London Labour and the London Poor, volume 2

Mayhew, Henry


Of ancient Sewers.


THE traverser of the London streets rarely thinks, perhaps, of the far extended subterranean architecture below his feet; yet such is indeed the case, for the sewers of London, with all their imperfections, irregularities, and even absurdities, are still a great work; certainly not equal, in all respects, to what once must have existed in Rome, but , perhaps, only to the giant works of sewerage in the eternal city.

The origin of these Roman sewers seems to be wrapped in as great a mystery as the foundation of the city itself. The statement of the Roman historians is that these sewers were the works of the elder Tarquin, the (apocryphal) king of Rome. Tarquin's dominions, from the same accounts, did not in any direction extend above miles, and his subjects could be but banditti, foragers, and shepherds. conjecture is, that Rome stands on the site of a more ancient city, and that to its earlier possessors may be attributed the work of the sewers. To attribute them to the rudeness and small population of Tarquin's day, it is contended, is as feasible as it would be to attribute the ruins of ancient Jerusalem, or any others in Asia Minor, to the Turks, or the ruins of Palmyra to the Arabs, because these people enjoy the privilege of possession.

The main sewer of Rome, the Cloaca Maxima, is said to have been lofty and wide enough for a waggon load of hay to pass clear along it. Another, and more probable account, however, states that it was proposed to the great sewer to these dimensions, but it does not appear to have been so enlarged. Indeed, when Augustus "made


Rome marble," it was of his great works also, under the direction of Agrippa, to reconstruct, improve, and enlarge the sewers. It was a project in the days of Rome's greatness to turn navigable rivers into vast subterraneous passages, larger sewers, along which barges might pass, carrying on the traffic of Imperial Rome. In year the cost of cleansing, renewing, and repairing the sewers is stated to have been talents of gold, or upwards of Of the yearly cost we have no information. Some accounts represent these sewers as having been rebuilt after the irruption of the Gauls. In Livy's time they were pronounced not to be accommodated to the plan of Rome. Some portions of these ancient structures are still extant, but they seem to have attracted small notice even from professed antiquarians; their subterranean character, however, renders such notice little possible. In places they are still kept in repair, and for their original purpose, to carry off the filth of the city, but only to a small extent.

Our legislative enactments on the subject of sewers are ancient and numerous. The oldest is that of Henry III., and the principal is that of Henry VIII., commonly called the "Statute of Sewers." These and many subsequent statutes, however, relate only to watercourses, and are silent as regards my present topic—the Refuse of London.

It is remarkable how little is said in the London historians of the In the folio volumes of the most searching and indefatigable of all the antiquarians who have described the old metropolis, John Stow, the tailor, there is no account of what we now consider sewers, inclosed and subterranean channels for the conveyance of the refuse filth of the metropolis to its destination —the Thames. Had covered sewers been known, or at any rate been at all common, in Stow's day, and he died full of years in , and had of them presented but a crumbling stone with some heraldic, or apparently heraldic, device at its outlet, Stow's industry would certainly have ferreted out some details. Such, however, is not the case.

This absence of information I hold to be owing to the fact that no such sewers then existed. Our present system of sewerage, like our present system of street-lighting, is a modern work; but it is not, like our gas-lamps, an English work. We have but followed, as regards our arched and subterraneous sewerage, in the wake of Rome.

As I have said, the early of sewers relate to watercourses, navigable communications, dams, ditches, and such like; there is no doubt, however, that in the heart of the great towns the filth of the houses was, by rude contrivances in the way of drainage, or natural fall, emptied into such places. Even in the accounts of the sewers of ancient Rome, historians have stated that it is not easy, and sometimes not possible, to distinguish between the and the , and Dr. Lemon, in his English Etymology, speaks of sewers as a species of aqueducts. So, in some of our earlier Acts of Parliament, it is hardly possible to distinguish whether the provisions to be ap- plied to the management of a sewer relate to a ditch to which house-filth was carried—to a channel of water for general purposes—or to an open channel being a receptacle of filth and a navigable stream at the same time.

That the ditches were not sewers for the conveyance of the filth from the houses to any very great, or rather any very general extent, may very well be concluded, because (as I have shown in my account of the early scavagers) the excrementitious matter was deposited during the night in the street, and removed by the proper functionaries in the morning, or as soon as suited their convenience. Though this was the case generally, it is evident that the filth, or a portion of it, from the houses which were built on the banks of the (as it was then called, as well as the Fleet Ditch), and on the banks of the other "brooks," drained into the current stream. The Corporation accounts contain very frequent mention of the cleansing, purifying, and "thorough" cleansing of the Fleet Ditch, the Old Bourne ( Brook), the Wall Brook, &c.

