The Impact of Science & Technology on Victorian London


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Paper submitted for course on History of London, England, at University of Oxford, UK, July 31, 2013. The paper describes the innovative technical contributions of Sir Joseph Bazalgette in designing and deploying the "intercepting sewers", in mid-1860s, which diverted surface water and sewage from the Thames, in the face of insurmountable technical and political odds. The resulting drainage systems under the Victoria, Albert, Thames and Chelsea Embankments helped eradicate cholera epidemics in London. "Bazalgette did more good and saved more lives than any single Victorian public official"!

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The Impact of Science & Technology on Victorian London

  1. 1. Final, 18/7/2013 Page 1 Impact of Science and Technology on Victorian London LONDON, ENGLAND Dr. Adrian Tinniswood Oxford Berkeley Program Merton College University of Oxford Summer, 2013 Jim Mukerjee
  2. 2. Final, 18/7/2013 Page 2 Introduction: Age of Invention For many Victorians, rapid advances in science and technology, in particular the use of machines to perform work that had previously been done by hand, were the most striking developments of the nineteenth century. The mechanization of the cotton industry, the invention of the steam engine, innovations in the bleaching, dyeing,printing industries, and many other discoveries and inventions in variousbranches of science and industry were taken as emblematic of the economic progress of the “The Golden Age” of the nineteenth century. The iron industry, for example, was the site of significant technological progress, and while this did not lead to growth rates as impressive as those of the cotton industry, it helped to revolutionize manufacturing industry and several other sectors of the British economy (1). Technological improvements during this period went hand in hand with a significant increase in output, as the necessities and demands of a rapidly industrializing country increased. A good example is the ever increasing output of the coal industry in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, which was the largest single provider of energy in England and Wales during this transformative period. Possibly the most significant demonstration of the symbiotic relationship between fuel and technology is provided by the coalmining industry itself, which was only able to supply the ever-greater quantities of coal required by industry because of the development of new technologies which enabled the extraction of the coal in the first place. Coal-fired steam engine for railroad transportation is a pertinent example of exceptionally complex technologies to convert steam power to provide locomotive power. The eighteenth and nineteenth centuries witnessed the development of a new form of economic growth resting upon the exploitation of a new source of energy: coal. After 1750, key industries – mining, iron-making, textile and transportation – abandoned their reliance on horses, charcoal, and water to switch to coal instead as the principal source of power (2). The economic change over the period 1700 to 1870 is best understood as the outcome of different forces driven by scientific discoveries and technical innovations described as the “Age of Invention”, defined asa period of self- sustaining growth in science and technology, which deserve a place at the core of the definition of “Industrial Revolution”, popularized by Arnold Toynbee in 1881.
  3. 3. Final, 18/7/2013 Page 3 The Industrial Revolution marks a major turning point in history; almost every aspect of daily life was influenced in some way. Most notably, average income and population began to exhibit unprecedented sustained growth. In the words of Nobel Prize winner Robert E. Lucas Jr., "For the first time in history, the living standards of the masses of ordinary people have begun to undergo sustained growth ... Nothing remotely like this economic behavior is mentioned by the classical economists, even as a theoretical possibility” (1).The Industrial Revolution began in Great Britain and within a few decades had spread to Western Europe and the United States. Knowledge is Power During the Victorian period of the nineteenth century London had become the City of Empire – majestic public edifices, new thoroughfares, rebuilt markets and hotels, elaborate docks and stations, all were visible expressions of a city ofunrivalled strength and imperial power. The resulting sense of confidence and curiosity generated a fearless pursuit of knowledge, which in a symbiotic relationship, instilled more intellectual power -- a defining characteristic of London. Ever since the medieval period, there has been a close association between alchemy and the advent of science. But in London it was impossible to distinguish alchemy and other forms of intellectual aptitude. Many of the original founders of the Royal Society were conversant with astrology and as well as “modern” scientific research and knowledge. Among the prime movers in London were Robert Hooke, Samuel Hartlib, Robert Boyle, Kenelm Digby, and Isaac Newton, who merged systematic rationality with alchemy to create technical solutions (3). The Royal Society held its first meetings in Gresham House in Bishopsgate before moving to Crane Court off Fleet Street. When members met in the evening, a lamp was hung out over the entrance to the court to invite public participation. The practical approach of their discussions is evident from the nature of the experiments – to promote inoculation, electrical experiments on fourteen miles of wire near Shooters Hill, ventilation apropos of gaol fever, Cavendish’s improved thermometer, experiments in horticulture and agriculture, use of medicine as a progressive scientific tool, examine defective architectures, draining and ventilation of the city, William Perry’s creation of the science of “political arithmetic” – birth of statistical inquiry.
