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on 13 March 2004
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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on 14 November 2017
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on 17 November 2017
Delighted with the quality of the book and excellent response. I am very pleased.
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on 19 March 2017
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on 11 January 2001
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. Roy Porter wrote that Bazalgette stands with Wren and Nash 'as one of London's noblest builders'. John Doxat wrote, "this superb and farsighted engineer probably did more good, and saved more lives, than any single Victorian public official."
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on 3 January 2003
'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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on 12 May 2001
It was the Great Stink of 1858, when the steamy summer weather brought home to Members of Parliament the consequences of the sewage of two million Londoners being pumped straight into the Thames. It fell to Joseph Bazalgette to come up with something to replace the old pipes and shift the s*** somewhere else. This he did so well that his system of sewers, pumping stations and treatment works still forms the basis of London's network. The book tells a good story somewhat repetitively, and could have done with some harsher editing. Bazalgette's importance to the layout and history of London is undeniable - the Victoria, Albert and Chelsea Embankments weren't built solely for traffic, there's plenty flowing underneath too. These embankments narrowed the Thames, and made some prime riverside properties, like Somerset House and the lovely lost Adelphi, into road-side properties. This book tells the story well enough, but leaves the way open for something better and terser.  
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on 27 January 2010
very interesting history of londons drains basicaly, but done in a very simple and easy to understand way, i find this sort of thing grabs my attention as i have always been interested by what is beneath my feet when walking in london, things such as tunnels drains and sewers, i have learnt so much from books like this well worthy of a read
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on 14 April 2013
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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on 2 April 2013
...asks Stephen Halliday in the introduction to The Great Stink of London. In 1999, when this book was first published, many of us would have struggled for an answer. Today, almost anyone could tell you: Joseph Bazalgette was the Sewer King, the heroic Victorian engineer who built London's main drainage system.

The improvement in public health brought about by this huge engineering project was truly marvellous. In mid-nineteenth century London, there were four major outbreaks of cholera, the deaths in the capital being recorded as:

1831-2: 6,536
1848-9: 14,137
1853-4: 10,738
1866: 5,596

After 1866, when the drainage system achieved complete coverage, there were no further outbreaks of cholera or typhoid. By 1872, the annual death rate in London was lower than that achieved by any other major European, American or Indian city. Few engineering projects can have saved so many lives.

Yet ironically, the politicians who legislated for the sewers to be built were not prompted by concern about public health. Indeed, when the project was authorised it was not known that cholera was water-borne: the dominant theory was that it was transmitted through the air (the so-called 'miasmic' or 'miasmatic' theory). What prompted the politicians to act was something much simpler: it was to get rid of the smell from the Thames. Throughout the 1840s and 50s this was nauseating, but an emetic climax was reached in June 1858 with the Great Stink: many MPs were driven from their offices; there was talk of relocating the Houses of Parliament in Henley.

The question of what finally spurs politicians into action is a fascinating one, and the Great Stink is an instructive example. It is interesting to compare this with the case of the destruction of the Houses of Parliament by fire in 1834. At that date (as with the drainage system) London's fire service was completely inadequate, but even after Parliament had burnt down, nothing effective was done for another quarter century. Fire was an acceptable risk; a smelly office was intolerable.

Halliday describes the other projects that Bazalgette undertook during his time as Chief Engineer to the Metropolitan Board of Works: building the Victoria, Albert and Chelsea Embankments; rebuilding several of London's bridges; laying out streets and parks. But it is the sewers that rightly take centre stage.

The Great Stink is well-engineered history. Every sentence is precise and well-sourced: like one of Bazalgette's bridges, the whole structure is solid and reliable. A couple of years ago I read Steven Johnson's book on a similar theme; Halliday is better.
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