Of all these streams the most remarkable was Fleet Ditch, which was perhaps the main sewer of London. I give from Stow the following curious account of its origin. It is now open, but only for a short distance, offending the air of Clerkenwell. At period it was to afford a defence to the City! as the Tower-moat was a defence to the Tower, and fortress.

The Ditch, which partly now remaineth and compassed the Wall of the City, was begun to be made by the Londoners, in the year 1211, and finished 1213, the 15th of K. John. This Ditch being then made of 200 foot broad, caused no small hindrance to the Canons of the Holy Trinity, whose Church stood near Ealdgate, for that the said Ditch passed through their Ground from the Tower unto Bishopsgate.

The first Occasion of making a Ditch about the City seems to have been this: William, Bishop of Ely, Chancellor of England, in the Reign of King Richard I., made a great Ditch round about the Tower, for the better Defence of it against John the King's Brother, the King being then out of the Realm. Then did the City also begin a Ditch to encompass and strengthen their Walls [which happened between the Years 1190 and 1193.] So the Book Dunthorn. Yet the Register of Bermondsey writes that the Ditch was begun, Oct. 15, 1213, which was in the Reign of King John that succeeded to Richard.

This Ditch being originally made for the Defence of the City, was also a long time together carefully cleansed and maintained, as Need required; but now of late neglected, and forced either to a very narrow, and the same a filthy Channel.

In the Year of Christ, 1354, 28 Ed. 3, the Ditch of this City flowing over the Bank into the Tower-ditch, the King commanded the said Ditch of the City to be cleansed, and so ordered, that the overflowing thereof should not force any Filth into the Tower-ditch.

Anno, 1379, John Philpot, Maior of London, caused this Ditch to be cleansed, and every Houshold to pay 5d., which was a Day's Work toward the Charges thereof.

Ralph Joseline, Maior, 1477, caused the whole Ditch to be cast and cleansed. . . . . . . In 1519, the 10th of Henry 8, for cleansing and scouring the common Ditch, between Aldgate, and the Postern next the Tower-ditch; the chief Ditcher had by the day 7d., the Second Ditcher, 6d, the other Ditchers, 5d. And every Vagabond (for as they were then termed) 1d. the Day, Meat and Drink, at the Charges of the City. Sum 95l. 3s. 4d.

Fleet Ditch was again cleansed in the Year 1549," Stow continues, "Henry Ancoates being Maior, at the Charges of the Companies. And again 1569, the 11th of Queen Elizabeth; for cleansing the same Ditch between Ealdgate and the Postern, and making a new Sewer and Wharf of Timber, from the Head of the Postern into the Tower-ditch, 814l. 15s. 8d. (was disbursed). Before the which Time the said Ditch lay open, without either Wall or Pall, having therein great Store of very good Fish, of divers Sorts, as many men yet living, who have taken and tasted them, can well witness. But now no such matter, the Charge of Cleansing is spared, and great Profit made by letting out the Banks, with the Spoil of the whole Ditch.

The above information appeared, but I am unable to specify the year (for Stow's works went through several editions, though it is to be feared he died very poor) between and . So did the following:—

At this Day there be no Ditches or Boggs in the City except the said Fleet-ditch, but instead thereof large common Dreins and Sewers, made to carry away the water from the Postern-Gate, between the two Tower-hills to Fleet-bridge without Ludgate.

Great, indeed, is the change in the character of the capital of England, from the times when the Fleet Ditch was a defence to the city (which was then the entire capital); and from the later era, when "great store of very good fish of divers sorts," rewarded the skill or the patience of the anglers or netters; but this, it is evident, was in the parts near the river (the Tower postern, &c.), and at that time, or about that time, there was salmonfishing in the Thames, at least as far up as Hungerford Wharf.

The Fleet Ditch seems always to have had a character. It was described, in , as

The king of dykes! than whom no sluice of mud

With deeper sable blots the silver flood—

the flood being, in Queen Anne's and the George's days, the London Thames. This silver has been much alloyed since that time.