  4. 4. Final, 18/7/2013 Page 4 In 1826 the first University College was established in London in Bloomsbury with the goal of training engineers and doctors, creating the first Faculty of Science in 1858. In his workshop Babbage created the “Difference Engine”, which was the harbinger of the modern computer and the revolution of Information Technology. The pursuit of knowledge in London was not confined to the search for technical proficiency. After his famous voyage, Charles Darwin, from his home in Marlborough Street, wrote “It is sorrowful but I fear too certain truth that no place is at all equal, for aiding one in Natural History pursuits, to this dirty, smoky town”. After travelling around the world, Darwin, in 1837, considered London to be the most appropriate place to continue his research on evolutionary nature (4). His insight was confirmed 47 years later when the prime meridian of zero degrees longitude was established upon a brass rail in the Greenwich Observatory. Science in London indeed was power, and Brittania indeed ruled the waves during the Victorian reign. The pioneers of the age were practical visionaries, seeing beyond the immediate horizon, the safe and the known, as they dreamt a path to the future. The slowly evolving Industrial Revolution was the fertile ground that gave life to their dreams in iron, cement, stone and steel. To illustrate the achievements of these visionaries, two powerful symbols of human ingenuity and technical excellence are described briefly for this course: Sir Joseph Bazalgette and the Cleansing of Victorian London (in this paper) How The London Underground shaped London (in the presentation)
  5. 5. Final, 18/7/2013 Page 5 Sir Joseph Bazalgette and Cleansing ofVictorian London Joseph Bazalgette was born in London on 28 March 1819. His father was a captain in the Royal Navy. Bazalgette began his career as a railway engineer, gaining considerable experience in land drainage and reclamation. On 6 March 1838 he became a graduate member of the Institution of Civil Engineers (ICE), was promoted to full member on 17 February 1846 at the recommendation of prominent members of ICE. He was to become the President of ICE in 1884. In 1842, aged 23, Joseph set up his own Civil Engineering practice. The experience he gained in preparing plans, designing and laying out schemes for railways, ship canals, and other engineering works in various parts of UK, under great pressure of deadlines, and dealing with endless Parliamentary requirements, was to be invaluable in his later work as Chief Engineer of Metropolitan Board of Works. The sheer determination and doggedness with which he confronted the numerous interest groups, and other obstacles that stood in the way of the completion of the “intercepting sewers”, which diverted surface water and sewage from the Thames to outfalls (dumps) outside London, suggest that he was a man of heroic patience and relentless tenacity in the face of opposition and frustration. Sir Harry Haward, comptroller and historian of the London County Council (LCC) commented in 1882 “the most prominent figure among the officers of the Board was the distinguished Chief Engineer Sir Joseph Bazalgette, the designer of the main drainage system of London and of the Victoria, Albert, Thames and Chelsea Embankments – monumental works entitling him to a niche in the temple of fame.” John Doxat, author of The Living Thames: the Restoration of a Great Tidal River claimed “Bazalgette did more good and saved more lives than any single Victorian public official.” Bazalgette died on 15 March 1891 in his home in St. Mary’s, Wimbledon (5, 6). Until the late 16th century, London citizens were reliant for their water supplies on shallow wells, the River Thames, its tributaries, natural springs, including the major Tyburn spring at Mary le Bourne, which was connected by lead pipe to a large cistern called the Great Conduit at Cheapside. Wealthy Londoners living near a conduit pipe could connect to their home by permission, but it did not prevent unauthorized tapping of the conduits. Households that could not get water from conduits by gravity-feed, depended on water-carriers, or “cobs”, who
