London owes a huge debt to Joseph Bazalgette for solving the problem of how to dispose of the sewage produced by a rapidly growing population during the 19th century. The infrastructure designed by him still serves the capital to the present day.
Joseph William Bazalgette was born on 28th March 1819 at Enfield. His parents were a naval officer and his wife. His grandfather was a Frenchman who had emigrated to Great Britain in 1775.
Joseph was articled to a civil engineer in 1836 and set up his own practice in Westminster in 1842. He married in 1845 and eventually became the father of ten children.
His career in public health engineering began in 1849 when he was appointed to the post of assistant surveyor to the metropolitan commission that was looking at ways of solving London’s appalling sewerage problem. At the time, most of London’s human waste was discharged straight into the River Thames, which therefore became a massive stinking sewer. It was a problem that had the full attention of the country’s legislators because the Houses of Parliament were directly affected, being alongside the river.
The solution was to build interceptor sewers that would divert the sewage from the Thames and take it to remote outfalls on the east side of the city. The chief engineer of the project was Frank Forster, but when he died in 1852 Joseph Bazalgette was appointed to take over. The commission was replaced by the Metropolitan Board of Works, of which Bazalgette remained the chief engineer until 1889.
Bazalgette’s first task was to complete the plan that Forster that instituted, which was in effect two separate systems, one for each side of the Thames. Parliament passed the required Enabling Act in 1858 and work started soon afterwards. The South London system was relatively straightforward, and the work was completed in 1865. The northern system was more complicated, partly due to the presence of the Metropolitan District Railway, and this work did not finish until 1868.
The project comprised the building of 1300 miles of sewers, 82 miles of the main intercepting sewers running alongside the river, and four huge pumping stations. Bazalgette also “tidied” the river by building the Victoria, Albert and Chelsea Embankments, which extended for a total of 3.5 miles and included the reclamation of 52 acres of land. The Victoria Embabnkment is particularly impressive in that it that incorporates part of what is now the District Line of the Lonodon Underground, including four stations.
In 1877 the Metropolitan Board of Works was empowered to buy the twelve bridges that crossed the Thames in London, which meant that they ceased to be owned privately and could no longer charge tolls. Bazalgette had to survey all the bridges and, as a result, considerable maintenance work was undertaken. He decided that three of the bridges needed to be replaced in their entirety, so he designed and built the bridges that can now be seen at Battersea, Putney, and Hammersmith.
At the time there was no river crossing down-river of London Bridge, and Bazalgette became involved in planning for three schemes to solve this problem, namely Tower Bridge, Blackwall Tunnel, and the ferry crossing at Woolwich. However, his designs for Tower Bridge and Blackwall Tunnel were not the ones that were eventually adopted.
He was credited with improving traffic flow in London by designing and building several new thoroughfares, notably Northumberland Avenue, Shaftesbury Avenue, Queen Victoria Street and Charing Cross Road.
Joseph Bazalgette advised authorities in many towns and cities outside London as to the best way to solve their own drainage and sewerage systems. These included Oxford, Northampton and Margate, and several cities in continental Europe.
He was knighted in 1874 and elected president of the Institution of Civil Engineers in 1884. He retired from public service in 1889 and died on 15th March 1891 at the age of 71. He can be said to have pioneered the profession of civil engineering insofar as it served the health and convenience of the inhabitants of large cities.
© John Welford