Until within these or years, open sewerditches, into which drains were emptied, and ordure and refuse thrown, were frequent, especially in the remoter parts of and , and some exist to this day; especially, open for a considerable distance, flowing along the back of the houses in the Westminster-road, on the right-hand side towards the bridge, into which the neighbouring houses are drained. The "Black Ditch," a filthy sewer, until lately was open near the , and other vicinities of the Blackfriars-road. The open ditch-sewers of Norwood and Wandsworth have often been spoken of in Sanitary Reports. Indeed, some of our present sewers, in addition to and Wall Brook, are merely ditches rudely arched over.

The covered and continuous street sewer was erected in London—I think, without doubt— when Wren rebuilt the capital, after the great fire of . Perhaps there is no direct evidence of the fact, for, although the statutes and Privy Council and municipal enactments, consequent on the rebuilding of the capital, required, more or less peremptorily, "fair sewers, and drains, and watercourses," it is not defined in these enactments what was meant by a "sewer;" nor were they carried out.

I may mention, as a further proof that open ditches, often enough stagnant ditches also, were the London sewers, that, after , a plan, originally projected, it appears, by Sir Leonard Halliday, Maior, years previously, and strenuously supported at that time by Nic Leate, "a worthy and grave citizen," was revived and reconsidered. This project, for which Sir Leonard and Nic Leate "laboured much," was "for a river to be brought on the north of the city into it, for the cleansing the sewers and ditches, and for the better keeping London wholesome, sweet, and clean." An admirable and it is not impossible nor improbable that in less than centuries hence, we, of the present sanitary era, may be accounted, for our sanitary measures, as senseless as we now account good Sir Leonard Halliday and the worthy and grave Nic Leate. These gentlemen cared not to brook filth in their houses, nor to be annoyed by it in the nightly pollution of the streets, but they advocated its injection into running water, and into water often running slowly and difficultly, and continually under the eyes and noses of the citizens. , I apprehend, go a little further. We drink, and use for the preparation of our meals, the befouled water, which they did not; for, more than seveneighths of our water-supply from the companies is drawn from the Thames, the main sewer of the greatest city in the world, ancient or modern, into which millions of tons of every description of refuse are swept yearly.

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 Title Page
Of the Street-Sellers of Second-Hand Articles
Of the Street-Sellers of Live Animals
Of the Street-Sellers of Mineral Productions and Natural Curiosities
Of the Street-Buyers
Of the Street-Jews
Of the Street-Finders or Collectors
Of the Streets of London
Of the London Chimney-Sweepers
Of the London Chimney-Sweepers
Of the Sweepers of Old, and the Climbing Boys
Of the Chimney-Sweepers of the Present Day
Of the General Characteristics of the Working Chimney-Sweepers
Sweeping of the Chimneys of Steam-Vessels
Of the 'Ramoneur' Company
Of the Brisk and Slack Seasons, and the Casual Trade among the Chimney- Sweepers
Of the 'Leeks' Among the Chimney-Sweepers
Of the Inferior Chimney-Sweepers -- the 'Knullers' and 'Queriers'
Of the Fires of London
Of the Sewermen and Nightmen of London
Of the Wet House-Refuse of London
Of the Means of Removing the Wet House-Refuse
Of the Quantity of Metropolitan Sewage
Of Ancient Sewers
Of the Kinds and Characteristics of Sewers
Of the Subterranean Character of the Sewers
Of the House-Drainage of the Metropolis as Connected With the Sewers
Of the London Street-Drains
Of the Length of the London Sewers and Drains
Of the Cost of Constructing the Sewers and Drains of the Metropolis
Of the Uses of Sewers as a Means of Subsoil Drainage
Of the City Sewerage
Of the Outlets, Ramifications, Etc., of the Sewers
Of the Qualities, Etc., of the Sewage
Of the New Plan of Sewerage
Of the Management of the Sewers and the Late Commissions
Of the Powers and Authority of the Present Commissions of Sewers
Of the Sewers Rate
Of the Cleansing of the Sewers -- Ventilation
Of 'Flushing' and 'Plonging,' and Other Modes of Washing the Sewers
Of the Working Flushermen
Of the Rats in the Sewers
Of the Cesspoolage and Nightmen of the Metropolis
Of the Cesspool System of London
Of the Cesspool and Sewer System of Paris
Of the Emptying of the London Cesspools by Pump and Hose
Statement of a Cesspool-Sewerman
Of the Present Disposal of the Night-Soil
Of the Working Nightmen and the Mode of Work