London Labour and the London Poor, volume 2
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 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:—
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 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.