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The Great Stink of London: Sir Joseph Bazalgette and the Cleansing of the Victorian Metropolis Hardcover – 20 May 1999

4.3 out of 5 stars 24 customer reviews

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Product details

  • Hardcover: 224 pages
  • Publisher: Sutton Publishing Ltd; 1st Edition edition (20 May 1999)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0750919752
  • ISBN-13: 978-0750919753
  • Product Dimensions: 1.9 x 17.8 x 25.4 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 4.2 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (24 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 603,593 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Product Description

Amazon Review

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) --This text refers to the Paperback edition.

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4.3 out of 5 stars
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Format: Paperback
If ever the powers-that-be decide to put to democratic vote whose statue should stand on that plinth in Trafalgar Square, my tick would definitely go next to the name of Joseph Bazalgette. It's impossible to think of any civil engineer who's been responsible for saving so many lives. The Great Stink of London is a good factual account of the man and his many, many deeds - what relentless energy the Victorians had - but it's one fault is that it doesn't really come close to him. This was a chap who, while he was building London's sewerage system, clearing the West End of slums, building main thoroughfares and bridges etc etc, also found the time and the energy to father about 10 kids, sponsor the building of Wimbledon Public Library (not a great feat, you might think, except that public libraries were at the time viewed with a lot of suspicion by Tories, who feared reading would breed insurrection by the lower classes) and much else. And he sported what must be some of the finest whiskers of the Victorian age.
I recently wrote a Heritage piece for our local paper on Bazalgette, with information largely sussed from this book, and have been really surprised by the reponse. A great, great man, and if he doesn't get to stand on that Trafalgar Square plinth, this book will stand as a testament to what bloody-mindedness can achieve when set to good purpose.
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Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
Halliday's book tells the story of Sir Joseph Bazalgette, Chief Engineer to the Metropolitan Board of Works (London's first metropolitan government) from 1856 to 1889.
His greatest achievement was building for London a sanitation system of unprecedented scale and complexity. Throughout history, the main cause of death has been the contamination of drinking water by sewage. In particular, cholera spread when the faeces of sufferers contaminated drinking water: cholera epidemics in London killed 6,536 people in 1831-32, 14,137 in 1848-49, and 10,738 in 1853-54.
In the long hot summer of 1858, the stench from rotting sewage in the Thames drove MPs from Westminster. The 'Great Stink' forced them, belatedly, to act. Bazalgette was charged with building a system to prevent sewage getting into Londoners' drinking water, which he did. The 1866 cholera epidemic killed 5,596 people in the East End, the sole part of London that had not yet been protected by Bazalgette's intercepting system. After the system was completed, cholera would never again kill Londoners. Bazalgette had turned the Thames from the filthiest to the cleanest metropolitan river in the world and added some twenty years to Londoners' lives.
But this was not Bazalgette's only success. He constructed the Victoria, Albert and Chelsea Embankments, where he introduced the use of Portland cement. He laid out Shaftesbury Avenue, Northumberland Avenue, Charing Cross Road, the Embankment Gardens, Battersea Park and Clapham Common. He built the bridges at Hammersmith, Putney and Battersea. He introduced the Woolwich Free Ferry and designed the Blackwall Tunnel.
In 1889, the London County Council replaced the Board: Bazalgette's successes had proven the value of local government for great cities.
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Format: Paperback
'The Great Stink' is a somewhat misleading title; this book is in fact about Sir Joseph Bazalgette's genius as the engineer who created much of the face and utility substructure of contemporary London. In that role, this book provides a foundation to further work on a man who, Mr Halliday rightly points out, has no obvious memorial or public recognition.
The book covers the early provisions for London's sanitation; the state of epidemiology in the nineteenth century; the impact of the WC and Cholera in the first half of the C19th; the belated and confused attempts at reform and improvement; Bazalgette's fights to preserve and implement his vision; the issue of what happened to London's sewage once it was clear of the capital; and Bazalgette's other engineering/urban improvements - new bridges, parks, streets etc.
However, it is this attempt at combining a biography of Bazalgette's professional life with a history of the development of London's sanitation which causes the book's main weakness. This writer was left wanting to know more about the details of London's sewer system, but also about Bazalgette the man.
One other weakness is the reliance on old prints and not contemporary photographs of London before and after the improvements. Some more detailed system maps would also have been welcome.
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Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
If you love Old London, Victoriana, technical history then I recommend this book.

It describes the appalling conditions in the early to mid 19th century in the worlds most populated city of water & sewage - things that today we take for granted as being unseen, segregated and clean. Even today much of this is due to the ambition and skill of Sir Joseph Bazalgette. Much of London as we know it today evolved as a result of his invention and foresight and certainly his skills saved many lives in the longer run. Fascinating & to think that it is only now that much of his sytem is being upgraded - how much of what is built today would still be in use 100 years from now?
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