Back to the Sewers

HollinsheadI mentioned the book Underground London in my last post and as it was so fascinating I thought I would tell you more. John Hollinshead, the author, was a journalist and Theatrical Impressario. He manager the Gaiety and Alhambra theatres ad we have him to thank for introducing London to the Can Can and for bringing Gilbert and Sullivan together. He also wrote a number of books in his life time which are in a really readable style and could have been written today.

Much of Underground London focuses on Sewers and I can’t say it is a subject that I would usually be interested in. But I have to say I have learned a lot. There is an extensive interview with a Sewer Worker who recounts his story in the same way my Granddad would. Slow and Laborious. He tells how he found a Leg down there one day. And then another. And then an Arm. Even a head. The authorities had to be called to try to get to the bottom of it. Eventually the mystery is solved. Body snatchers had given the bodies to medical students who were throwing the unwanted parts into the open waterways. Ah, so that’s OK then. In 1862 apparently.

I find it extraordinary to hear about the plans Bazalgette has for building sewers in London including the new embankment scheme. Bazalgette was a good old Enfield Lad and I like to hear of him. There is also an extensive chapter on the battle with St Paul’s to build a sewer outside its boundary. Apparently, they didn’t like the idea and the letters make fascinating reading.

There are appendices which set out the route street by street of the underground sewer branches and if I had more time, I’d follow them. There are also details of the sewage its self and what it comprises of. No one really seems to question what this is doing to the Thames and the other ancient waterways of london.

I also love the chapter on Gas or “The Genii of the lamps” as he calls it. This new utility is obviously exciting Holligshead and he enthused on the use for lighting. There were 37,728 gas lamps in London by 1862 he says. Sounds a lot but there are still 1500 gas lamps in London today each lit by a British Gas engineer and there are over 14,00 electric street lights in Westminster alone. There was a problem apparently with the gas mains affecting the water mains in some places and the two becoming mixed. I love this letter to a “Leading Water company” which is written as quoted in the book, names obviously being kept secret:

Mr. Blank presents his compliments to the Blank Company, and wishes to know whether they supply Gas or Water. Mr. Blank is led to make this inquiry because one of his servants went to the cistern with a pitcher and a candle  and instead of procuring water,she blew up the roof of the wash-house.


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