Publication of the week: Dr Nicholas Cambridge

6 March 2017

Nicholas Cambridge, “Sewage Treatment” (paper given at Sewerage and Health Symposium to celebrate the 125th anniversary of the death of Sir Joseph Bazalgette), William Shipley Group for RSA History Occasional Paper 31 (2017), 21-59. ISBN: 978-1-326-93445-3. Read the paper

In 1858, during a very hot summer, the city of London came to a standstill, Government could barely function and people resisted the urge to leave their homes, but demanded action from the government. The reason was due to the overwhelming stench, called ‘The Great Stink’, that radiated from the River Thames due to untreated sewage which flowed into it. This together with the frequent occurrence of cholera epidemics gave impetus to legislation enabling the metropolitan board of works to begin work on sewers and street improvements. The creation of a sewer network for central London was devised by the engineer Sir Joseph Bazalgette (1819-91) and completed by 1866.

The six chapters, in this 107 page publication, include the History of public conveniences, Sir Joseph Bazalgette and sewers, Sewage treatment, From cholera to clean water, Thomas Hawksley and the development of modern water engineering, and “No superior and few if any equal”: the later life of Sir Edwin Chadwick.

In his chapter, Dr Nicholas Cambridge describes how, in 1848, Croydon was described as “the worst district in the county [Surrey] from a sanitary point of view, with no sewers at all.” At the same time there was news that a fresh wave of cholera was sweeping Europe from the East. This prompted the government to act and pass the 1848 Public Health Act to improve public health by providing a constant fresh water supply, tubular drainage and provision of sewers and sewage recycling. Croydon was one of the first towns to apply the Public Health Act and this paper describes how a local Croydon doctor, Alfred Carpenter (1825-92), decided that the best way to deal with the town’s sewage was by sewage irrigation. Despite constant criticism, both locally and nationally in the press and in meetings, Carpenter was able to prove that this was a safe method to treat sewage. He even invited numerous groups to visit the Beddington sewage farm which included medical students from St Thomas’s Hospital, where he was lecturer in public health, and 200 delegates from the International Medical Congress held in London in 1881.

Dr Nicholas Cambridge is Honorary Research Fellow in Humanities and Medical History at Buckingham.