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By Stewart Emmens on

Monster Soup

Curatorial work can be pretty desk-bound, so opportunities to get your hands dirty are not to be missed. I recently fulfilled a long-held ambition to venture into London’s Victorian sewers. Hey – we’ve all got to dream…

Off on a jolly in the London sewers
Off on a jolly in the London sewers

Back in the 1800’s London’s sanitation was terrible, as this satirical engraving of ”Monster Soup commonly called Thames Water”, illustrates:

'Monster Soup', 1828.
'Monster Soup', 1828. (Science Museum / Science & Society)

It was a public health disaster, that claimed numerous lives. London’s sewage system, although it’s still being modernised, is essentially a Victorian construction engineered by Joseph Bazalgette to deal with the daily excretions of millions of Londoners.

Built with the slightest of gradients, the sewers flow from west to east London where a number of pumping stations raise up the contents again, before allowing it to travel onwards. One of these is Abbey Mills Pumping Station, near Stratford, which draws up the flow 40 feet into the raised Northern Outfall sewer – my glamorous destination for the day.

Bazalgette's Abbey Mills Pumping Station, Stratford, London, 1868.
Bazalgette's Abbey Mills Pumping Station, Stratford, London, 1868. (Science Museum / Science & Society)

From the outside, the Northern Outfall looks like a disused railway embankment. It bridges roads. It forms a cycle path.

Once clad in disposable bodysuit, gloves, waders and hardhat, we entered via a painfully vertical ladder. The first surprise was the smell – or rather the lack of it. A slight ammonia whiff, but not that unpleasant.

Me and my fellow travellers were accompanied by guides, similarly clad but armed with beeping gas monitors. Their torches exposing a world of arched brickwork, sluice gates and rounded tunnels disappearing off into the gloom. And yes, the opaque watery soup flecked with brown that we were wading through. But closer inspection of the shingly mud banked against the walls revealed unexpected things – a toy car, a metal spoon, part of a mobile phone. Evidence that the sewers also deal with what goes down London’s street drains.

Apart from some alarming collections of ‘matter’ trapped in brick crevices and around ladder rungs, it looks pretty good up there – considering its age. And, after an extended wander and one near tumble (it happens – trip to A & E advisable), we surfaced. Impressed with Bazalgette’s monumental handiwork, we headed for a more low key public health experience – the long hot shower.