Stephen Halliday describes the writing of this book as "a labour of love", but it would take a strong stomach to love some of the material he includes about the 19th- century Thames. Two million people poured their sewage directly into the river, "more filth was continuously adding to it," noted a contemporary, "until the Thames became absolutely pestilential". In the 1850s the river was black, and in the hot summer of 1858 the stink was so unbearable that the Houses of Parliament were driven from the chamber. But a hero emerges from this smelly mess, Sir Joseph Bazalgette, a Victorian engineer of prodigious energy and foresight, who "turned the Thames from the filthiest to the cleanest metropolitan river in the world, which it remains." Halliday is indeed a little in love with his subject, Bazalgette, but it is easy to see why.
The construction of the system of sanitation on which London still relies an enormous undertaking, but Bazalgette saw it through with tenacity and a kind of engineering genius. He saved more lives (by freeing the city from cholera) than any single Victorian public official. This book is a small marvel, elegantly written, generously illustrated and a fascinating insight into the guts of London. --Adam Roberts
Sir Joseph Bazalette is a much-neglected hero of 19th-century engineering, yet his achievements can stand comparison with those of Telford, Brunel or Robert Stephenson. These men's works - mostly great bridges or railway lines - are still visible in many parts of England, while those of Bazalgette are all in London, and most of them - over 80 miles of main sewers the size of railway tunnels, and over 1000 miles of street sewers - are hidden underground. Bazalgette's only monument is a small bust set into a wall beneath Charing Cross Railway Bridge and dwarfed by a nearby, much larger monument to Brunel. In the 1850s the raw sewage of London's 2 million people seeped untreated through wholly inadequate sewers into the Thames, where it sloshed up and down with the tides, slowly decomposing on the muddy foreshores. In the sweltering summer of 1858 the stink from the polluted river was so offensive that it drove members of parliament from the chamber of the House of Commons. As chief engineer for 33 years to the Metropolitan Board of Works Bazalgette designed and built the great system of intercepting sewers which continue to take sewage away today. His vast riverside embankments provided accomodation for low-level sewers and for roads on the surface, while at the Victoria Embankment there was also an underground railway and a park at ground level. He also built several bridges across the river and laid out numerous new metropolitan thoroughfares, including Shaftesbury Avenue and Charing Cross Road. Halliday has done full justice to this great engineer in a scholarly, readable and well-illustrated book. Review by FRANCIS SHEPPARD, author of London: A History (Kirkus UK) --Francis Sheppard, author of London: A History (Kirkus UK)