  6. 6. Final, 18/7/2013 Page 6 formed their own guild in 1496, - The Brotherhood of St. Cristofer of the Waterbearers. In 1582, Dutchman Peter Morice leased the northernmost arch of London Bridge and constructed a waterwheel inside the arch to pump water from the Thames to various districts of London. More waterwheels were added in 1584 and 1701, which remained in use until 1882. Over the following 122 years six other companies followed in drawing water from the Thames to service various parts of London via conduits and cisterns. However, since 1815 house waste was permitted to be emptied into the Thames via the sewers. So, for 7 years human waste was dumped into the Thames and then pumped back to the same households for drinking, cooking, and bathing. Prior to 1850 there were over 200,000 cesspits in London, which cost a shilling to be cleaned – a cost the average citizen could ill afford. As a result, the contents accumulated adding to the airborne stench or allowed to be conveyed to the Thames via city sewers. The unsanitary condition of the river was inadvertently aggravated by the Metropolitan Sewers Act of 1848, which required all existing and new homes to install Water Closets (WC) or a privy and ash-pit, and suitable drainsto be connected to public sewers which drained into the Thames. Men of influence expressed their concerns. In 1850 Charles Dickens exposed the complacency of the Grand Junction Water Company at Kew (5), and Michael Faraday wrote scathing, sarcastic, witty letters to The Times in 1855 describing the Thames as a “fermenting sewer” (7). From 1848 to 1855 six short-lived and underfunded Metropolitan Sewers Commissions struggled with complex technical proposals, conflicting personalities, vested interests, and incessant interference by Members of Parliament. Finally, on 17 August 1855 the Metropolitan Management Act created the Metropolitan Board of Works, London’s first representative Metropolitan government, taking over all the responsibilities of all Sewers Commissions, with John Thwaite as Chairman, and Joseph Bazalgette as Chief Engineer. Metropolitan Board of Works, Spring Gardens,1860
  7. 7. Final, 18/7/2013 Page 7 The summer of 1858 was unusually hot. The Thames and its tributaries wereoverflowing with sewage; the warm weather encouraged bacterial growth and the resulting smell was so overwhelming that it affected the deliberations of the House of Commons and the Law Courts, prompting plans for Parliament to relocate upstream to Hampton Court and the Law Courts to Oxford and St. Albans. The press named it “The Big Stink” and correctly predicted the extreme discomfort of the Parliamentarians would finally lead to a remedy with a sense of heightened urgency (5, 8). In the mid-19th century, London was suffering from recurring epidemics of cholera. In 1853 -1854 more than 10,000 Londoners were killed by the disease. The causes were not known, but the most widely accepted notion was that the disease was due to air-borne foul “miasma”. Even Florence Nightingale and Sir Edwin Chadwick were strong advocates of the “miasmic theory” of the source of cholera, scarlet fever, measles and smallpox – spreading the disease by infected atmosphere. Hence, removing the smells from the dwellings was considered more important than to free the Thames from sewage. Because of the miasmic theory’s predominance among scientists and influencers, the 1854 discovery by Filippo Pacini of “Vibrio Cholerae” bacterium was ignored until its confirmation30 years later by German bacteriologist Robert Koch. In 1854, London physician Dr John Snow observed that the disease was transmitted by drinking water contaminated by sewage after a cholera epidemic on Broad Street in Soho, but at first this idea was not widely accepted. Faced with innovative work by William Farr and John Simon using rigorous statistical methods, for the first time in a large scale, and the evidence of theEast London cholera outbreak from the polluted River Lea draining into the reservoirs of the East London Water Company, they were able to prove conclusively that contaminated water was the main source of cholera. Eliminating this source of water pollution would help eradicate cholera. In the light of these glaringevidences and starkconclusions, the amended 1857 proposal by Bazalgette and Thwaite was pushed through Parliament by Benjamin Disraeli, as leader of the House, on 15 July 1858, with a critical sense of urgency to “Improve the Main Drainage of the Metropolis and prevent as far as practicable the sewage of the Metropolis from passing into the River Thames within the Metropolis.”
