London Labour and the London Poor, volume 2

Mayhew, Henry


Of the Subterranean Character of the Sewers.


IN my inquiries among that curious body of men, the "Sewer Hunters," I found them make light of any danger, their principal fear being from the attacks of rats in case they became isolated from the gang with whom they searched in common, while they represented the odour as a mere nothing in the way of unpleasantness. But these men pursued only known and (by them) beaten tracks at low water, avoiding any deviation, and so becoming but partially acquainted with the character and direction of the sewers. And had it been otherwise, they are not a class competent to describe what they saw, however keen-eyed after silver spoons.

The following account is derived chiefly from official sources. I may premise that where the deposit is found the greatest, the sewer is in the worst state. This deposit, I find it repeatedly stated, is of a most miscellaneous character. Some of the sewers, indeed, are represented as the dust-bins and dung-hills of the immediate neighbourhood. The deposit has been found to comprise all the ingredients from the breweries, the gas-works, and the several chemical and mineral manufactories; dead dogs, cats, kittens, and rats; offal from slaughter-houses, sometimes even including the entrails of the animals; streetpave- ment dirt of every variety; vegetable refuse; stable-dung; the refuse of pig-styes; night-soil; ashes; tin kettles and pans (pansherds); broken stoneware, as jars, pitchers, flower-pots, &c.; bricks; pieces of wood; rotten mortar and rubbish of different kinds; and even rags. Our criminal annals of the previous century show that often enough the bodies of murdered men were thrown into the Fleet and other ditches, then the open sewers of the metropolis, and if found washed into the Thames, they were so stained and disfigured by the foulness of the contents of these ditches, that recognition was often impossible, so that there could be but verdict returned—"Found drowned." Clothes stripped from a murdered person have been, it was authenticated on several occasions in evidence, thrown into the open sewer ditches, when torn and defaced, so that they might not supply evidence of identity. So close is the connection between physical filthiness in public matters and moral wickedness.

The following particulars show the charac- teristics of the underground London of the sewers. The subterranean surveys were made after the commissions were consolidated.

An old sewer, running between Great Smithstreet and St. Ann-street (Westminster), is a curiosity among sewers, although it is probably only one instance out of many similar constructions that will be discovered in the course of the subterranean survey. The bottom is formed of planks laid upon transverse timbers, 6 inches by 6 inches, about 3 feet apart. The size of the sewer varies in width from 2 to 6 feet, and from 4 to 5 feet in height. The inclination of the bottom is very irregular: there are jumps up at two or three places, and it contains a deposit of filth averaging 9 inches in depth, the sickening smell from which escapes into the houses and yards that drain into it. In many places the side walls have given way for lengths of 10 and 15 feet. Across this sewer timbers have been laid, upon which the external wall of a workshop has been built; the timbers are in a decaying state, and should they give way, the wall will fall into the sewer.

From the further accounts of this survey, I find that a sewer from the Workhouse, which was of all shapes and sizes, was in so wretched a condition that the leveller could scarcely work for the thick scum that covered the glasses of the spirit-level in a few minutes after being wiped. "At the outfall into the Deanstreet sewer, it is feet inches by feet inches for a short length. From the end of this, a wide sewer branches in each direction at right angles, feet inches by feet inches. Proceeding to the eastward about feet, a chamber is reached about feet in length, from the roof of which hangings of putrid matter descend At the end of this chamber, the sewer passes under the public privies, the ceilings of which can be seen from it. Beyond this it is not possible to go."

"In the sewer, where a portion of new work begins and the old terminates, a space of about feet has been covered with boards, which, having broken, a dangerous chasm has been caused immediately under the road."

"The sewer had foot of deposit. It was flushed while the levelling party was at work there, and the stream was so rapid that it nearly washed them away, instrument and all."

There are further accounts of "deposit," or of "stagnant filth," in other sewers, varying from to inches, but that is insignificant compared to what follows.

The foregoing, then, is the pith of the authentic account which has appeared in print of the actually surveyed condition of the subterranean ways, over which the super-terranean tides of traffic are daily flowing.

The account I have just given relates to the (former) and part of Middlesex district on the north bank of the Thames, as ascertained under the Metropolitan Commission. I now give some extracts concerning a similar


survey on the south bank, in different and distant directions in the district, once the "Surrey and Kent." The , &c., survey took place in ; the Kent and Surrey in . In the case, miles of sewers were surveyed; in the other, / miles.

The surveyors (in the Surrey and Kent sewers) find great difficulty in levelling the sewers of this district (I give the words of the Report); for, in the first place, the deposit is usually about two feet in depth, and in some cases it amounts to nearly five feet of putrid matter. The smell is usually of the most horrible description, the air being so foul that explosion and choke damp are very frequent. On the 12th January we were very nearly losing a whole party by choke damp, the last man being dragged out on his back (through two feet of black fœtid deposits) in a state of insensibility. . . . . Two men of one party had also a narrow escape from drowning in the Alscot-road sewer, Rotherhithe.

The sewers on the Surrey side are very irregular; even where they are inverted they frequently have a number of steps and inclinations the reverse way, causing the deposit to accumulate in elongated cesspools.

It must be considered very fortunate that the subterranean parties did not first commence on the Surrey side, for if such had been the case, we should most undoubtedly have broken down. When compared with Westminster, the sewers are smaller and more full of deposit; and, bad as the smell is in the sewers in Westminster, it is infinitely worse on the Surrey side.

Several details are then given, but they are only particulars of the general facts I have stated.

The following, however, are distinct facts concerning this branch of the subject.

In my inquiries among the working scavagers I often heard of their emptying street slop into sewers, and the following extract shows that I was not misinformed:—

"The detritus from the macadamized roads frequently forms a kind of grouting in the sewers so hard that it cannot be removed without hand labour.

of the sewers in and another in Spring-gardens have from to feet of this sort of deposit; and another in was found filled up within a few inches of the 'soffit,' but it is supposed that the scavengers (scavagers) emptied the road-sweepings down the gully-grate in this instance;" and in other instances, too, there is no doubt—especially at , and the , .

Concerning the sewerage of the most aristocratic parts of the city of , and of the fashionable squares, &c., to the north of , I glean the following particulars (reported in ). They show, at any rate, that the patrician quarters have not been unduly favoured; that there has been no partiality in the construction of the sewerage. In the Belgrave and districts there are many faulty places in the sewers which abound with noxious matter, in many instances stopping up the house drains and "smelling horribly." It is much the same in the Grosvenor, Hanover, and Berkeleysquare localities (the houses in the squares themselves included). Also in the neighbourhood of Covent-garden, Clare-market, Soho and Fitzroysquares; while north of , in and about Cavendish, Bryanstone, Manchester, and Portman-squares, there is so much rottenness and decay that there is no security for the sewers standing from day to day, and to flush them for the removal of their "most loathsome deposit" might be "to bring some of them down altogether."

of the accounts of a subterranean survey concludes with the following rather curious statement:—"Throughout the new Paddington district the neighbourhood of , and the costly squares and streets adjacent, the sewers abound with the foulest deposit, from which the most disgusting effluvium arises; indeed, amidst the whole of the District of Sewers the little spot which can be mentioned as being in at all a satisfactory state is the Dials."

I may point out also that these very curious and authenticated accounts by no means bear out the zymotic doctrine of the Board of Health as to the cause of cholera; for where the zymotic influences from the sewers were the worst, in the patrician squares of what has been called Belgravia and Tyburnia, the cholera was the least destructive. This, however, is no reason whatever why the stench should not be stifled.

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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