was conducted. The family vault is situated at the back of the church, the last interment having been that of Mr. Norman Bazalgette, M.A., Sir Joseph’s son, in December 1888. The coffin having been placed in position on the tomb, the Vicar concluded the funeral obsequies. The deceased was always of a very retiring disposition, having a great aversion to ceremony and publicity, and in accordance with his desire no wreaths were placed on the coffin, but several floral designs were afterwards laid on the tomb.

The imposing Portland stone mausoleum is actually second hand. Sir Joseph seems to have acquired it a few years earlier when his son Norman died from the heirs of John Anthony Rucker who had died in 1804. Rucker commissioned the mausoleum (described as a 'pyramid with an iron railing and vault underneath', by  W A Bartlett in The History and Antiquities of the Parish of Wimbledon, Surrey in 1865) from a Mr Gibson of Hackney. Rucker was born in Hamburg in 1718 and naturalised in 1745 and was part of a large merchant family with extensive banking interests. He never married and when he died left £53,000 in cash to various nephews and nieces. His estate at West Hill , his slaves in Grenada and Tobago and his mausoleum he left to his favourite nephew Daniel Henry Rucker. Daniel was happy to spend his uncle’s fortune but not grateful enough to even consider being buried with him. Rucker lay alone in his vault for almost seventy years until Sir Joseph bought it and put Norman into the niche at Rucker’s side. When his own turn came his coffin was placed above Rucker’s.  

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