  8. 8. Final, 18/7/2013 Page 8 Bazalgette’s plan of “Intercepting Sewers”, which was modified as the construction progressed, proposed a bold solution of a network of “main sewers”, running parallel to the Thames, which would intercept both surface water and sewage, conducting them to the outfalls (dumps) at Barking on the northern side of the river, and to Crossness, near Plumstead, on the southern side. This involved installing 82 miles of large sewers, fed from 1,000 miles of new street-level sewers, laid to a minimum fall of 2 feet per mile, consuming 318 million bricks, 880 thousand cubic yards of concrete, excavating 3.5 million cubic yards of earth (5). A particular difficulty arose from the fact that much of London, specially the area around Lambeth and Pimlico, lies below the high water mark, thus making it necessary to lift the sewage to a level at which it would flow by gravity into the rest of the system. It was an engineering plan on an unprecedented scale! The northern drainage required construction of 3 main intercepting sewers at the high level, middle level, and the lower level, with a number of branches at each level. Much of the sewers were constructed by tunnelling, but the greatest engineering problem was presented by the need to cross the new Underground Metropolitan Railway without stopping the traffic. The northern low-level sewer was a very complex undertaking since it lay for much of its length under the Victoria Embankment, which also had to house a new subway, Underground Metropolitan Railway (9), gas pipes, and other utility services. It took the contractor, Furness, five years to complete the project including the northern outfall reservoir at Barking, where the sewage was stored until it could be released at high tide. The southern drainage was similar in concept to the northern though the area covered was smaller and the population little more than a third of the numbers living north of the river. The southern high level sewer ran from Clapham High Street 9 and 1/2 miles to Deptford Creek, where it was linked to Dulwich sewer and flowed into the northern outfall at Deptford. The southern low-level sewer ran from Putney High Street to Deptford with a branch to Bermondsey. At Deptford a pumping station lifted the sewage 20 feet to the southern outfall sewer which carried it to the outfall at Cressness. In subsequent years the sludge treatment plants at Barking and Cressness compressed the sludge recovered from the settlement tanks and incinerated it through a bed of sand at a temperature of 8500 C. The heat generated was recovered and used to drive a steam turbine to generate electricity to run the treatment works while leaving a substantial surplus for ‘export’ to the National
  9. 9. Final, 18/7/2013 Page 9 Grid. In 1995, Thames WaterCompany ‘exported’ 4.3 megawatts of electricity to the National Grid from their Combined Gas and Steam power plant at Barking, yet another example of serendipitous benefit to London from cleansing the Thames and continued technical innovation (5). Bazalgette described the phenomenal scale of the combined project, and the engineering problems encountered, in his seminal paper presented to the Institution of Civil Engineers in 1865. An appreciation of Bazalgette’s work and contribution to society can be made on the basis of five key observations: - The scale and complexity of the engineering works he executed - His contribution to the concept of representative municipal government - The enterprise he demonstrated in executing complex engineering works - The social and health consequences for his fellow-citizens of London - The personal qualities he displayed during his arduous career Bazalgette’s masterpiece design of “Intercepting Sewers” was used as a blueprint for urban drainage and sewer networks across the globe from New York to New Zealand, which is the ultimate tribute to his lasting legacy andincomparabletechnical achievement. To reiterateJohn Doxat’s claim: “Bazalgette did more good and saved more lives than any single Victorian public official.” _________________________________________________________________ Map of the River Thames downstream from London, 1840
  10. 10. Final, 18/7/2013 Page 10 References for London, England course, Oxford Berkeley Program 2013 Sir Joseph Bazalgette and Cleansing of Victorian London Reference # Title,Author, Publisher, Date (1) A Short History of the British Industrial Revolution, by Emma Griffin, Palgrave Macmillan, 2010 (2) The Development of Science and Technology in Nineteenth-Century Britain, by Donald Cardwell, Edited by Richard L.Hills, Ashgate Publishing, 2003 (3) London, The Biography, by Peter Ackroyd, Chatto & Windus, 2000 (4) Victorian London, Life of a City, by Liza Picard, St. Martin’s Press,2006 (5) The Great Stink of London, Sir Joseph Bazalgette and the Cleansing of the Victorian Capital, Stephen Halliday, Sutton Publishing, 1999 (6) Joseph Bazalgette, BBC History Online (7) King Faraday, James Hamilton, The Economist Book Review, Aug 1, 2002 (8) The Great Stink, Wikipedia Online How the London Underground Shaped London Presentation (9) Underground: How the Tube Shaped London, by David Bownes, Oliver Green, Sam Mullins, Penguin Books, 2012 (10) London, An Illustrated History, by Robert Chester & Nicholas Awde, Hippocrene Books, 2003