It’s strange isn’t it, that although London’s practice of discharging raw sewage into the Thames caused cholera epidemics which cost thousands of lives, it was only when MPs kicked up a stink about the smell that something was actually done about it.
The job of sorting the whole problem out was given to a Victorian engineer by the name of Joseph Bazalgette.
His scheme involved an extensive network of underground sewage pipes that took the effluent from Central London out into the Thames Estuary.
The project involved several locations including the mile and a half section of riverside between Westminster and Blackfriars Bridges, the most challenging of them all.
After buying up and demolishing many expensive riverside properties, work started on the Victoria Embankment project in 1865.
Not only did Joseph Bazalgette deal with the sewage problem, he also narrowed the river to make it more controllable, built a new road to ease congestion along the Strand (which linked Westminster to the City of London), and even allowed for the construction of a line for the Metropolitan and District Railway beneath the road.
The task took five years to complete, but for Victorian projects like this one, it was not only important for it to work, it was also important for it to look good too, and so instead of leaving the re-claimed land looking like a building site, a series of gardens were laid out on the opposite side of the road to the river.
There were other enhancements too, and one I particularly like is the row of lions heads on the river side of the embankment wall. Made of bronze, they were installed to enable boats to tie up to them in an emergency, but although it seems unlikely that their original purpose has been put to good use, they seem to have taken on another role. There’s a belief that if the water reaches the lion’s mouth, then London will flood – “When the lions drink, London will sink, when it’s up to their manes, we’ll go down the drains”.
Joseph Bazalgette was knighted in 1875, for undoubtedly helping to save many lives, but also for his endeavours to control the river and improve transport communications – oh, and I nearly forgot, for enabling the MPs at Westminster to open the windows once again.